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When we think of places that show an obvious affinity to whiskey, the first countries that come to mind are Scotland and the United States. Both these places have a great number of producers and consumers too. However, whiskey is the drink of choice for many countries like France, India, and Singapore. In this article, we will explore whiskey and look into the step-by-step process of making and aging it in Oak whiskey barrels.
History of Whiskey
The invention of whiskey dates back to the 15th century when the Irish monks tried their hand at the distillation techniques they had learned from the East. The distillation techniques of the East were mostly used in making aromatics and perfumes. When the medieval monks returned from the East, they tried the method of distillation to create something they called ‘water of life.’ This water of life, they believed, would work as a medicinal tool for healing problems like smallpox. This also explains how the name whiskey came to be. Whiskey is a word that has been derived from the Gaelic word ‘uisce beatha,’ which was traditionally pronounced as ‘wish-ga bah-ha.’ In ‘uisce beatha,’ the term ‘uisce’ stands for water, while ‘beatha’ stands for ‘life,’ thus making it ‘water of life.’
Since whiskey was being produced for its medicinal values, the undiluted and rough-tasting distilled liquid was most often drank as it is. The process of aging it in whiskey barrels, which is known to improve the taste, was not yet discovered. To enhance the flavor of whiskey and make it more drinkable, many farmers and monks used ingredients like herbs, honey, spices, or berries. Since all these botanicals were used in the making of whiskey at the time, its style was very much reminiscent of what is classified as gin today.
What is whiskey made from?
Whiskey is primarily made from four main ingredients, namely cereal grains, water, yeast, and time. Yes, time is an important ingredient in making good quality whiskey as it needs to be aged in whiskey barrels. The cereal grains most commonly used in making whiskey consist of barley, rye, and corn. Most of the whiskey around the world is made from corn or barley. These grains can be used individually or mixed together, depending upon the region in which the whiskey is being produced.
In most cases, the grain used to make the whiskey is not sprouted. For making the whiskey, ground grain is put into a 100-gallon-hogshead which is filled with water. After the fermentation is finished, the process can yield around 2 gallons of whiskey from a bushel of grain. However, a lot depends on the quality of the grain, the degree of heat, the season, the atmosphere, and the manner in which the fermentation was done. According to an analysis, corn yields the most quantity of spirit.
In the first part of the distillation, the mixture is quite weak as it consists of one part of whiskey to 25 parts of water. If one looks at the aerometer reading, the first part of the distillation is only 11-12°. The required concentration to make a true whiskey is only obtained after several distillations. Making whiskey requires a considerable amount of time, effort, and labor.
Types of Whiskey
Around the world, different types of whiskeys are created, which results in various categories. They can be classified depending on the –
- Region or country (Bourbon, Tennessee, Scotch, etc.)
- The grain used or the way in which they were treated (Single, Rye, Malt)
- The aging process utilized
Since the classification of whiskey depends on various factors, it would be unfair to compare a Scotch with a Rye whiskey. Scotch essentially refers to any whiskey that is produced in Scotland. Let us look at some of the most common types of whiskey.
A Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made explicitly in the United States. To be considered a Bourbon, the whiskey has to be made according to particular requirements. This should be made from 51% corn, distilled to 160 proof, and then put into a barrel of around 125 proof. It should eventually be packed into whiskey & bourbon barrels for aging. Tennessee whiskeys are also considered to be in the category of Bourbon; however, there are a few main differences. It is specifically made in Tennessee, and it undergoes the Lincoln County Process, which is a sugar maple charcoal filtering process.
There are two categories of Rye whiskeys – American Rye Whiskey and Canadian Rye Whisky. The making of Rye whiskey also needs to follow certain procedures to qualify as rye whiskey. It should be made from 51 percent rye and distilled to 160 proof. After that, it should be aged in charred oak whiskey barrels with 125 proof.
