Single Malt Whisky

Ein traditionelles Produkt aus moderner Produktion?!

Single malt whisky has been produced for centuries according to an old, almost unchanged process. If the interested reader would like to read up on the basics of single malt whisky production, please refer to the detailed description of the production process.

In the early days of industrial production of single malt whisky, the initial focus was on measures to help guarantee the consistent quality of the whisky. Then they began to increase the efficiency of whisky production. As in all technical processes, the engineers attached particular importance to the balance between the achievable efficiency (raw material input, energy consumption) and the costs incurred for the improvements. The costs of whisky production can be roughly described as follows:

In the past, barley and coal were the main targets of optimisation efforts, as these two substances were associated with the highest costs. In the course of these efforts, the complex mashing process usually used today was developed, which optimally extracts the sugar from the available barley. The process of converting starch into sugar was also optimised in large-scale malting plants.


KW ~ KG / WM + KE / WE + KA + KL + KK

KW - Total cost of whisky production

KG - Barley purchase price free distillery

WM - Mash efficiency

KE - Energy costs free distillery

WE - Energy conversion efficiency

KA - Labour costs

KL - Whisky storage costs

KK - Capital costs of fixed assets (machines, buildings, etc.)

Energy consumption has also been significantly reduced over the past centuries. Closed mash tuns were the beginning. Improved heating systems using superheated steam instead of direct coal firing followed. Energy recovery is also an integral part of whisky production today. Heat exchangers instead of simple coolers extract the heat from a liquid in order to feed it back into the production process at the right place. Reinforced insulation of the hot pipelines and containers ensure conservation of the expensive energy.

Today, the use of barley and energy is largely optimally solved and no longer represents a competitive advantage over other distilleries. After all major optimisation potentials had been exhausted, new paths such as three-shift operation had to be taken in order to amortise the investments made in the equipment as quickly as possible. Today, all large distilleries work around the clock, 365 days a year. Only for 3 to 6 weeks a year do the distilleries close for a break for maintenance and repairs.

What can be optimised today is predominantly the use of labour and capital. In June 1998, United Distillers (now Diageo) announced the elimination of hundreds of administrative jobs. The reason for this was the merger of Guinness and Grand Met, which led to a large number of redundant jobs in administration and sales. But there were also significant job cuts in production at the various distilleries.

Many of the distilleries have been able to reduce the night shift to a single person through extensive automation. This single person is responsible for mashing as well as the two distilling processes. Mashing and distilling limit the capacity of the distilleries. Mash tun and stills are the bottleneck machines in the production process. So there is nothing more obvious than to operate these bottleneck machines in three shifts and thus distribute the fixed costs of the fixed assets (machines, buildings) over as many litres of whisky as possible.

The fermentation, mashing and distilling processes are batch processes. This means that a certain amount of raw material is always processed at once. Unfortunately, wash backs, mash tuns and stills get relatively dirty, so you have to clean them after each batch. This cleaning is labour-intensive, as steam lances have to be used to remove all burnt-in substances from the tank walls. This cleaning has been carried out for many years with the use of chemical cleaning substances. During the cleaning work, employees of the distilleries always had to climb or crawl into the containers in order to be able to clean the hardest-to-reach places.
During the summer break in 1997, fermenting vats and stills of some distilleries were equipped with automatic, central cleaning systems. These spray nozzles are connected to central storage tanks for the cleaning solution. After the passage of a batch, the cleaning liquid only has to be switched on for 5 minutes to free the tank from the adhering remains of the batch.

In addition to saving manpower and protecting the operating staff, this central cleaning has another advantage: After the cleaning fluid has been used, it is rinsed with clear water for about 20 minutes, so that all residues of the cleaning fluid are certainly rinsed into the collection containers. The central supply and discharge of the cleaning fluid ensures that 100% of the cleaning fluid can be recycled. This procedure shows once again that an economically sensible use of resources also leads to an environmentally very good solution.

By the year 2000, more than 2/3 of all single malt distilleries were already equipped with automatic cleaning devices.

Fermenting vats (wash backs) have been made from Oregon Pine (Canadian Pine) since early times. This wood could best resist the attack of the yeast fungi. Unfortunately, these fermentation vats had to be protected from fungal attack and bacteria with extreme cleaning agents. The introduction of stainless steel tanks, as they have long been introduced in beer and grain whisky production, also relieved the environment of much of the cleaning substances here.

The argument that whisky from wooden wash backs tastes better than whisky from stainless steel fermenters cannot be upheld from the author's point of view, as the short residence time of 40 to 70 hours in the wash backs does not allow any transfer of flavours. Moreover, the ratio of wash back surface area to volume is smaller by a factor of 25 than the ratio of cask surface area to volume when whisky is stored in oak casks. Multiplying this ratio by the shorter time (50 hrs <-> 12 years = 105,120 hours), the impact of the wooden wash back is more than a factor of 50,000 less than that of the cask used.

If we are honest with ourselves, we only like the old wooden wash backs better visually than their modern descendants.

But in this case, is the old really better just because our ancestors couldn't do better? - Hardly.

But everyone must answer this question for themselves - or not. Who knows which whisky is made in which way?

Visit the distillery of your choice in our distillery database and discover the technology that makes the production of your whisky possible.