Whisky is much more than just a drink. With precise processes, the rugged romance of the Scottish Highlands and the patience involved in maturation, there’s a lot that goes into Scotch – and specifically, Chivas Regal. The whisky making process is not one to be rushed.
Each distillery is unique, and Strathisla distillery – the home of Chivas – is the oldest working distillery in the Scottish Highlands. We only use the finest malt whisky and grain whisky in our blended Scotch. While there are just three ingredients that go into malt whisky (barley, water and yeast), there’s a lot more to the process of making whisky, following the steps below:
1. Growing and harvesting
2. Processing and mashing
Follow our whisky’s journey, from harvest through to distillation.
1. GROWING AND HARVESTING
There’s a reason why Speyside whiskies are known for quality. With the perfect proportions of rain and sunshine, the geographical area is ideal for growing barley.
Once the hills turn golden after the crucial summer months, the barley is harvested and taken to the first step in the whisky-making process, the maltings, including one in nearby Buckie just 15 miles away.
There, the barley is soaked in order to kickstart the enzymes, which begin to convert starch to sugar. As soon as that process begins to take place, it’s stopped and the barley is dried into a dormant state; otherwise the growth process will consume all the sugar that’s essential in creating whisky.
The malted barley is then taken to Strathisla in this dormant state.
2. PROCESSING AND MASHING
Once at Strathisla, the first place the barley goes is the Porteus mill. The husks of the barley are cracked open through the first set of rollers and ground into a fine texture known as grist in the second set of rollers.
Once the grind has been assessed and approved, the grist is taken to the mash tun where whisky’s second ingredient is added: water. Local spring water from the Broomhill Spring – located just a mile away and exclusive to the distillery – is used for its purity, having been naturally filtered through granite.
In the mash tun, water is added in four stages at different temperatures so as not to damage the barley and deactivate the enzymes. The overall temperature is increased from 65.5°C to 90°C over a period of six hours and at the end of the process a sweet liquid known as wort is produced. This is what’s taken onto the next step of making whisky.
The leftover grist (with all sugars removed and now called draff) is recycled either through energy production in biomass boilers or as livestock feed, and the warm waters are put through heat exchangers to recycle the heat, maximising the efficiency of our distillery. This greatly increases the sustainability of our whisky-making process.
The fermentation stage is where our iconic orchard fruit flavours begin to develop. Tradition sits at the core of Strathisla distillery, meaning we pour thousands of litres of wort into traditional wooden washbacks.
Using wood opposed to steel keeps the wash well insulated for steady fermentation, protecting it from the seasonal fluctuations of cold Scottish winters and warmer summer months.
In the washbacks, the third and final ingredient is added: yeast. The mixture is then left to ferment over two days to convert the sugars into alcohol.
Once fermented, the liquid is called wash. Wash is essentially a strong beer (8.5%) and can be sampled on some distillery tours – though it’s a warm 25°C rather than ice cold! At this point in the process of making whisky, the wash is ready for distillation.
The distillation part of the whisky-making process is where the alcohol percentage by volume is increased. At Strathisla, there are four ‘stills’ that work in pairs: two wash stills and two spirit stills. We use copper stills, which are excellent purifiers that make sure only the best flavours go into the spirit which will one day be part of Chivas Regal.
Firstly, the wash still heats up the wash, allowing alcohol vapours to rise up the neck of the still. The necks of the stills at Strathisla are short so that more of the heavy vapours rise up, which is crucial in creating the iconic full-bodied and generous flavours that Strathisla distillery is famous for.
The vapours then travel along the lye pipe and into the condenser to be cooled down, yielding a liquid of around 25% alcohol.
It then goes into the spirit stills and undergoes the same process again, but this time the alcohol is at a much higher percentage. Different cuts of alcohol come out of this process – some too strong (the heads) and some too weak (the tails) – which will be run through the process again along with the next batch.
A liquid with alcohol between 65-70% is known as the heart – and that’s what we collect in the spirit receiver which will then be filled into our casks. It’s then matured in these casks until it has sufficiently aged and its flavours have developed. Only then is it ready for the magic of blending – and sometimes selective cask finishes – to become our iconic blended Scotch whisky.
Interested in the next steps of creating Chivas Regal? Find out how to blend Scotch whisky with our Master Blender Sandy Hyslop.