If you’re a big fan of whiskey, you’ve probably been curious about how whiskey is made. The process differs slightly depending on the style being made, the country producing it, and a few other factors. However, the basic distillation process remains similar.
In this article, you will learn about the differences between whiskey. We will give you the scoop on how whiskey is made and teach you everything you need to know about your favorite spirit.
Can you make whiskey at home?
Unfortunately, making whiskey at home is illegal in the United States. In fact, the distilling of any spirit at home is illegal under federal law. You can make wine and beer at home, but liquors like vodka, gin, moonshine, and whiskey cannot be made at home for personal use.
It is perfectly legal to own a still, which is what whiskey is distilled in. You can make essential oils, perfume, or even distilled water in it, so long as you’re not producing liquor. In fact, it’s even legal to make ethanol for home fuel uses, provided you have a permit. Making whiskey at home is possible but not recommended, as it is illegal and potentially dangerous.
Types of whiskey: what’s the difference?
The process for making whiskey depends on the type of whiskey and the country of origin. If you’re new to drinking, or just a casual whiskey drinker, you may be confused by all the different types of whiskey (or whisky) out there.
Whiskey can be made from fermented grain mash or by distilling beer. The differences in whiskey types most come down to what type of grain is used as the base. Popular grains used are barley, corn, rye, or wheat, and sometimes the grains are malted. We’ve broken down the differences between all the most popular types of whiskey below.
Irish whiskey is extremely smooth—much smoother than other types of whiskey. Irish whiskey is made from a mash of malt. To be called an Irish whiskey, it can be distilled using water and caramel coloring, and it must be distilled in wooden casks for at least three years. Irish whiskey is easy to sip neat or on the rocks but can also be made into cocktails.
Scotch whisky, also known simply as Scotch, is made in Scotland from either malt or grain. Scotland has a strict set of standards in place for how Scotch must be distilled, and these rules are taken very seriously. Scotch must age in an oak barrel for at least three years, and each bottle must contain an age statement that reflects the youngest aged whisky used to make that blend. Scotch is usually sipped neat but can also be served on the rocks.
Bourbon is an American-style whiskey and is made using mostly corn as the base. In fact, to legally be called bourbon, it needs to be made from at least 51% corn, aged in a new oak barrel and produced in America. Borbon has no minimum aging requirements, but it needs to be bottled at 80 proof or more.
Japan hasn’t been producing whisky as long as Scotland and Ireland have, but they’ve made a big impact on the international whiskey market because of the high standards they set. Japanese whisky was created to taste as much like scotch as possible and is made using a similar distilling process. It is mostly used in mixed drinks or served with a splash of soda.
Canada produces their own style of whisky, one that is lighter and smoother than other varieties. Like scotch, Canadian whisky must be barrel-aged for at least three years. It has a high percentage of corn, and more Canadian whiskies on the market are made with a blend of corn and rye. Some, however, feature wheat or barley.
Tennessee whiskey is technically classified as bourbon, but some distillers feel like their style should be in its own category. All current producers of Tennessee whiskey are required by the state to produce their whiskey within state lines and to use a filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process before aging the whiskey.
Rye whiskey is made in America and must contain at least 51% rye as its base. It can also include other grains, such as corn and barley. Rye follows the same distilling process as bourbon. Rye that has been aged for more than two years and not blended is called “straight right whiskey.” Rye tends to have a spicier flavor than smooth bourbon.
Like the name suggests, blended whiskey is made up of a blend of many different kinds of whiskey. Coloring, flavors, and even other grains can be added to the blends. Blended whiskeys are ideal for cocktails, as they aren’t usually as smooth or flavorful, but they’re much less expensive than other types.
How whiskey is made
While there are slight differences in the distilling process based on the type of whiskey and the location it’s made in, the general distillation process is pretty standard. We’ve broken down the steps for whiskey-making below.
Step One: malting
All whiskey starts as raw grain. In the case of malt whiskey, barley has to be specially treated to access its sugars. The barley is moistened and allowed to partially sprout, or germinate, in a process called malting. Malting secretes an enzyme that converts the barley’s starches to sugars. This process is cut off when the barley is dried by heating.
Step Two: mashing
The sugars in the grain must be extracted before fermentations through a process called mashing. Whether corn, wheat, or rye, the grains are ground up, put in a large tub with hot water, and agitated. Even if the distiller isn’t making a malt whiskey, some ground malted barley is typically added to help catalyze the conversion of starches to sugars. Then, the mixture, called mash, or wort, moves to the fermentation stage once as much sugar as possible has been extracted.
Step Three: fermentation
Fermentation occurs when the mash or wort meets yeast. The yeast eats all the sugars in the mash and converts them to alcohol, which is done in giant vats, called washbacks. This process can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours. This stage produces a beer-like liquid, called distiller’s beer or wash.
Step Four: distillation
The process of distilling increases the alcohol content of the liquid and brings out the volatile components. Distillation is done in large containers called stills, usually made of copper to help strip out the unwanted flavors and aromas.
There are two main types of stills, called pot stills and column stills. They function a little differently, and the one used will depend on what type of whiskey is being made.
Pot stills are usually used to produce malt whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, the US, Canada, Japan, etc. Pot still distillation is a batch process. Some styles of whiskey use double-distillation, while others are distilled three times.
The wash goes into the first still, called the low wines still. The wash is heated up, and since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the alcohol vapors will rise off the liquid, into the still’s neck, and through a long arm. They eventually reach the condenser, where they will be turned into liquid again.
This liquid goes into a second still, called a spirit still, where the process is repeated. Sometimes, it goes through the process a third time. Each time this process is repeated, it raises the ABV%. After two to three distillations, the resulting liquor is usually about 60%-70% ABV. The distiller discards a certain amount of the liquid to eliminate unwanted flavors or aromas, and the rest goes into barrels to age.
Column stills are typically used to produce bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys and grain whiskies from countries like Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and Japan. The column still process works continuously, removing the need for the batch process.
When using a column still, the wash is fed into the top and begins descending, passing through a series of perforated plates. At the same time, hot steam rises from the bottom on the still, interacting with the wash as it flows downward. The steam helps to separate out the solids and the unwanted flavors and pushes the alcohol vapors upward. Eventually, the vapor reaches a condenser, where it is turned back into liquid. Column stills can produce liquor that is up to 95% ABV, although most are lower proof.
Step Five: maturation
Now, it’s time for the whiskey to age. Nearly all whiskeys are made in wood containers, usually oak. The exception to this is corn whiskey, which can be aged or unaged. Bourbon, rye, and other types of American whiskey have to be aged in new charred oak barrels, while in other countries, the type of oak and the barrel’s previous use are left up to the producer. Some whiskeys, like scotch, have a required minimum age.
Step Six: bottling
Once it matures, the whiskey is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. The whiskey may be filtered at this stage to prevent it from becoming cloudy when cold water or ice is added. Once the whiskey is bottled, it ships out to liquor stores, where you can buy it to enjoy.
There are so many different types of whiskey available on the market today. Some are smooth; some are spicy; some are blends of many different kinds. However, the process for making whiskey remains relatively consistent no matter what type is being made. One thing’s for sure: we owe whiskey distillers a tremendous thanks for crafting our favorite beverage.