A Tale of Mash and Oak, Part II: Whiskey Production

Grab your lab coat and we'll dive into the workflow of whiskey-making.

Next up in my plan is a better grasp of the production process. On a basic level, whiskey is made from a mash (a combination of malt and water; more details follow below) of fermented grains. Depending on the country and sometimes on the region, the grain bill (the specific elements that go into the mash) can change. Barley is one of the most popular grains, and typically Scotch and Japanese producers use only malted barley.

Irish and American producers often incorporate other malted cereal grains. In the United States, federal identity standards for bourbon state that the spirit must be made from a grain mixture containing at least 51-percent corn. Canadian whiskies also use various grains, though many distillers prefer corn.

In the malting process, grain soaks for 48-72 hours in tanks, kicking off germination. According to documentation from the Scotch Whisky Association and The University of Edinburgh: “During germination the grain secretes the enzyme diastase. This enzyme makes the starch soluble, thus preparing it for conversion into sugar. Throughout, the grain is turned at regular intervals to control the temperature and rate of germination, to help create alcohol-producing sugars.”

Next the grain is dried, milled and combined with water heated to specific temperatures in the mash. The mixture is then stirred and cooled – the spent grain is filtered and sugars are extracted, yielding a liquid called wort. Yeast is added to the cooled wort, beginning the fermentation process (pretty much, you’re making beer before you make whiskey).

When fermentation is complete, it’s time for distillation and the beer-like concoction can begin its transformation into whiskey. The liquid is boiled in large stills to separate water, yeast and residue from the new whiskey. The separated liquid is usually distilled two to three times, depending on the producer.

Next up – Part III: Whiskey Barreling