Malt whisky is typically made from 100 percent malted barley, and it is usually distilled in a pot still. It can be double or triple-distilled, depending on the region. Malting refers to the soaking of grain so that it begins to sprout. The grain produces enzymes during germination, converting the grain’s starches into sugars. These can be further classified into single malt or blended malt whiskies. While single malts are made in a single distillery, blended malts are made at multiple distilleries and blended together.
Grain whisky is usually made in a Coffey still. These are made from one or multiple cereal grains, generally consisting of rye, corn, wheat, and barley (malted or unmalted). The only condition is that it should not be made from 100% malted barley. This also consists of two sub-categories – Single Grain Whisky and Blended Grain Whisky.
Besides these, there are Single Pot Still Whiskeys and Blended Whiskeys. If we were to consider the categorization based on countries, there is –
- Japanese Whisky (Malt, Grain, and Blended)
- Scotch Whisky
- Canadian Whisky (Malt, Grain, Blended, and Rye)
- Irish Whiskey
- American Whiskey.
Step-by-Step Guide for Making Whiskey
Step1 – Choosing the base: The base of the whiskey generally consists of wheat, rye, or barley, each of which gives a distinguished taste to a whiskey. You also have the choice of using multiple grains for the base too. Corn is usually the least expensive grain, which can be bought in bulk to make whiskey. It is also the easiest to work with on a small scale.
Step 2 – Cooking the base: The grains should be cooked at high temperatures to release the sugar. The base can be cooked in water and the exact time depends on the quantity of grain used. A beer brewing kit can be used as a distilling kit for cooking the base at home. The kit will allow you to regulate the cooking process and mimic the way it is done on a larger scale.
Step 3 – Start fermentation: After the corn or other base of your choice is cooked and turned into mush with a rolling pin, you can start the fermentation process by adding yeast. The mixture can be fermented in a sealed container of any type. However, you should ensure that the mixture is not very hot or the yeast will die. A home-brewing kit can help you in the process of fermenting, mimicking a controlled environment fermentation. The process of fermentation can last for a few days.
Step 4 – Perfecting the fermentation: When the mixture’s flavor turns from sweet to sour, you know the process of converting sugar into alcohol has started. For a perfect fermentation process, it is important to manage the temperatures precisely. Typically, the process should not continue for more than a week. You can taste the mixture to decide if it is completed or not.
Step 5 – Straining the mash through a still: After the fermentation is complete, you can strain the mash through a still. A small-scale still can be used for the process. However, it is important to ensure that there are no leaks in the still. This is because the alcoholic vapor produced in the process can be quite combustible.
Step 6 – Wait patiently: After placing the mash in the still, there is not much to do besides waiting. However, you should make sure that when the mash is poured into the still, it is around 80 degrees Celsius. This is because the high temperatures aid in the evaporation of the alcohol. Getting a still with a built-in thermometer can help in this process.
Step 7 – Converting vapor to refined distillate: When the mash is subjected to high heat, the alcohol turns into vapor. This vapor is then turned into a refined distillate using a condenser with the cold water running around it. This process is called shocking the vapor, as it is shocked into liquid form.
Step 8 – Enhance the taste of the liquor: Usually, the first 100ml from a batch of 5 gallons resulting liquor should be thrown away as it can be dangerous to drink. It also does not taste well, so it is best to remove that part so that the taste of the liquor can be enhanced.
Step 9 – Age the whiskey in the barrel: After all the processes are complete, you can transfer the whiskey into whiskey barrels to age. Using a smaller used whiskey barrel can help absorb the notes of the wood, like cedar, oak, and other components, in a better way. The whiskey can be left to age as long as you want if the environment it is left in is in the correct state. As time passes, the taste of the whiskey enhances to a great degree.
With this comprehensive guide, you will be able to appreciate whiskeys in a better, deeper way. The step-by-step guide can be useful for any beginner to understand the process of making whiskey. The useful tips can also be used for attempting to distill at home.