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Some say that whiskey (also spelled whisky) is the most popular distilled spirit in the world. It's consumed across the globe and is made on every continent. But exactly how is whiskey made? In this article I'm going to explain how to make whiskey, step by step, with the help of a master distiller. I've also created a two part video on how to series.
Guide To Making Whiskey
In this article I discuss the definition of whiskey as well as the step by step processes one would take to make whiskey. Note, the legality of making whiskey at home is no different than the legality of making moonshine at home. Please note: this article is for educational purposes only. Don't try this at home.
Table of Contents
Before getting into how whiskey is made i'm going to provide a bit of helpful background information. This will include the following:
- The definition of whiskey
- Typical whiskey ingredients
- Proof and aging
- Tasting notes
- Health and nutrition
- Historical facts
As far as making whiskey goes - it's a multi-step process. Here are all of the steps that I'll discuss:
- Create a whiskey recipe
- Measure and adjust water
- Procure ingredients
- Make a mash
- Distill the whiskey wash (fermented mash)
- Age the whiskey in white oak barrels
What is Whiskey?
Whiskey is made all over the world and the definition varies from region to region, However, generally speaking, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented cereal grains. Here's a bit of background on exactly what whiskey is and how it's made.
The answer to question of what is whiskey made of depends on the exact type of whiskey in mind. Single Malt Scotch Whisky (notice the omission of the "e" in "Scotch Whisky"), for example, is made with 100% malted barley contains no other types of grain. However, most other types of whiskey (and whisky) typically contain additional cereal grains. The three main ingredients most whiskey are water, malted barley, and yeast, but whiskey also typically contains corn, rye, wheat, oats, and more.
Whiskey Proof and Aging
According to Chapter 4 of the United States TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM), whiskey is always bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) or higher. Prior to bottling whiskey is often aged in white oak barrels.
Whiskey typically tastes a bit like the grain that's used to make it. For example, Bourbon, which is technically whiskey, is primarily made form corn and has a sweet corn taste. Aged whiskey often tastes a bit like the oak barrels it is aged in with sweet, vanilla, smoke, caramel and may even have undertones of cherry fruit.
The high alcohol of whiskey often creates a "warm" feeling in the mouth and the after taste is often peppery or spicy - especially when rye is used in the mash recipe. Though a whiskey recipe that features what will tends to be a bit more mellow.
Health and Nutrition
Although drinking whiskey in excess is generally considered to be unhealthy due to its high alcohol content, 1.5 ounces of 86 proof whiskey is about 105 calories, which is about half the calories of 12 ounces of IPA beer. So, relatively, it's potentially a better choice than beer for folks who are counting calories. That said, always drink responsibly and limit alcohol consumption to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Added Color and Flavors
According to chapter 7 of the TTB's Alcohol Beverage Manual, food coloring and artificial flavoring can be added to whiskey. In fact, almost every type of American whiskey, with Bourbon being the only exception, allows for artificial flavoring and food coloring in amounts up to 2.5%. of the total volume. The only other type of whiskey made in the U.S. that cannot contain added color and flavoring is whiskey labeled as "straight." For example, "straight whiskey," and "straight rye whiskey" cannot contain such additives.
History of Whiskey in America
Although whisky was first produced in Ireland and Scotland, it also has an incredible history in America. In fact, in a letter sent from George Washington to John Hancock in August of 1777, the former suggested that the newly formed American Government set up public distilleries because importing whiskey from Europe had become nearly impossible due to attacks levied by the British Navy. Why was this so important? Well, because the soldiers needed it, of course.
In like manner, since our Imports of Spirit have become so precarious—nay impracticable on account of the Enemy’s Fleet, which infests our Whole Coast, I would beg leave to suggest the propriety of erecting public Distilleries in different States. The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in All Armies, and are not to be disputed.
George Washington would later open his own distillery at Mount Vernon, his private estate, located just 7 miles south of Washington DC.
How to Make Whiskey
Here's a full length video of the entire whiskey-making process. If you're looking for more detailed information, read on!
1. Create a Recipe
There are a lot of different types of whiskeys. Bourbon is one of my favorites. But I also love Scotch and Irish whisky. Hell, I love Japanese whiskey too. Hmm, perhaps it's safe to say that I love all types of whiskey. That's why it was so difficult to decide upon a whiskey recipe for this project. Though, after a lot of deliberation I decided to make something closer to a Tennessee style whiskey.
Tennessee whiskey is made primarily with corn. Malted barley is added for starch conversion and body. And rye and wheat are also often added to either spice things up or mellow them out. The exact details of are recipe are as follows.
2. Water for Making Whiskey
The type of water used for making whiskey can have a significant impact on the final product. In general, slightly elevated mash pH will produce a smoother, mellower tasting whiskey.
