Eduard Buchner, born 1860, was awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for demonstrating that the fermentation of carbohydrates results from the action of different enzymes contained in yeast and not the yeast cell itself. Such complex chemistry is used to develop alcoholic drinks such as this.
Etymologists trace the root of the word whisky to the Gaelic phrase for “water of life”–uisge beatha to the Scottish Gaels and uisce beatha to the Irish Gaels. Over time the word evolved to usquebaugh, which, perhaps less than intuitively, was eventually shortened to whisky.
It’s only fitting that whisky should take its name from water, because it certainly takes a lot of water to make whisky. Distillers use water at every stage in the whisky-making process–from steeping barley during malting to condensing the final distillate. In his book “Appreciating Whisky,” Phillip Hills notes that it takes 10 pints of water to brew one pint of ale. “Whisky,” he adds, “uses even more.”
The first step in making malt whisky is to malt the barley. At this stage the barley is dried in a kiln to stop the grain from growing and using up all the sugars that will become the whisky’s alcohol. The next step is to prepare the mash. The whisky’s grains–malted barley, unmalted barley, maize, or rye, depending on the type of whisky–are finely ground and mixed with hot water to dissolve the sugars and other chemicals. The resulting slurry, called mash, is filtered to give a liquid known as wort.
Whisky-makers then brew the wort, using yeast to ferment the liquid’s dissolved sugars into alcohol. After about a day and a half of fermentation, a whisky distiller does as the name implies–distills the low-alcohol brew into a high-proof spirit.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to read more about the chemistry of whisky.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2005 American Chemical Society