Crystal Malt

I recently enjoyed one of my favorite blended Irish whiskeys: Bushmills 1608. No, it’s not 400+ years old! Distilling in or around the town of Bushmills has been going on for that long. In fact, the license to disil [sic] was granted to Old Bushmills Distillery in 1608, hence the name of the expression. Part of what is claimed to make Bushmills 1608 smooth is the eponymous name of this article: “Crystal Malt,” along with the grain whiskey and careful blending. But what is crystal malt? A malting process? A type of barley? A way of processing a particular type of barley?

I’ve often wondered about the amazing variety of single-malt Scotch whisky: So many expressions (on the order of thousands) from basically three ingredients (water, malted barley and yeast). It seems so simple, but no two whiskies are so close to each other as to be indiscernable. From what does this variety emerge? Well, like anything that appears simple, it’s not. Whisk(e)y is a natural product, made from naturally occurring ingredients. There is a lot of variability in the process, but people are ingenious: Distilleries manage to turn out products that reliably reproduce the previous year’s product — when they want to.

Water sources matter somewhat. Barley isn’t one kind of plant: There are lots of varieties. At least 6 types are used in the production of Scotch. And all barley within a given variety isn’t identical: Was the soil too high in Nitrogen? Too low? Too wet? Not wet enough? You get the idea. Was the growing season hot? Cold? Just right? Then there is the preparation of the malt: Did the malt get peated? If so: How much? Even if unpeated, was it processed the same amount of time at the exact same temperature? What was the barley’s initial moisture content?  Was the malt comprised of just a single farmer’s barley? The fingerprint of the malt is the foundation of the whole process.

The production of Scotch is heavily regulated as to the ingredients, their preparation and all of the production techniques, yet these significant constraints still allow enough flexibility for the thousands of expressions of single-malt Scotch whisky. Based on a cursory web search, crystal malt isn’t used in the production of single-malt Scotch whisky. But if it’s used to make beer, it can be used to make whiskey (I spell generic whiskey with 7 letters, whereas I spell Scotch whisky with only 6 letters in the word “whisky;” many other kinds of whisky adopt the Scotch spelling, but not all do).

All across America, and the rest of the world, there is a re-emergence of distilled spirits, including whisk(e)y. Late 2008/early 2009 episodes of the WhiskyCast podcast have included interviews with some of the pioneers of this new (and simultaneously not-new!) business. Micro-distilleries are producing beer-based whisky (Charbay, here in Northern California, recently made whiskey from a Pilsner beer!). These would not necessarily be single-malt whiskeys, but they would be a beverage distilled from a cereal grain-based beer-like substance, so technically they are whisk(e)y.

Crystal malt is available in a variety of colors, and they were heated enough that some of their sugars are caramelized after being converted from more complex starches to simpler sugars while still inside the barley. Once caramelized, the simple sugars are unfermentable. Remember: The fermentation of the mash is what creates the alcohol. Yeast is added which converts the simple sugars to alcohol. Since crystal malts contain no enzymes, they cannot (by themselves) be used to create a mash for fermentation. They can be added to a mash bill to sweeten it. Crystal malts also noticeably smooth the mouth feel of beer when they are part of the mash bill; this mouth feel derives from the more complex sugars that are present in the malt.

Strictly speaking, crystal malt needs no mashing, so you can make beer without needing to make a mash. The mash, if you recall, is when you add the grist (ground up malt) to hot water so that the enzymes from inside the barley can convert the starches to simple(r) sugars. Because crystal malt already contains simple sugars, a home brewer can go straight from grist to fermentation.

So crystal malt is a process: You stew green (undried) barley in warm water which activates the enzymes inside the barley. This is what normally happens in the mash tun when the grist (ground malt) is steeped in hot water. In the crystal malt process, the enzymes act within the barley, and when the barley is dried, the converted sugars crystallize (hence the name). The whole process of making crystal malt is outlined at this home brewing blog. After the crystal malt process is complete, you can make it into a grist and add water and yeast, which ferments the sugars as usual.

It’s clear that crystal malt is advantageous in beer production, since it lets home brewers skip the step of mashing. And anything that can be used to make beer can be used in the production of whisky (though not Scotch whisky).

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