Whisky Making Process

Whisky Making Process: A Step-by-Step Guide

Whisky is one of the most popular and diverse spirits in the world, with different styles and flavors depending on the country, region, and ingredients. Whisky is made from three main ingredients: grain, water, and yeast. The grain, usually barley, is malted by soaking it in water and letting it germinate. The malted grain is then dried and crushed to extract the sugar. The sugar is fermented with yeast in tanks called washbacks, producing a low-alcohol liquid. The liquid is then distilled in copper stills to increase the alcohol content and flavor. The distilled spirit is aged in wooden casks for at least three years, depending on the type and region of whisky. Whisky can vary in smoothness, color, and taste depending on the grain, yeast, water, distillation, and maturation methods used.

Here are the five main stages of whisky making process in more detail:

Malting

Malting is the process of converting the starch in the grain into sugar that can be fermented by yeast. Malting involves soaking the grain, usually barley, in water for two or three days until it starts to sprout. The grain is then spread on a floor or a drum and turned regularly to prevent overheating and mold growth. This allows the grain to germinate and produce enzymes that break down the starch into sugar. The malting process is stopped when the grain reaches a desired level of sugar by drying it with hot air. Some whiskies use peat smoke to dry the malted barley, which gives them a distinctive smoky flavor.

Mashing

Mashing is the process of extracting the sugar from the malted barley by mixing it with hot water. The malted barley is ground into a coarse flour called grist and added to a large vessel called a mash tun with hot water. The water temperature and ratio are carefully controlled to optimize the sugar extraction. The mixture is stirred and heated for several hours until a sweet liquid called wort is produced. The wort is drained from the mash tun and transferred to a fermentation tank. The leftover solids, called draff, are used as animal feed.

Fermentation

Fermentation is the process of converting the sugar in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide by adding yeast. The wort is cooled down and pumped into large tanks called washbacks, where yeast is added. The yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide as byproducts. The fermentation process can take from 48 to 96 hours, depending on the type of yeast and temperature. The resulting liquid, called wash, has an alcohol content of about 7% to 10% and resembles beer.

Distillation

Distillation is the process of increasing the alcohol content and flavor of the wash by boiling it in copper stills. Copper stills are used because they help remove unwanted impurities and sulfur compounds from the spirit. There are two types of stills: pot stills and column stills. Pot stills are used for malt whisky production, while column stills are used for grain whisky production.

Pot still distillation involves two or three stages. The wash is heated in a large pot still called a wash still until the alcohol vapors rise and condense in a coil or worm. The condensed liquid, called low wines, has an alcohol content of about 20% to 25% and is transferred to a smaller pot still called a spirit still for a second distillation. The spirit still separates the low wines into three parts: the head, the heart, and the tail. The head contains light alcohols and impurities that are discarded or recycled. The heart contains desirable alcohols and flavors that are collected as new make spirit. The tail contains heavy alcohols and impurities that are also discarded or recycled. Some whiskies undergo a third distillation for extra purity and smoothness.

Column still distillation involves a single stage. The wash is heated in a tall column still that has multiple plates or trays with holes or valves. As the wash rises up the column, it meets steam that condenses some of its alcohol on each plate. The condensed liquid flows back down the column through the holes or valves, while the uncondensed vapor rises up to the next plate. This process repeats until only high-proof alcohol reaches the top of the column. The distilled spirit has an alcohol content of about 94% to 96% and is collected as new make spirit.

whisky distill
whisky distillation system 2

Maturation

Maturation is the process of aging the new make spirit in wooden casks for at least three years before bottling it as whisky. Maturation allows the spirit to interact with the wood and oxygen, which impart color, flavor, aroma, and complexity to the whisky. The type of wood, size of cask, previous use of cask, and storage conditions can affect the maturation process and the final character of the whisky.

The most common types of wood used for whisky casks are American oak and European oak. American oak is usually used for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey production, while European oak is usually used for sherry and wine production. The previous use of the cask can impart flavors such as vanilla, caramel, honey, spice, nut, fruit, and smoke to the whisky. The size of the cask can affect the rate of maturation and the intensity of flavor. Smaller casks have a larger surface area to volume ratio, which means more contact between the wood and the spirit and faster maturation and flavor extraction. Larger casks have a smaller surface area to volume ratio, which means less contact between the wood and the spirit and slower maturation and flavor extraction.

The storage conditions can also affect the maturation process and the final character of the whisky. The temperature, humidity, air quality, and location of the warehouse can influence the rate of evaporation, oxidation, and chemical reactions that occur in the cask. The whisky can lose some of its alcohol and water content through evaporation, which is known as the angel’s share. The whisky can also gain some of the flavors and aromas from the surrounding environment, such as sea salt, peat smoke, or flowers.

Conclusion

Whisky making process is a complex and fascinating craft that involves science, art, and tradition. Whisky can be made from different grains, yeasts, waters, distillation methods, and maturation methods, resulting in a wide range of styles and flavors. Whisky can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, with water, or in cocktails. Whisky can also be appreciated for its history, culture, and craftsmanship.

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