How Whiskey is Made

Making whiskey is a simple process which yields, in my experience, one of the most profoundly complex drinks available.  Only three ingredients are used (some type of grain, yeast, and water) and the actual process can be done from a small home “still” to a large production line.

Since I created this page to be an accessible way to appreciating whiskey, I am not going to explore some of the deeper concepts in the distilling process but rather a general overview so a basic understanding is made.

To begin with let’s look at the three basic ingredients.

  • Grain-there are 4 primary grains used to create the different types of whiskey: barley, corn, wheat, and rye.
  • Water-in most circles it has been accepted water plays no role in the “flavoring” of whiskey, but as one might imagine, should the water contain chemicals (as in tap water) it will affect the process so distilleries use some sort purified water.
  • Yeast-strains of yeast are ever-changing and there are many different varieties.  Within the Scotch industry there is one type used and many believe because of this it has little to no impact on flavor.  The Japanese however do use different stains believing they impart desired flavors.

And now for the process.

  1. Malting- this is where the barley is allowed to sprout.  The sprouting allows for a maximum amount of starch which is later turned into sugar, and then alcohol.
  2. Mashing- the grain is now ground into small particles much like flour known as grist.  Hot water is added to the  grist and mixed together in something called a mashtun, the grist and water form what is known as wort.   
  3. Fermenting- the wort is then moved through pipes to a washback where yeast is added and the fermentation process takes place.  The process usually lasts 48-72 hours which results in a strong, tart beer known as wash (distiller’s beer in the U.S.).
  4. Distilling-the wash is put into either a pot still or column still.  The alcohol is separated by boiling the wash.  Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water and the vapors are separated and condensed into liquid.  The liquid is usually condensed twice. When the liquid is first put into a still it is known as the wash.  During the second distillation the alcohol is known as “low wines.”  If the alcohol is distilled a third time it is known as “high wines”(primarily in the U.S. and Ireland).
  5. The Cut- the liquid is then transferred to a “spirit safe.”  Imagine a length of string frayed at both ends.  You cut the frayed parts off and are left with a pristine length of cord.  The Cut is essentially the same thing and is divided into three different parts: 1- foreshots (this is very much like nail polish remover), 2- the middle cut (this is the drinkable portion of the cut and is known in the U.S. as White Lighting, Moonshine, etc.), 3- and finally “the feints” (these usually contain a higher level of water and are a low quality spirit).  The foreshots and feints are not discarded but rather poured back into a new wash and are re-distilled.
  6. Maturation- once the middle cut leaves the spirit safe it is placed in a holding tank and is now known as the “new make.”  The new make is then placed into a cask where it will remain for the duration of the maturing process.  When discussing the process you might hear people refer to the “Angels’ Share.”  This refers to the evaporation of alcohol while it is maturing in a barrel.
  7. Blending and Marrying- Blending refers to the mixing of a single malt whiskey with one or more single grain whiskeys after they have matured.  The blender will use any number of barrels to create the desired aromas and flavors.  A single malt or single grain whiskey however will only use one type of grain.  As with a blend, any number of barrels from one distillery can be used to create the whiskey and a blender will “marry” different barrels to get the desired drink.
  8. Bottling- this is the most self-explanatory aspect to the process.  The whiskey is packaged and labeled into bottles for distribution.  One aspect you might not be aware of in the bottling process however concerns the alcohol strength.  When the whiskey is poured out of the cask the potency is usually around 53-65% ABV.  The distillers will dilute the spirit down to the standard 40% ABV.  If you come across a bottle stating the whiskey is at “Cask Strength,” that means the whiskey has not been diluted and you are getting it as it was poured from the barrel.
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