WhiskeyNotes Whiskey Primer

There are two major contributors that define how a whiskey will taste: the ingredients used and the manufacturing process. Between these all the various flavors of whiskey emerge.

Ingredients

Incredibly, whiskey has only a handful of ingredients: grains, water and yeast.

Manufacturing

The manufacturing of whiskey is absolutely critical to both expose the flavors present in the grains used and to add any additional flavors throughout ageing.
  1. Malting
  2. The grains are steeped in warm water allowing them to germinate. When ready, they are dried via hot air or smoke. Some distilleries use peat smoke to add additional flavors to the grains. Peat is partially decomposed plants that is extracted from swamps and wetlands.
  3. Mashing
  4. The dried grains are ground into flour (called 'grist') and mixed with hot water (becoming 'mash') in a mash turn. Sugars produced during malting are dissolved, creating a sugary liquid called 'wort').
  5. Fermentation
  6. The Wort is transferred to another container (called a 'wash back') to cool. Yeast is added and the mixture is fermented. The liquid (called 'wash') is filtered out and is about 5-7% alcohol, like beer.
  7. Distillation
  8. The mixture is transferred to a still and heated until the alcohol evaporates (but not so warm that the water mixture evaporates). Stills are large inverted funnels that collect and refine the the wash. The evaporate rises through the top of the still and condenses in the condenser, returning to liquid with about 20% alcohol (called 'low wine'). The process is three several times in a spirit still. The second "cut" (called 'new make') is saved for maturation with about 60-75% alcohol.
  9. Maturation
  10. The 'new make' is often diluted with water and then barreled into casks, usually oak. Various kinds of casks (such as oak, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-rum) can be used for different amounts of time to impart flavors into the beverage. American whiskey required the use of charred oak casks, which are often re-used by scotch manufacturers to age their whisky. As the whiskey ages, 1.5-2% of the beverage is lost to evaporation (called the 'angels share'). Maturation can be very affected by the climate and temperature where it is matured. Age statements on bottles report the youngest ingredient in the bottle. The maturation can inform the legal labeling depending on the country. In the United States, whiskey may be called 'straight' if it has been matured between 2 and 4 years.
  11. Dilution, filtering, bottling
  12. The whiskey may be mixed with other single-malts from the same distillery (resulting in a 'vatted' whiskey) or with other whiskey (resulting in a 'blended' whiskey). The whiskey is usually diluted to the drinking strength (often around 40% abv), though cask-strength (>50% abv) spirits are available. The whiskey may be 'chill-filtered' where it is cooled near 0c and filtered to remove some compounds that were created during distillation, which also makes the whiskey clearer after bottling. Some believe that chill-filtering removes flavors in favor of a clearer beverage. Additives such as caramel coloring may be added to make the whiskey appear more 'appealing' (usually darker to indicate more maturation)