As we learned from a previous posting, To E or not to E…that is the question!, whisk(e)y is “the general term covering bourbon, rye, Scotch and other liquors distilled from a mash of grain.” But what does “distilled” and “mash of grain” actually mean? How does the whole whisky-making process actually work? It’s a pretty complicated process with a lot of steps that all depend on what kind of whisky you’re making but I’ll try to give you a basic run-down.
If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video on how to make whisky and then come back for the details.
All grains except barley are ground up, mixed with water, and then cooked. Barley is malted instead of cooked. The barley is soaked in water to germinate, or sprout, and then spread out and watered for about three weeks until it sprouts. This process converts the starch in barley into sugars. Once the barley sprouts, it is dried with hot air to stop the germination process.
Mashing is when the combination of cooked grain, malted barley and warm water is mixed with heat to create a mash. For Scotch malt whiskey, the cooked grain is omitted from the combination. Mash is a cloudy, sugar-rich liquid, which is then ready to be distilled.
Before the distilling can happen, however, yeast needs to be added to the mash. The yeast organisms convert the sugars in the mash to alcohol. After 3-4 days of fermenting in the fermentation tank, the result is a liquid containing 10% alcohol. This liquid is called wash (in Scotland) or distiller’s beer (in the United States).
Distilling is a way to separate mixtures by heating them to their boiling points. After fermenting, the wash is boiled to 172 degrees Fahrenheit because that’s alcohol’s boiling point. The alcohol turns into a vapor and is collected, condensed back into a liquid and collected. It is now called “low wine.” The low wine is distilled a second time to produce “high wine” which is about 70% alcohol.
The high wine is now ready to be aged in wooden barrels. Water is added to reduce the alcohol content. Usually to 50 or 60% for American whiskies and 65% for Scotch. Environment plays a part on how alcoholic the whiskies end up. “Scotch whiskeys are aged in cool, wet conditions so they absorb water & become less alcoholic. American whiskeys are aged in warmer, drier conditions so they lose water and become more alcoholic.”
Any questions? Ask in the comments!