• Home
  • Articles
  • The Art Behind Whisky: How It's Made Step by Step

The Art Behind Whisky: How It's Made Step by Step

The Art Behind Whisky

Whisky, the respected spirit with a history as rich as its flavour, undergoes a remarkable journey from grain to glass. Its production process is a work of tradition and innovation, where the choice of grains, the magic of fermentation, the alchemy of distillation, and the calm embrace of oak barrels all converge to create a complex and beloved beverage. This detailed guide will take you on a voyage through the heart of whisky-making, unravelling its secrets and intricacies. Let's explore the art and science behind this revered spirit, from the first steps of mashing to the final flourish of maturation, revealing the craftsmanship that transforms humble ingredients into a liquid legend.

Malting

Malting is an important part of making whisky. This is where grains, usually barley, change. First, the barley is put in water to start the process of sprouting. Then, it is dried in ovens to stop the seeds from sprouting. This process turns the saved starches into sugars that can be fermented. This gives the whisky its base flavour. Malting changes the character of the final product. The amount of smoke and the depth of the flavour depend on how long the malt is dried and what kind of oven is used. Malting is a mix of science and tradition that sets the stage for the next steps in making whisky, which are mashing, fermenting, and distilling.

Mashing

The mashing process is a crucial part of making whisky. It includes grinding grains like barley, corn, wheat or rye and mixing them with hot water in a mash basin. This mixture is stirred to extract sugars. Even if malt liquor isn't the goal, malted barley is often added to speed up the conversion of starches to sugars. The result is a sugary mash that is similar to porridge. After getting as much sugar as possible out of this mixture, which is now called mash or wort (if the solids are filtered out), it goes to fermentation, where yeast is added to turn these sugars into alcohol, which is a key step in making whisky.

Fermentation

Fermentation is a key step in whisky production. Once the mash or wort, rich in extracted sugars, is ready, yeast is introduced. These microscopic organisms play a crucial role by consuming sugars and transforming them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This fermentation process takes place in large vats known as washbacks and typically lasts between 48 to 96 hours. The choice of yeast strains and fermentation times significantly influence the whisky's final flavour profile, resulting in a range of diverse flavours. The liquid produced during fermentation, often referred to as distiller's beer or wash, contains alcohol levels of approximately 7% to 10% ABV before it proceeds to the distillation phase.

Distillation

The process of distillation is an essential step in increasing the alcohol concentration of a liquid while emphasising its volatile components, which include both desirable and undesirable attributes. Stills, commonly made from copper, serve a crucial function in the removal of undesirable flavour and aroma compounds. There are two commonly used types of stills in the industry, namely pot stills and column stills. Each of these stills possesses unique operational processes, which are outlined in detail below.

Pot Still Distillation

Pot stills are integral in crafting whiskies across the globe, such as those from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Japan. This method operates in batches, and while some styles undergo double-distillation, others endure a triple distillation. Initially, the wash is heated in the first still, known as the low wines still. As alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, alcohol vapours ascend through the still's neck, lyne arm, and into the condenser, where they return to liquid form. The resulting liquid, roughly 20% ABV, advances to the second still, the spirit still, where the process repeats. Some distilleries may opt for a third distillation. The final spirit emerges from the still at approximately 60%-70% ABV. Distillers separate and discard a portion of the initial and final spirit, referred to as heads and tails due to undesirable flavours. The remaining portion, known as the heart, proceeds into barrels, often through a spirit safe.

Column Still Distillation 

Column stills, also known as continuous or Coffey stills, are widely used in the production of American whiskeys such as bourbon and rye, as well as grain whiskies from various countries. Unlike the batch process of pot stills, column stills operate continuously and efficiently. The distiller's beer is introduced at the top of the column and flows downward through perforated plates. Simultaneously, hot steam rises from the bottom, interacting with the beer. This process separates solids and undesirable components while pushing up lighter alcohol vapors. As these vapors condense on each plate, they become more refined, eliminating heavy substances like congeners and increasing alcohol content. The vapor ultimately reaches a condenser. Column stills can produce spirit with a high alcohol content, typically distilled to lower proofs for whiskey production.

Maturation 

Maturation is a critical phase in whisky production. The distilled spirit is placed in wooden barrels, commonly oak, for aging. During this period, the whisky interacts with the wood, extracting flavours and color. Changes in temperature cause the liquid to expand into and contract out of the wood, intensifying these interactions. Over time, the whisky mellows, developing complexity and character, ultimately reaching its desired flavour profile. Maturation can last several years, and it significantly influences the final taste and quality of the whisky.

Bottling 

After ageing, whisky is typically bottled with a minimum of 40% alcohol content. It might undergo chill-filtration or other filtration processes to maintain clarity when mixed with cold water or ice. In the case of major whisky brands, batches for bottling are created by blending whisky from various barrels stored in the distillery's warehouses. However, if a single barrel is used for bottling, it's designated as "single cask" or "single barrel" whisky.