How to Make Malt Whiskey

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Although I love a good Scotch whiskey, I must admit I don’t drink it all that often. It’s definitely the kind of thing I prefer to sip in the company of others. Believe it or not, before I met David, I’m pretty sure I had never even tasted Scotch before. I have heard it said that you either like Scotch or you like bourbon, but not both. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I do, in fact, like bot h. Not usually at the same time, though.

Most often, Scotch is a once-a-year treat at our house. David is a big fan of Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. Burns lived in the late 1700s and died before the age of forty. In addition to being a prolific poet much loved to this day, Burns was also noted for his drinking. Burns’ famous poem “Tam O’Shanter” tells the memorable tale of how the narrator had been on an epic drinking binge; he is now on his way home, trying to concoct a plausible explanation for his long-suffering wife. En route, he meets the devil, and much merriment ensues. It’s worth buying a book of Burns’ poetry just for the poem “To a Louse.” The narrator is in church, fascinated by the sight of a louse impertinently crawling on the bonnet of one of the well-dressed society ladies sitting in front of him. But I digress.

On January 25, Robert Burns’ birthday, we like to invite a few friends over for a traditional Robbie Burns Day dinner. Almost traditional; I haven’t actually ever made a haggis. (You had me at “sheep’s stomach.”) I read somewhere that roast lamb was a perfectly acceptable substitute, so that’s what I do. Then there’s the Neeps ‘n’ Tatties, a mashed blend of potatoes and turnips. Fast-forward to dessert, and enjoy a goodly portion of Tipsy Laird, a trifle-like, sponge­ cake-based concoction laced with both brandy and sherry. Mm mm mmmmm. Excuse me while I go get a snack.

OK, I’m back. So after the dinner, the rest of the evening is spent sampling different single malt whiskies and taking turns reading Robbie Burns poetry while reclining in various comfortable chairs near the woodstove. If you think this is a lovely way to spend a cold winter’s evening, you nailed it.

Single malt whiskey was one of the first things I thought about when I started learning about distilling. This was mostly because one of the two ponds on our property is a natural peat bog, quite a large one. I knew just enough at the time to know that the main difference between Scotch-style malt whiskey and any other whiskey is that Scotch whiskies get their unique smoky flavor from peat. During the malting process, the wet barley is dried over a peat fire, imbuing the grain with layers of complex smokiness. How smoky the finished product is depends on the percentage of this peated malt in the mash; some use nothing but peated malt, in others the peated malt makes up only a small proportion of the total mash bill. (Try one of the Isle of lslay malt whiskies for a really smoky dram.)

Actually I figured that I have no excuse for not making peated malt whiskey. However, I soon realized that making my own peated malt would involve first learning to make my own malted barley. I read about this process and had a go at it, using organic malting barley I bought from our friend and well-known local organic farmer, Nash Huber. I’m sure glad I started out with very small batches! It’s more complicated than it might seem at first, but the first batch was the only one that didn’t turn out quite well. I wasn’t very organized about it, though, or I would have been prepared to dry the malt over a peat fire. This is all leading up to me confessing that all the peated malt I’ve used so far for making whiskey was bought from our local homebrew shop. Whew. Got that off my chest .

Once you’ve got your peated malt, mashing, fermenting and distilling malt whiskey is straightforward. Here is a typical recipe; I recommend following this recipe the first time, then experimenting with varying percentages of peated malt to find out what you like the best.


  • 5 gallons (19 L) filtered or unchlorinated water
  • Backset or citric or tartaric acid, as needed to adjust the mash water pH
  • 15 pounds (6.8 kg) malted two-row barley
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) peated malt
  • 1 package whiskey yeast with enzymes
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) plain yogurt or dried cheesemaking culture


  1. Put 2-1/2 gallons of the water in an 8- or 10-gallon stockpot and heat to 71°C/160°F. Stir in the malted barley and peated malt.
  2. Hold the temperature between 67°C/152°-155°F for 90 minutes. Use the iodine test to check for starch conversion.
  3. Strain the grains from the wort into an 8-gallon fermenting bucket, using a large straining bag. Leave the bag suspended in the fermenter. Heat 5 quarts of the remaining water to 74°C/165°F.
  4. Pour this water through the grains in the bag. Heat the remaining 5 quarts of water to 82°C/180°F and repeat the rinsing of the grains.
  5. Let the grains drain thoroughly into the fermenting bucket, then set the grains aside.
  6. Cool the wort to 33°C/92°F. Check the specific gravity and re­ cord.
  7. Add the yeast and yogurt or cheese culture.
  8. Ferment at room temperature for 2 to 6 days, or until fermentation has slowed considerably or stopped.
  9. Check the specific gravity again and record this number.
  10. Transfer the wort to your still, leaving the yeast sediment in the wort.
  11. Do a stripping run first; you should have low wines around 30% ABV. Then do a spirit run, switching from heads to hearts when the emerging distillate reaches 80% ABV.
  12. Collect hearts until the emerging distillate is down to 60% to 62% ABV before switching to tails.

I like to plan single malt whiskey distillations for some time after I’ve been making bourbon or rum. When I strain the charred oak chips out of the aged spirit, I save the chips to use for aging malt whiskey. Of course, you can age your whiskey using freshly charred or toasted oak chips too. Part of the fun of all this is the virtually infinite range of results you can get just by tweaking one little detail of the process here or there. Remember to keep records, so when you hit on a particularly yummy formula, you can duplicate it!

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Excerpted with permission from Craft Distilling by Victoria Redhed Miller, Published by New Society Publishers.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.