“Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up.” – Anonymous
You may have heard this classic phrase before, but did you know that there’s some scientific truth behind it? How whiskey is made is a fascinating process. Here’s why.
According to Mike Pomranz of Eater Magazine, “all whiskey begins life as beer.” Pomranz explains that both whiskey and beer start by fermenting grains to release sugars that are later turned into alcohol by yeast. “The primary difference with whiskey is that this fermented product is never intended to be drunk,” he says. Through a complex process of distilling and aging, whiskey evolves into the far more sophisticated and mouth-watering spirit we know and love.
As a whiskey enthusiast, you probably have some working knowledge of how it’s made, but a quick refresher on the nuts and bolts of this proud tradition never hurts. And the more you understand the craft, the more you can identify the distilleries that make the perfect whiskey for your unique palette. So let’s review.
Grain Mash. This is typically a mixture of grains such as malted barley, rye, wheat, or corn, depending on what type of whiskey is being made.
Water. For many distilleries, a unique water source is a point of pride. Whether it be a Scottish loch or an alpine river, a distillery’s water source is often as big a part of the brand identity. Jack Daniels Whiskey, for example, attributes some of its classic flavor to the “crisp, cool, 56-degree water” of Tennessee’s Cave Spring Hollow. According to the company, the limestone in this cave removes iron and other impurities from the water, which is used to make every bottle of Jack Daniels produced worldwide.
Dr. Craig Wilson, master blender at Diageo, conducted research showing that a whiskey’s water source can have an important impact on flavor. For example, soft water can produce heavier whiskey, while hard water may produce lighter, sweeter spirits. Along the same line, he found that water with higher levels of organic matter can produce fruitier flavors in a finished whiskey.
Yeast. Last but certainly not least, yeast turns fermented grains into alcohol.
How Whiskey is Made: Step-by-Step
Both of the main types of stills (pot stills and column stills) are made of copper, known for its purification capabilities. Pot stills, often used in Scotland, need to be cleaned after every batch. Column stills are able to produce much larger quantities of whiskey because of their continuous distillation process.
Once the barrels are ready, they are filled with the distilled spirit and stored in warehouses (or “rackhouses” as they’re often called in the U.S.) for at least two years. The temperature and humidity levels of the barrel storage location affect the final characteristics of the whiskey. Barrels can be reused (typically no more than three or four times), and distillers take into account the previous contents when strategizing the new spirit’s desired flavor profile.
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