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Malt is germinated grain. If you soak barley in water for five days, then spread it on the floor of a warm room and sprinkle it frequently with water, it will start to sprout in about two weeks. When the sprouts are about three-fourths of an inch in length, the barley is known as "green malt," and some of the starches in the grain have changed into diastase, which converts grain starch into sugars called maltose and dextrin.
If you spread the green malt on a drying screen inside a kiln and build a peat fire under it, the smoke will kill the germ of the barley and will give the grain the smoky, pungent peat flavor that distinguishes Scotch from other whiskies. Heavy roasting will give it a heavy character, light roasting a light character, and it's here you determine the kind of whisky you'll end up with.
If you grind the dried malt into coarse meal, soak it in hot water until the sugars have dissolved, then strain off the water and cool it, you have a sweetish liquid known as wort. If you put the wort in a vat and add a special strain of yeast, the yeast enzymes will break down the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is called fermentation, and after three days you will have a beery liquid called "mash," with an alcoholic strength of about 10%.
If you put the mash into a copper still and heat it, the alcohol and some other compounds will vaporize and pass into a coiled and cooled pipe called a worm, where the vapors condense and reconstitute a liquid. This is known as "low wines" and is ready for a second distillation. This one is tricky, as the first and last parts of the run (called "foreshots" and "feints") are so heavy with bad-tasting toxic compounds that they must be discarded; the trick is not to discard too much or too little.
You now have a gin-clear liquid on your hands, with an alcoholic strength of about 70% (140 proof) and, if a man walks up and says, "What's that stuff?" you may truthfully say, "Why that, sir, is malt whisky!" If the man is a revenue officer, you are in trouble.
To bring Scotch whisky to potable perfection, it is reduced with soft water to about 125 proof, barreled in oak casks (preferably casks previously used for storing sherry) and matured under government supervision for at least three years—or four if the whisky is to be shipped to the United States. But generally malt whisky is blended with aged grain whisky after three or four years, then rebarreled for further maturing.
No one knows what happens to whisky while it ages, or why, but subtle changes take place in the nature of the complex compounds that determine the character of the final product. Probably some of the compounds are oxidized by contact with the wood or with air in the cask and thus mellowed in flavor and fragrance. Whatever the cause, aging improves the whisky—but age is no assurance of quality, and after bottling no maturing takes place.