Whisky Production: Distillation and Manufacturing Process

There's a lot that goes into the whisk(e)y production process, from malting and mashing, to distillation, maturation and bottling. Learn all about what goes into making this spirit, as well as what distinguishes the different types of whiskey.

If you have ever shopped the whisky aisle at your local liquor retailer, you may have noticed that there are not only a large number of different brands but a variety of different types. So what exactly is the difference between a Scotch and a single malt whisky for example? There can be a lot to learn when it comes to understanding the whisky production process, which is why we have put together a complete guide that will demystify whisky and its distillation and manufacturing process.

What is Whisky?

Whisky, which you will also see spelled as whiskey, is a type of spirit that is distilled from fermented grain, typically barley, corn, wheat or rye. It is aged in wooden casks, which helps give whisky its amber color, and must have a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40%. Different types of whiskies are distinguished from one another based on where they originated, the blending process, the type of grain used and the aging process. While different brands will have unique flavor profiles, in general whisky is known for its warm, caramelly, spicy, sweet, or toasty taste.

What is the Difference Between Whisky and Whiskey?

In most cases, the difference in spelling is based on location. For example, it is common to see “whiskey” in the United States and Ireland while Scotland, Canada and Japan leave out the “e.” Scotch and bourbon are also types of whiskies that have some unique characteristics. 

Whisky Production Distinguishes Scotch, Bourbon and Rye

Scotch is known for its smoky flavor, which is achieved by malting barley and then heating it over a fire fueled by peat. Whisky can only be labeled as Scotch if it has been produced and bottled in Scotland. The United Kingdom actually has a series of specific laws that dictate exactly how Scotch is produced.

Bourbon is a whiskey that is made in the United States, and more specifically, Kentucky. To be considered bourbon, a spirit must be produced using a minimum of 51% of corn mash. Unlike other types of whiskies, bourbon is created using a sour mash, which incorporates mash that has previously been fermented. 

You will also come across rye whiskies, which simply means that they are produced using rye mash. In the United States, a brand must contain at least 51% rye in its mash to be classified as rye. Other countries, including Canada, don’t have any specific regulations regarding labeling a product as rye.

What Ingredients are Used to Make Whisky?

Essentially, whisky is made from three ingredients: cereal or grain, yeast and water. However, the aging component in the whisky production process and the wood from the barrels also have an impact on the flavor. These two factors are necessary in order to take a spirit and turn it into a whisky. Sometimes distillers will add spices, coloring, or other flavors to create a more unique product, but even this is regulated. In the United States, whiskey can’t have more than 2.5% added flavors.

Who Produces the Most Whisky?

For over 100 years, Scotland has dominated the market as the biggest producer of whisky. In the last year alone, Scotland exported 5.6bn USD worth of whisky, equating to about 44 bottles of Scotch whisky being exported every second. However, many other countries also have a long history of whisky production. Canada, Ireland, and the United States all have long-standing traditions associated with producing whisky. While the United States produces about 37 million cases of whiskey each year, the bulk of which comes from Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, the amount of whisk(e)y produced by Canada (21 million cases)  and Ireland (7million cases) combined still doesn’t match how much is produced in the USA.

The 9 Types of Whisky

As mentioned before, whiskies are distinguished by where they were produced, the type of grain used, and the aging process. Read on to find out how the whisky production process influences the 9 different types of whisky.

1. Bourbon 

Bourbon is particular to America and often produced in Kentucky. To be considered bourbon, the spirit must use at least 51% corn mash during the production process. Bourbon also has to be aged in freshly charred oak barrels. These factors help bourbon achieve a nutty flavor that is mellow and has a hint of caramel.

2. Tennessee whiskey 

This type of whiskey is actually considered a subset of bourbon. It is filtered using the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering it through sugar maple charcoal before it is put into barrels to age.

3. Rye whiskey 

To qualify as a rye whiskey, the spirit must contain a minimum of 51% rye in the mash. In the United States, Rye whiskies are also aged in freshly charred oak barrels. Rye is known to be a lighter-bodied whiskey with a hint of spice.

4. Single-malt whisky 

Single-malt whisky only uses one type of malted grain in its production and comes from a single distillery. The final liquor bottle may combine whisky from different barrels.

5. Japanese whisky 

While this type of whisky is bottled in Japan that doesn’t mean that it has been distilled or aged in the country. Some brands closely resemble Scotch, but many distillers are constantly working on creating new flavor profiles and taking advantage of the unique influence of Japanese oak.

6. Canadian whisky 

Canadian whisky is distilled and aged in Canada. It must be aged in barrels that have a maximum capacity of 700 liters for a period of at least three years. The final product also has to have an ABV of 40% or more. With Canadian whisky, there aren’t as many regulations around adding different flavorings, which helps to create a lot of diversity among brands.

7. Irish whiskey 

As one might imagine, Irish whiskey must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland. The whiskey is aged in wood barrels for at least three years. This type of whiskey tends to have more muted flavors, so distillers will age the spirit in rum or sherry casks to add some complexity.

