Making whisky happens roughly in the same way at almost any distillery you visit anywhere in the world. We’ll cover what some of the differences are later, but their similarities far outweigh them. So how does it all come together?
Making whisky is a 5 step process: Malting, Mashing, Fermenting, Distilling and Maturing (or some variation of that), and it all starts with sugar. No matter the distillery anywhere in the world, all distilled spirits (including whisk(e)y) start as a sugar. Tequila makers get their sugar from the Agave plant. Rum from sugar cane or molasses. Vodka from … well, just about any source; any fermentable sugar. Whisk(e)y gets its sugar from grains; usually barley, wheat, corn or rye.
Malting is the process of converting starches and other complex carbohydrates into a simple, fermentable sugar. (Geek-out moment – The process uses enzymes that occur in nature for the conversion, by convincing the enzymes that it’s spring time; time to start growing into a plant, so it wants to give the plant energy (in the form of sugar) to start growing. Some distilleries don’t need to do as much as others, but they all do this process – the more sugar you can get out of your grain, the more whisky you can make!)
Mashing is similar to making oatmeal. Take your grain that you’ve gotten to its highest sugar level possible, grind it up (into a powder called “Grist”) and throw it into a big tub of hot water. The water will seep into the grain and soak up all the sugar. You now have a batch of sweet, soupy goop called “Mash.” The grains are then separated from the solids, the solids being turned into animal feed (or some other reuse effort) and the liquids – now called “Wort” – move on to fermentation. We’ll discuss ‘Sour Mash’ another time.
Fermentation is the process of turning sugar into alcohol. To do this, take your wort and let yeast get in there (either naturally or by adding it). The yeast is going to eat up the sugar and give off 2 byproducts – Carbon Dioxide and Alcohol. The CO2 (after being processed) is let off into the atmosphere, and the Alcohol is put on to the next step. If you’re a home brewer, or have spent time at breweries, you may recognize these first 3 steps as the process for making beer, and really that’s what we’ve done. Some distilleries even call it that, where other whisk(e)y-makers call it “Wash.” Wash is high strength stuff – usually coming in around 8-10% ABV.
The wash – or beer – is next put on to Distillation, which is, in short, purification. Alcohol has a relatively low boiling point; much lower than water. So take your wash and start heating it up. As it warms, certain compounds will start to steam off, or vaporize. The idea is to collect the steam from the compounds you want while getting rid of the ones you don’t want. Since we’re looking to take this 8-10% stuff up to (and in many cases beyond) 70% ABV, we’ll only keep a small percentage of the vapor that comes off the still and condense it down back into a liquid form. This liquid is as clear as water, tho a bit viscous – with a very strong odor (that often reminds me of Grapa). It has different names at different distilleries; the most common are White Dog, White Lightning and New Make (or, newly made) Spirit.
The last step is Maturation. Sometimes called the ‘long sleep,’ the new make is put into oak casks which are then put into warehouses for anywhere from months, to years, to decades. During this time there are lots of flavor changes taking place and, while it’s not the only source of flavor, it’s one of the most important to the final flavor of the whisk(e)y. The wood is constantly adding it’s own character to the liquid while stripping away other elements (that, as luck would have it, are some of the less desirable portions of the new make). This conversation between the wood and the whisky is somewhat of a mystery, but one of the things happening is evaporation – the casks loose around 2% of their volume every year (called the “Angel’s Share”). The size, shape, level of toast or char each cask has and how many uses each cask gets are very specific decision made by each distillery and can have drastic changes on the flavor of what ends up in a bottle.
The whisk(e)y is then finished! It’s ready to be bottled and shipped off around the world for us to enjoy! Won’t you have a dram with me?
About the Author:
The Whisky Guy is an educator, host, blogger and more, having worked in the whisk(e)y industry for over 10 years. He can be reached through the Contact page and you can find out more by visiting the About page. He always supports enjoying whisk(e)y responsibly.