All it takes: grain, water and yeast!
Approximately 100 kg (222 lbs) grain will make 600-liter mash. The expected end result is 32-35 liter pure (theoretically 100%) alcohol, from which we can make about 80 to 87 liter (21-23 gallon) whiskey that has the strength of 80 proof.
This stage is simple: grind the grain into a course meal (you want a consistency similar to what is required for beer).
Next, you will mash in your ground malt barley, mixed with water, in the mash tun that can be identical to a brewer’s mash tun.. This process also known as “sugaring” or “conversion”, when we convert the starch into sugar resulting in a liquid “wort”. How much time this process takes is well known for brewers: depends on the size of the tank and amount of mash.
Separating the Wort
To separate the wort, the mash is sieved through a false bottom screen plate at the bottom of the tank. The liquid is then drained to a fermentation tank and the remaining wet grains can be disposed of or used as animal feed.
Unless you cultivate your own yeast, you should use new yeast for every new batch of liquid wort you ferment. Fermentation, usually taking 2 to 3 days, begins once the yeast is added and should take place at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
The number of rounds to distill, once again, depends on the taste the distiller desires. Keep in mind that every run through the still increases the purity of the whiskey. If using a regular pot still, or alembic, note that only a little more than half of the water content is actually removed, an inefficient process but still allowing for some variation. Traditionally, the Scotch whisky is distilled twice and the Irish whiskey three times. For this reason, the Irish claim their whiskey is a smoother and purer whiskey.
Don’t forget about the unwanted runoffs while distilling: the “heads”, an undesirable and poisonous liquid, boils off first before the ethanol begins to burn; discard of the “tails”, as well, as they fall below 80 proof and do not add to the quality of the whiskey. The ideal distillate sought for in whiskey falls around 80 proof.
Finally, the whiskey matures in oak casks. The legal minimum when aging whiskey is 3 years. During this maturation process the whiskey “breathes” in the barrel, gaining aroma, flavor and color. Aging, sometimes referred to as mellowing, takes the edge off the raw whiskey and creates what we know as the smooth whiskey. Also, during the aging process, a percentage of the alcohol evaporates. This evaporated alcohol is called the “angels’ share”.
Whiskey is Whiskey. Or is it?
So, you’re home from work and you can really use a whiskey right about now. You open your bar and you’re confronted with a dilemma: everything inside has become a whiskey! You see the bottle of blended Scotch, the Kentucky Bourbon, the Irish whiskey, the smooth Tennessee whiskey – what to do?! You take a deep breath and, realizing you have no clue what the difference among all these whiskeys is, decide to learn which is what and what suits your mood best.
Many types of whiskeys exist. Even more brands of each type lurk in the aisles of the liquor stores. For the sake of simplicity, however, we will limit ourselves to the more widely known whiskeys and their corresponding popular brands.
Let’s begin at the heart of every whiskey …
Scotch or Irish? Rumors say the Irish whiskey came first and is the mother of all whiskeys. The Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, both blended whiskeys, share a tight relationship with a few degrees of separation: ingredients, malt drying and actual distillation. While the Scots use malted the barley, you may find an Irish who uses both malted and un-malted barley or, more uniquely, oats. Scots take pride in their smoky flavored whisky, resulting from their drying the malted barley over peat fires. Irish, on the other hand, prefer to preserve the original barley flavor and, instead, dry their malt in closed, dry kilns. We cannot forget the importance of water! A characteristic trait of the Scotch, impossible to copy anywhere else, is the water they use: they use water from a spring that runs through red granite and then passes through peat moss country. Finally, the Scots distill their fermented mash twice while the Irish will distill their mash typically three times.
Scotch Whisky: Dewars; Johnnie Walker Irish Whiskey: Bushmills; Jameson
In come the American whiskeys. American whiskeys include the Bourbon whiskey, Rye whiskey and the Tennessee whiskey. Perhaps, Bourbon rings most synonymously with American whiskey. Kentucky gave birth to the Bourbon and while many distillers and their products suffered during the prohibition, the Bourbon flourished under moonshine. Characteristically, the Bourbon has a lower proof than most whiskeys, uses at least 51% corn (most will use 80%), ages in new, charred casks, uses special limestone water, free of iron, found only in Kentucky and, like the Tennessee whiskey, incorporates the “sour mash” process. These characteristics help make the Bourbon the highly flavored drink it is known to be. The cream-of-the-crop bourbons are the single barrel and small batch bourbons. Very few single barrel bourbons exist – taking and bottling the whiskey from one barrel makes it a rarity (and expensive!). Small batch whiskeys result from the mixing or “mingling” of a “batch” of barrels (20) – mixing the best of the best, of course. No Bourbon is a typical blend and if you want the real stuff don’t take anything less than the Straight Kentucky Bourbon.
Bourbons: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark
Of course, there is always room for a Tennessee whiskey. Kentucky Bourbonites claim that the Tennessee whiskey attempts to imitate the Bourbon – they could be right, except for one special process unique to the Tennessee whiskeys, “charcoal mellowing”. Charcoal mellowing is the process of dripping the fresh whiskey through containers packed with sugar maple charcoal. This gives it a flavor and aroma all its own. Of course, other differences exist, as well. Differences in barreling have a significant impact on the final product. For the Tennessee whiskey only American white oak makes for the right whiskey barrel. Its porosity and unique chemical compounds react well and distinguishably with the Tennessee whiskey. So, if your palate requires mellow charcoal taste, reach for that Tennessee whiskey!
Tennessee: George Dickle, Jack Daniels
Canadian whisky, unique in its own strange way, takes on qualities of various whiskeys and distinguishes itself by not owning its own distinguishable trait. Also a blended whisky, you may find this one feels lighter than bourbon, lacks the strong aroma of a scotch, and does not have the dark color characteristic of many whiskeys. Corn is most often used for the mash of a Canadian whisky, although it is not unheard of to use wheat or malted barley. Some say that the Canadian whisky owes its popularity to the American Prohibition Act, which encouraged Canadian bootleggers and helped them to develop their product in the American market.