Lesson 06: How do you make Whiskey?

The lessons I make on this blog are meant to be consumed in 5-10 minutes. Given that whole books – and year-long training – is associated with the topic in this specific lesson, I have been a bit challenged on the above-mentioned constraints.

I will therefore only be able to give you the very high-level details and there will be a ton of details I have left out. As a result, you will come across whiskey distilleries that do not follow the details below to the letter – but the method I am describing is close to what (pretty much) everyone is doing.

Essentially, whiskey making is the art of distilling beer. It is not like you take commercially available beer and try to distill it – you make your own beer specifically for whiskey making. This is called “Distiller’s Beer” and while technically drinkable, in almost all cases not something you would do (tastes weird). There are a couple of examples where distillers have taken “normal” beer and distilled it – but it is very rare.

But let us go through the basic steps of making whiskey:

  1. You take some grains and crush them into a coarse flour-like consistency, also called “meal”. The most widely used grains are corn, rye, barley, and wheat. You can read more about which grains can be used in Lesson 04. You crush the grains to get easier access to the starch inside the grains (explanation to follow).
  2. To produce alcohol (ethanol), you need to convert the starch to sugar (glucose), which is what the yeast cells really likes (I’ll explain below). Most manufacturers do this by “malting” barley. I will cover malting in an upcoming post, but malted barley is essentially barley grains that have been put into water – allowed to germinate slightly – and then dried again. It turns out, that the germination process produces an enzyme called “amylase”, that can be found in the sprouts of the germinated barley grains. Amylase – literally within a few hours – can convert starch to sugar.
    The amazing amylase enzyme can be found in the sprouts of the germinated barley seeds.
  3. You now heat up some water and add the grain meals and malted barley and essentially make porridge. This is called a “mash”, which is why the exact combination of the various grain types is called a “mash bill”. The different grains are not added at the same time, but at different water heat intervals, that works best for that specific grain type. The exact temperature varies, but some manufacturers start adding the first grain meals at around 110F/43C and the last ones around 180F/82C. But, again, it varies.
  4. The amylase in the malted barley now kicks in and start converting the starch into sugar – and as mentioned, this can take as little as a few hours. If you do not use malted barley, you can use industrial enzymes instead.
  5. You now cool down the mash and transfer it to a so-called “fermenter” and add yeast cells. Yeast cells are amazing microorganisms, that are having a field day, when they meet sugar (need to be the right type of yeast cells, though). When they get in contact with the sugar, they basically piss alcohol and fart CO2 (excuse my French). The CO2 just evaporates into the air, but the alcohol stays in the mash. You have now essentially made beer – and it is in fact called “Distiller’s Beer” at this point. The alcohol strength is typically around 14-20 proof (7-10% ABV) – and it normally takes the yeast cells 3-5 days to get to this level.
    The top layer of a fermentation tank – amazing patterns …
  6. The “only” thing that now remains is to distill the beer. This is done in either a “pot still” or a “column still” (a.k.a. “continuous still”). I will explain the difference in a future post, but they essentially both work by heating up the beer quite significantly. Alcohol boils at 173F/78C and water – as you probably know – at 212F/100C. So essentially, the alcohol starts to evaporate before the water – and that is the basic premise behind distillation.
  7. The alcohol vapors rise towards the top of the still – and is being led into a special tube where it is cooled down, and thus liquefies again. The liquified alcohol vapors are clear as water and at this point referred to as “low wine”. Since some water vapors are mixed with the alcohol vapors, the proof of the low wine is typically not much higher than 50 proof (25% ABV).
    A “pot still” (this one is from Willett Distillery)
  8. Since you have to get the alcohol content much higher, you will have to do a second distillation through something called a “doubler”. You can get the alcohol content very high through the second distillation, but it is prohibited by law to go higher than 160 proof (80% ABV) for most whiskey products. You now have something called “high wine” – and it is still as clear as water.
  9. For almost all whiskey types in the US, you must now do one final thing: Adding water to the distillate – also known as “cutting”. By law, most whiskey types do not allow the proof to be higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). If the distillate is e.g. 160 proof (80% ABV) off the still, you will need to add more than 20% water. Some manufacturers only go up to 130 proof (65% ABV) off the still and yet others decide to cut down the whiskey to as low as 100 proof (50% ABV) before going into the barrel.

So … after cutting it down below the required levels, you now have a clear, unaged whiskey, that is ready to go into the barrels for aging. People often refer to this type of unaged whiskey as “white dog”, since it is white (transparent, really) and has a bite, when you drink it 😊

“White Dog” from Buffalo Trace

And that is how you make whiskey …

And that concludes this lesson.

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