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Rain, rain, rain got me thinking!

By Matt MacPherson

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Water is a vital ingredient in the process of distilling Scotch whisky.
Water is a vital ingredient in the process of distilling Scotch whisky.

Without water, life as we know it would not prevail, says Matt MacPherson, owner and founder of The Malt Room in Inverness.

It is one of the most important elements in many of the things we produce, including making some of our favourite alcoholic drinks. With the past two weeks of constant rain it got me wondering, just how important is water in whisky?

The water environment is of vital importance for the production of Scotch whisky: without sufficient supplies of pure clean water, the whole distilling industry could not survive. As well as being one of whisky’s three main ingredients, the other two being barley and yeast, it is also vital in other parts of the production process.

If we look at the basic production process. The first thing you need to do is soak the barley to start germination which creates an enzyme named amylase. We then move onto the “Mash” where hot water is used to induce amylase to break down starch in the grain into fermentable sugars.

The sugars and enzymes are then washed from the spent grist (used to feed happy sheep) using more hot water and filtered leaving us with a sugary liquid called “Wort”. The wort is then passed through a cooler and pumped into a large container called a washback. This is where yeast is added which turns the sugars into alcohol, known as fermentation.

This liquid, known as “wash” is then distilled which involves heating a copper still just below boiling point and the alcohol and other compounds vaporise and pass over the neck of the still into either a condenser or a worm – a large copper coil immersed in cold running water where the vapour is condensed into a liquid. This leaves us with a clear alcoholic liquid called “new make” that is used to fill the casks.

Ok, if you’re still awake after that I salute you. So we know that water is a primary ingredient so you would expect that most of the water distilleries use ends up the bottle right?

Well, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) over 61 billion litres are used for the production of Scotch whisky, though 75% (85% for malt whisky) of water used is cooling water, which is returned, under discharge consent, to the environment un-contaminated. Based on SWA figures of 524 million litres of pure alcohol equating to 1.3 billion litres of product in 2009 this gives an average of 46.9l/l of product, reduced to 11.7l/l of product if cooling water is excluded.

It seems a long time ago now but during the summer months I recall Glen Ord distillery, along with many others, had to stop producing due a very dry summer which resulted in a lack of water. Some distilleries are more fortunate than others with their water sources but all distilleries across the industry are having to focus efforts on being as efficient as possible with this precious resource.

Knowing this makes me appreciate every drop of whisky even more and the old saying “Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky” goes much deeper than I expected.

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