8. Scotch whisky 

As the largest producer of whisky in the world, Scotland is serious about its whisky regulations. Laws dictate that the whisky is aged for at least three years in oak casks. The distinct smoky flavor of Scotch comes from igniting peat to help dry out the malted barley. While Scotch can come from any part of the country, production is concentrated in five main regions: Campbeltown, Speyside, Islay, the Highlands and the Lowlands.

9. Blended whisky 

Blended whisky mixes different whiskies that may have come from different distillers.

How Whisky is Distilled and Manufactured

Malting 

Whisky is made by extracting the sugars from raw grains. For example, with malt whisky, distillers will allow barley to begin the germination process. The barley is moistened so that it will begin to sprout. This process, which encourages the production of an enzyme that works to turn the grain’s starches into sugar, is known as malting.

Mashing 

During the mashing stage, the sugars are removed from the grain by placing them in a mash tub along with hot water. The mixture is then agitated to create a porridge-like product known as mash.

Fermentation 

Fermentation is the process during which the sugars are turned into alcohol. The mash is placed in a vat known as a washback and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process, which can take 48 to 96 hours. Different types of yeast and fermentation times will influence the flavor of the whisky. Once fermentation has been completed, distillers are left with a liquid or wash that has an ABV of 7-10%.

Distillation 

The distillation is used to increase the alcohol content of the mash, however, it can also create unpleasant smells and flavors. Stills, usually made of copper, are used to help remove these less than desirable effects. There are two main types of stills used in whisky production.

1. Pot still 

This type of still is typically used to make malt whiskies in the US, Japan, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and other countries. First, the wash is placed in the still and is heated. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the alcohol turns into steam and enters the still neck and lyne arm, and then travels to the condenser where the alcohol vapors return to liquid form. After one round through the pot still, the alcohol will have an ABV of around 20%. This process can be repeated two or three times for a final product with an ABV of 60-70%.

2. Column still

Also known as Coffey stills, column stills are more efficient than pot stills because they use a continuous process that eliminates the need to run several batches. They are most commonly used to produce rye, bourbon, American whiskies, and grain whiskies from Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Canada, and more. 

The wash is poured into the top of the still and passes through perforated plates. At the same time, hot steam is rising from the bottom of the still. As the wash and the steam interact any solids are removed and the alcohol vapors begin to rise. Once they hit the plates, the vapors are condensed, which increases the alcohol content. As a final step, the vapors are fed into the main condenser. This process can produce whiskies with ABVs of up to 95%, however, most distillers aim for a lower proof.

There are also hybrid stills that are capable of employing both distilling techniques.

Maturation 

The aging process is a vital part of the whisky production process. Almost every whisky is aged in wood barrels. American whisky has to be aged in freshly charred oak barrels,. However, in other countries, the producers can choose the type of wood and whether they want a new or previously used barrel. Only corn whisky doesn’t have to be aged. 

During the aging process, the whisky barrels are stored in warehouses. While it is in storage, some of the alcohol evaporates, something that distillers have dubbed “the angels’ share.” As an added bonus, the evaporation also makes the warehouse smell wonderful. The exact length of the maturation process will vary, although, certain types of whisky have a minimum amount of time that they need to age. 

Bottling

After the aging process has been completed, the whisky is ready to be bottled and distributed. Some distillers will filter the whisky so that it doesn’t become cloudy once it is mixed with water or ice. Ultimately, bottled whisky must have an ABV of 40% or more. Larger brands will bottle anywhere from dozens to hundreds of barrels. At the same time, there are some instances where one barrel is bottled and these will be clearly labeled as a single cask whisky. 

Whisky Production Wrapped Up

While there are some relatively strict regulations concerning whisky production practices for certain types of whisky, there are still plenty of ways for distillers to get creative with their flavor profiles. Each step involved in creating whisky, no matter what type, will influence the final product. 

FAQs on Whiskey Production

What is whisky?

Whisky is a liquor that is created by fermenting grain, typically, barley, corn, wheat, or rye. 

Is it whiskey or whisky?

The answer is both. The difference in spelling is largely regional. In the United States and Ireland, “whiskey” with the “e” is more common while in Scotland and Canada, they tend to leave out the “e.”

What are the ingredients to make whiskey?

Whisky is made from water, yeast, and grain. 

What country produces the most whiskey?

For well over a century, Scotland has been the world’s largest producer of whisky. 

What are the different types of whisky?

Bourbon, Tennessee, single-malt, rye, Irish, Scotch, Canadian, Japanese, and blended whisky. 

How is whisky produced?

First, the raw grain is malted and then mashed to remove the sugars from the grain. Next, yeast is added in order to jumpstart the fermentation process and produce a beer-like liquid that is then put through the distillation process, which increases the concentration of alcohol. Once the ideal ABV has been reached, the whisky is ready to be put in barrels for the aging process. After the whisky has been allowed to age and absorb more flavors from the barrel, it is ready to be bottled and sold to consumers. 

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