The grain used to make whiskey will actually lower the pH of water during a whiskey mash. To prevent this, calcium can be added, which is a buffering agent and neutralizes the pH drop. For this reason, whiskey made in and around Kentucky and Tennessee in the United States, home to a natural limestone aquifer, has historically been some of the best in the world. Limestone is primarily composed of calcium carbonate and works great for preventing pH drop.
- This recipe calls for 9 gallons of water with a neutral pH and some limestone.
If you watched the video you likely noticed that there was an issue with the amount of water used for this recipe. The exact amount of water needed is going to be highly dependent on the type of corn used and the brewing equipment used to make the mash. I recommend starting with about 9 gallons of water and adding more until the mixture is fairly "loose" and soupy.
3. Whiskey Grain
This style of whiskey is made using typical whiskey grains (corn, barley, and rye). The mash bill for Jack Daniel's, one of the most popular whiskies in the entire world, is made with 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye.
Keep in mind that final product that comes out of a still is only going to taste as good as the ingredients that went in to begin with. Accordingly I'm using an "all-grain" mash bill in this whiskey recipe.
Here's exactly what I added to the whiskey mash:
- 1 lb. 11 oz. rye
- 2 lbs. 9 oz. malted barley
- 16 lbs. 15 oz. flaked corn
4. Make a Whiskey Mash
Making a whiskey mash involves crushing grain and then mixing it with hot water. The purpose of making a whiskey mash is to convert complex sugars into simple sugars that are more easily consumed yeast and turned into alcohol during the fermentation process.
Note, the ingredients above are portioned to allow for mashing to comfortably take place in a 20 gallon kettle and represent approximately 1/3 of the total ingredient amounts needed in order to make 15 full gallons of wash for a stripping run and a subsequent spirit run in an 8 gallon still.
You'll either need to make this mash recipe 3 times or you'll need to scale it up and brew it in a larger brewing system in order to use the 8 gallon still that was used for this process.
To make the mash, I'm doing something similar to how Jack Daniel's makes their mash. Howevever, Jack first gelatanizes the corn at 212F, they allow it to cool to 170F and add the rye, then they cool it all the way down to 148F and add their malted barley. Because I'm using flaked maize, which is pre-gelatinized, I don't need to cook the grains at 212.
There are quite a few ways to mash grains including fly sparging, batch sparging, step mashing, and the brew in a bag (or basket) method. This article will focus on the brew in a bag process as it is the easiest and requires the least amount of equipment.
The brew in a bag method is the easiest way to mash grains for an all grain mash. In this method, crushed grain is added to a mash strainer basket - the mash strainer bag acts as a filter which makes it very easy to remove the grains from the wort at the end of the mash.
After the mash is complete, the mash bag is simply lifted out of the mash tun, allowing the wort (the liquid after mashing) to drain back into the kettle. I used Clawhammer's 20 gallon brewing system to make the whiskey mash.
For more distilling equipment recommendations, check out our distillation equipment guide.
Whiskey Mash Steps
Here's the entire process for making a whiskey mash.
- Crush grains
- Add 9 gallons of water to a kettle and heat to 147 degrees F.
- Add the grains to the water while stirring.
- Check mash consistency to make sure it is soupy and not lumpy or dry.
- Maintain 147 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 to 90 minutes, while either recirculating liquid or intermittently stirring.
- After mashing is complete, elevate the basket so liquid can drain from the grains.
- Once the liquid has drained, chill the wort to 70 Fahrenheit.
5. Fermenting a Whiskey Mash
One final ingredient will be needed to make whiskey and it's arguably the most important:
- Distillers yeast
Distillers yeast will eat the sugar in the mash and turn it into alcohol. It'll also produce a lot of flavor and aroma compounds. Because the alcohol by volume (ABV) of the mash is quite high (about 10%), it's imporant to use yeast that can handle that amount of alcohol without getting too stressed. That's why we recommend using distillers yeast. It's also important to cultivate the right environment for optimal fermentation.
To make sure fermentation goes off without a hitch, first make sure to clean and sanitize everything that the chilled wort will come in contact with (this does not include the brewing system). Cleaning and sanitizing all equipment is the best defense against getting an infection that will contaminate the mash. Using a cleaner such as PBW and a sanitizer such as star-san will decrease the likelihood of a contaminated batch of wash.
Beyond cleaning and sanitation, make sure to aerate the mash before adding yeast, as the yeast will need a bit of dissolved oxygen to produce additional healthy cells. The easiest way to do this is to shake the fermenter for about 2 minutes before adding the yeast. Also, store the fermenter somewhere with a stable temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You'll also want to keep it out of direct sunlight.
Here's the entire whiskey mash fermentation process:
- Sanitize fermentation equpment.
- Transfer the mash liquid to the fermenter.
- Add distillers yeast.
- Add a lid and aerate.
- Install an airlock.
