There is nothing better than coming home to enjoy a glass of whiskey after a long day of work. When whiskey touches your lips, glides over your tongue, warms your throat, and reaches your soul, you feel the tingle of whiskey. But how exactly is whiskey made? Why does whiskey feel so unique compared to other spirits? We have broken down the distillation process and the art of whiskey making so that you can savor your next glass even more.
What’s in Whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains. Different grains such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat are used, each producing distinct flavors and types of whiskey. Whiskey is also aged in wooden barrels, which can be either new or previously used.
The history of whiskey spans the globe, with each country having its own iconic grain choices and craftsmanship. However, most whiskeys follow a similar production process.
Whiskey begins with raw grains or a mixture of raw grains. Malt whiskey involves processing the grains, typically barley, to extract sugars. This process, called malting, includes soaking the grain to germinate, then halting germination by heating and drying.
Many different types of whiskey employ malted grains, especially those produced in Ireland and Scotland. American whiskey often contains higher proportions of rye and corn, but malt remains a common ingredient in its production.
Regardless of the grain or malt used, the sugar within it needs to be extracted. This is achieved through a process called mashing, where the grains are ground and mixed with hot water to create a porridge-like substance known as mash. Once all the sugar has been extracted, the mash is ready for fermentation.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is where alcohol production begins. The mash is combined with yeast, which consumes the sugar and converts it into alcohol. This process typically takes several days, depending on the yeast strain used. Fermentation also introduces various flavors into the mash, resulting in a beer-like liquid with an alcohol content of approximately 10%.
What is Distillation?
Distillation further concentrates the alcohol by heating the fermented liquid into steam and then condensing it back into liquid form. This process occurs within a still. There are two main types of stills: pot stills and column stills. Column stills are commonly used for bourbon, rye, and other American whiskies.
A column still consists of a tall column with partitions or plates, forming distinct chambers within the still. When heat is applied from the bottom, the fermented mash enters the top of the still, with the upper section being the coolest part. As the mash enters, it descends, interacting with the hot steam to vaporize alcohol while leaving behind water and grain solids that fall back to the bottom of the still.
Each time the vaporized alcohol hits a plate in the still, it condenses and becomes more concentrated in alcohol content as heavier compounds are left behind. This results in a higher-proof product. Column stills can achieve alcohol contents of up to 190 proof, or 95% alcohol by volume, although bourbon and most other whiskies are not distilled to such high levels.
1500L Copper Pot Still
Almost all whiskeys are aged in oak barrels, typically charred oak barrels. Bourbon, rye, and some other American whiskies must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, while other types of whiskey may utilize different types of oak barrels. To be labeled as straight whiskey, it must be aged in barrels for a minimum of two years.
American whiskey and bourbon have additional aging requirements, including specific alcohol content thresholds.
When ready, the whiskey is bottled with a minimum alcohol content of 40%. Some whiskeys may also undergo filtration to prevent cloudiness when water or ice is added.
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