Making Whiskey is not complicated. It consists of five basic steps which we will look at detail. However, before you begin read this entire article, read the safety tips below and ask questions if there is something you do not understand.
A Little Safety Before You Begin
- Ethanol is Very Flammable!!!
- Check equipment before each run. Make sure seals are good and the still has no cracks, holes, leaks, etc.
- Still should be run in a well ventilated location.
- Have a fire extinguisher close and available.
- Never leave a running still unattended.
- Do not allow vapours or liquid product to be exposed to open flames of heat source.
Here are the 5 steps we are going to follow. We will discuss each in detail.
- Making the Mash aka Mashing
- Aging and Maturation
- Dilute and Bottle
While there are many types of spirits that can be produced from the distillation process we will focus on Whiskey. Each distilled beverage has its own recipes and distillation techniques. For example, Vodka is generally produced from potatoes or rice in Eastern Europe. When it is distilled if must be refined to 96% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) thus removing any flavor from the distillate making it a neutral spirit. Before bottling the Vodka is diluted with water to give it the legal EU minimum ABV strength of at least 37.5%. Whiskey on the other hand is distilled to no higher than 80% (ABV) so the flavors from the mash are part of the distillate.
So, what is Whisky (Scottish, British and Canadian English) or Whiskey (Irish and American English)? Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash. Different combinations of grains account for the different varieties and flavors in Whiskey. Generally the mash is made from malted barley, rye, wheat, and corn (corn being the main ingredient, 51% or more, in Bourbon Whiskey). The whisky is then aged in Oak barrels. The inside of the barrels are ‘toasted’ which is what imparts the caramel color to the end product. All whiskey is normally aged for a period of time in barrel with the exception of corn whiskey which does not have to be aged.
OK, enough already! Let’s make some whiskey.
Step 1: Making the Whiskey Mash
What is Mashing? Mashing refers to the hot water steeping process which activates malt enzymes and converts the grain starches into fermentable sugars. At this point you have a sugar rich solution called the ‘wort’ (pronounced ‘wert’). Yeast will convert the wort to alcohol.
Now you must decide what you want to make. There are many whiskey recipes available and each has its own distinct quality and flavor. So, experimentation and good note keeping will help you figure out which recipe is right for your intended purpose. Here are a few recipes to get you started.
Depending on the recipe you may need to transfer the wort to another container (fermenter) for fermentation. Once the mash has been prepared according to your selected recipe proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Fermentation
Fermentation: The biological process in which sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose are converted into ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2).
Once you have picked your recipe, made your wort and pitched the yeast the wort will start to ferment. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a week depending on the type of yeast, temperature of the ferment and nutrients available to the yeast. There are a couple ways you can determine if the ferment has finished.
- Wait till you are not seeing any little bubbles being formed. You will see this at the top outer edge of the fermenter. If you are using an airlock wait till it stops bubbling and then give it one more day to rest. This is a rather crude way to determine the completion of fermentation.
- Use a hydrometer.
A hydrometer measures the density of a liquid relative to water. An in-depth discussion on hydrometers can be found in the article “What is a Hydrometer.” One easy way to tell if fermentation has completed is to take a reading 1 time per day for 3 days. If the reading on the hydrometer stays the same, fermentation has finished. Here are a few tips for using the hydrometer.
- Take a sample of the fermented wort using a turkey baster or wine thief. Put this sample into a graduated cylinder.
- Gently lower the hydrometer into the graduated cylinder.
- I like to spin the hydrometer gently to free it of any bubbles that might interfere with the reading.
- Read the number on the hydrometer that is at the water line.
Now that fermentation has completed we can move on to step 3.
Step 3: Distillation
Distillation: Method for separating mixtures based on differences in volatilities of components in a liquid mixture. This applies to the production of essential oils, gasoline, and of course in our case, ethanol (alcohol). Our goal is to separate the ethanol from the fermented wort. We are not going to get a 100% ethanol solution. We are instead trying to get an 80% ethanol solution with the other 20% being comprised of water and flavors from the mash.
Whiskey is generally distilled in what is called a Pot Still. A discussion on stills can be found in the article “Moonshine Stills”. Here are the basic steps needed to distill the fermented wort:
- Transfer to Still: Siphon or strain the fermented wort (aka ‘wash’) through cheese cloth into the still. The cheese cloth is only used to take separate the large solids. If you are siphoning the wash into the still try to leave behind the solids at the bottom of the fermenter. Once again no worries if some solids get transferred.
- Assemble the Still: Assemble the rest of your still according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Heat\Boil: Heat the wash slowly. The goal here is to not burn the wash. Give yourself 30-60 minutes to bring the wash to a boil. Usually a medium to medium high temp is adequate.
- Start the Condenser: There should be a thermometer located just before the cooling condenser. When this reads 120º F- 140º F (50º C-60º C) start the cooling water for the condenser tube.
- Heads Out: A steady drip should start to flow from the end of the condenser. For a 5 gallon wash throw out the first ¼ cup (~50 ml). This portion of the ferment is referred to as the heads. It contains methanol and some off flavors that you do not want in your final product.
- Body In: Continue fermenting collecting the distillate in 500ml portions. This is the good stuff. The thermometer just before the condenser should read somewhere around 175º F-185º F (80º C-85º C).
- Tails Out: When the thermometer start to climb to around 205º F (96º C) you are starting to distill out the tails (aka fusel oil). These will add off flavors to you final product and should not be mixed with the body.
- Clean Up: Turn off or remove the heat source. Turn off the cooling water. Let everything cool and then clean thoroughly.
Step 4: Aging and Maturation
Whiskey is best when it has been aged for a period of time. Aging normally takes place in Oak barrels. However, you can also add oak chips to the whiskey and let age. Keep in mind that whiskey only ages in the barrel. Once bottled the flavors will not change and mature. Aging makes the whiskey smoother and adds an oak flavor to the final product. The whiskey should go into the barrel somewhere between 58%-70% ABV. Bourbon whiskey must not enter the barrel at more than 62.5% ABV if it is going to be called a bourbon whiskey.
Step 5: Dilute and Bottle
In order to enjoy a glass of whiskey you need to cut it with water. Drinking spirits at 75%-80% ABV can be an uncomfortable experience. Generally whiskey is diluted to 40% ABV (80 Proof). Once diluted it is immediately bottled, labeled and enjoyed (not necessarily in that order).