- Allow to ferment for 10-14 days.
As I mentioned above, this article is for educational purposes only. Making a mash at home is legal. But distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal, state, and local permits. Clawhammer's distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only. Please read our complete summary on the legalities of distillation for more information.
Here's a video that shows each step of the whiskey distillation process. The entire process is also detailed below, step by step.
Conduct a Stripping Run
Jesse conducted a "half stripping" run for this project. That means that some, but not all of the wash was quickly run through a pot still before being added to a column still for a final distillation.
Here's how Jesse completed stripping distillation for his whiskey mash:
- Place the still outdoors or in a well ventilated area.
- Add 6.5 gallons of wash to the still along with an anti-foaming agent.
- Install the still lid, column, cooling hoses, and drain hose.
- Ensuring that liquid completely covers the heating element at all times, heat the still to at least 174F.
- As the still is heating, check for vapor leaks.
- Collect the stripping distillate in a sturdy container.
- Always ensure that distillate is cool to the touch coming out of the still and that vapor is escaping leaking from the still output hose.
- Collect all distillate until the distillate being produced is 5-10% ABV or less.
- Complete 1 more stripping runs with the fresh, undistilled wash.
- Empty and rinse still.
Conduct a Spirit Run
Following the same safety procedures listed above, Jesse did the following to complete his stripping run using a column still with a copper shotgun condenser.
- Add the remaining wash as well as the liquid from both stripping runs to the still.
- Apply heat and begin a spirit run;
- Discard at least the first 75 milliliters, as this could contain methanol;
- Collect spirits in individual 475 milliliter containers, labeling each one numerically as it is filled by the still.
- Early numbered containers will contain heads.
- The middle numbers will contain hearts.
- Later containers will contain the tails.
- Separate containers based on aroma and taste.
Charcoal Mellowing Whiskey (Optional)
Charcoal mellowing is what sets Tennessee whiskey apart from all other types of whiskey. Here are the steps that Jesse followed to charcoal mellow whiskey:
- Chop maple hardwood into small pieces
- Place the maple in a metal container with a small vent hole
- Heat the container in a hot fire for several hours
- Allow to cool.
- Place maple charcoal in a column
- Slowly drip whiskey into the charcoal bed
- Allow the whiskey to drip through the bed of charcoal
- Collect in a sturdy container
Whiskey can be quickly aged in small batches using charred white oak. The process for aging whiskey is as follows:
- Place whiskey in a small container.
- Add charred white oak to the container.
- Allow to sit for up to 6-8 months.
The time required to age will depend on a lot of factors. Most important is the ratio of the volume of liquid to the amount of wood added. Jesse recommends taste testing every few weeks to determine when it's ready. Again, he can do this because it's legal where he lives.
Whiskey is blended by tasting all of the whiskey in the various aging vessels and pairing the vessels that make the best aroma and flavor combinations.
Whiskey can often be bottled in empty store-bought bottles. If the bottle was originally corked, it can be re-corked using a corking tool.
Additional Whiskey Recipes
There are many different types of whiskey which are made all over the world. Here's a list of some of the more popular types of whiskey along with some information on how each is made:
Rye whiskey - Rye whiskey mash must be made predominantly with, you guessed it, rye. Here's a sample recipe for rye whiskey mash: 60% malted rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. This is actually a very special recipe. According to historical distillery ledgers dating back to the lat 1700's, this is the recipe that George Washington used to produce the rye whiskey made at his estate.
Bourbon whiskey - Bourbon whiskey is predominantly corn with malted barley for starch to sugar conversion. It's then either rounded out with rye for a more lively drinking experience and spicy finish or with wheat to mellow things out. I prefer to keep things a bit more on the mellow side with Bourbon since it's already very robust given the amount of corn in the mash bill and the new white oak barrels that are used to age it. My preferred recipe is: 70% corn, 16 wheat, and 14% malted barley. Note, enzymes may need to be added to this recipe to achieve complete saccharification.
Scotch whisky -Scotch whiskey is made in Scottland, as one might imagine. The legal definition for Scotch sates that it must be, "...distilled at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added)." I take this to mean that Scotch is primarily malted barley and minimally "other cereals." My suggested malt bill would be 85% malted barley and 15% corn.
Tennessee whiskey - Although listed above, here is my preferred Tennessee whiskey recipe: 80% corn, 12% malted barley, 8% rye.
Corn whiskey - 80% corn and 20% malted barley
Wheat whiskey - Wheat whiskey is one of my favorites and a wheat whiskey recipe would look something like this: 51% wheat, 80% wheat, 15% malted barley, 15% corn.
Malt whiskey - 51% malted barley, 40% corn, and 9% wheat.
Moonshine - Like Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, moonshine is made predominantly using corn and malted barley. One of the moonshine recipes that I hear is more common is 82% corn and 18% malted barley.