Imagine whisky without the benefits of maturation – a spirit stripped of the elegance, colour, complexity and fantastic flavours gained during that long, luxurious soak inside oak casks. Remove this final leg of whisky’s epic journey and we are left with ‘new-make spirit’, the product formed from the fermenting and distilling of whisky’s core ingredients – malted barley, water and yeast.
If we think of malt whisky in terms of a human life, this new-make spirit is like a baby – the immature offspring of the final matured product. Like a baby, it is undeveloped, but over the years, it will gradually take on its own personality.
New-make spirit has long been available to sample at distilleries, but with some distilleries now bottling it to satisfy demand from connoisseurs (and generate revenue), it is becoming increasingly commonplace in the wider whisky world.
But what is it and where does it come from? Here, we examine this curious spirit in more detail…
What is new-make spirit?
New-make spirit is the colourless liquid that is taken from the spirit still after distillation. By law, it can’t be called Scotch whisky until it has spent a minimum of three years maturing in an oak cask in Scotland.
How is it made?
Each malt whisky has a unique new-make spirit. Each one is a little bit different as a result of four key elements – the barley, the duration of fermentation, the shape of the still and the point at which the stillman at the distillery ‘cuts’ the spirit during distillation.
Whether the barley is peated or unpeated, and the various shades of peating levels in between, will have an enormous influence on the flavours that are created in the new-make spirit.
The length of time a distillery ferments its spirit for is significant – this can range from as short as 34 hours or up to 80 hours.
A shorter fermentation will produce a fresher new-make spirit, with the yeast unlocking lighter, fruity notes such as bananas and apples – similar to the fruity notes found in Sauvignon Blanc – from the malt.
A longer fermentation allows the alcohol to interact with the fruity notes to produce long- chain esters which give more waxiness and a heavier body to the spirit.
The shape of the still has a major influence on the flavour of new-make spirit. For example, as a general rule of thumb, very tall stills with a narrow swan neck will tend to produce a delicate floral spirit, while shorter, squat stills tend to promote the more malty, biscuity notes.
Cut points in distillation
The point at which the distillery ‘cuts’ its spirit during distillation will have an impact on the flavour of the new-make spirit.
Think of this step like filleting a fish – chopping off the bits, such as the head and tail, that you don’t want and keeping the lovely fillet in the middle, which is just ready to be cooked.
In this case, the head of the whisky is known as the ‘foreshots’ – the first product of the distillation process. If a distiller wants a light, fruity new-make spirit, the foreshots will be kept short – 10 to 15 minutes maximum.
This will preserve the fruity esters which are small molecules that distil very quickly with the alcohol.
The ‘tail’ of the whisky is known as the ‘feints’ – the heavier flavours that develop a couple of hours into distillation. If a distiller wants to bring out the biscuity, toasted and tobacco notes, they will go further into the feints for up to three-and a-half hours.
Thanks to Rachel Barrie for her input to this feature.