What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled liquor made from fermented grain mash. What? You don’t know what distillation is? Or fermented grain mash is? You’ve come to the right place to find answers to some questions you may have.
Whiskey is a general term. The United States, Scotland, Canada, India, Ireland, Japan and other countries all make their own version of Whiskey or Whisky. For the purposes of this document we are focusing on the whiskies commonly produced in the United States of America.
The Whiskey Making Process
This PDF has takes an in-depth look into making whiskey. Check it out if you have time, but here is a general explanation of how whiskey is made in America:
The first step in making any whiskey is the selection of the ingredients which make up the “mash bill” of the whiskey. “Mash bill” is just a fancy word for recipe and it contains what ingredients and their quantities that will go into making the whiskey. As you’ll read later on, certain whiskey’s have strict standards and laws that require them to have a certain mash bill.
Here are some of the Grains or Cereals that may make up the Mash bill:
After the ingredients have been milled, or crushed and ground down, they are ready for mashing.
Mashing is the process of combining milled grains with water and heating the mixture up. By heating this mixture it allows the enzymes from the malt to break down starches into sugars. After heating the solids left over from the mashing process are separated from the liquid, called the “wash”. The wash contains all the sugars created during mashing and are used in fermentation.
The Mash sitting in a specialized vat called a mash tun.
Fermentation is the process which occurs when the sugars in the wash made from the mashing process are broken down by yeast to create carbon dioxide and alcohol, as well as some compounds that add flavor to the whiskey. This process may take a few days and when it’s completed the alcohol is ready for distilling.
Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water by boiling the alcohol out of the water. Because water has a higher boiling point than alcohol, the mixture created from the fermentation process can be heated to extract the alcohol.
The alcohol is recovered by using specialized boiling and cooling equipment. A still is used to boil the fermented grain mash. As heat is applied to the still, alcohol vapors begin to travel upwards where they are directed to a condenser. The condenser is an apparatus that cools the alcohol vapor and returns (condenses) it back into a liquid. The condenser is often a large coil cooled by a cold water bath in order to speed up the collection of alcohol. Once the alcohol has exited the condenser it is collected and prepared for maturing (or charcoal filtering, please see below). This unmatured alcohol is referred to as “white dog”, “white whiskey”, “moonshine” and other nicknames.
Maturing of whiskey, or aging, is done in oak barrels. Oak staves are formed into a ring and coopered. The barrels then pass through a firing process to char the inside of the barrel. This charring is what gives whiskey most, if not all, of its signature brown color. The barrels are then capped and ready for whiskey. Here’s a good video of a Cooperage factory.
Some whiskies are required to be aged in new charred oak, while others have no such requirement and are often aged in barrels previously used to age bourbon, port, sherry or rum. The length of time a whiskey is left in the barrel greatly affects the end product. Whiskies that have been aged for long periods of time are often the most complex tasting and smoother at high ABVs. In some cases, additional staves are added to the inside of the barrels to impart new flavors to the whiskey. Maker’s 46 is an example of this. Aging in barrels has two main effects: flavors from the wood are imparted to the whiskey, and small amounts of oxygen are allowed to interact with it via the pores in the barrels.
Finishing a whiskey means taking the whiskey from it’s original barrel and placing it into another barrel. The second barrel in which the whiskey ages may have been used previously to age wine or rum. Finishing imparts certain characteristics of the previously used barrel into the whiskey. After a whiskey is aged it is ready for the optional filtering and dilution steps. Two types of filtering are common to whiskey production: Chill Filtering and Charcoal Filtering.
Chill filtering: Often times a distillery may choose to chill filter their whiskey before bottling it. Chill filtering is the process of reducing the temperature of a whiskey, usually to a range of 14F to 39F (-10c to 4c), and passed through a fine adsorption filter. The lower temperature of the whiskey causes some of the fatty acids, proteins and esters (created during the distillation process) to be removed from the whiskey via the adsorption filter. This prevents the whiskey from turning hazy while in the bottle, when served, when chilled or when water or ice is added. Typically, the hazing only occurs in whiskey bottled at less than 46% ABV (92 Proof).
Chill filtering is not without some possible drawbacks. Any time something is removed from the whiskey the flavor may be changed. Some distilleries will pride themselves on non-chill filtering and many whiskies bottled above 46% ABV (92 Proof) do not go through the chill filtering process and are labeled as “Non Chill Filtered.”
Charcoal filtering can be done before and after maturing. A nickname for the most famous type of charcoal filtering is “The Lincoln Country Process”. It is employed most famously by Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey however other whiskey producers use this process. This type of filtering is done by filtering the whiskey over charcoal made from charred sugar maple. The maple is brought to the state of char, extinguished with water, then ground down and placed into columns where the whiskey is poured over the chips.
Activated charcoal, or nearly pure charcoal, is used in adsorption filters for the chill filtering process. This is similar to a Britta filter however it is performed in a much larger scale.
After the whiskey is done being aged, filtered and finished it is ready for bottling. Most whiskey distillers will dilute their whiskies down to a specific percentage of alcohol (ABV or alcohol by volume) while others will sell their whiskey at barrel strength. Barrel strength, or cask strength, simply means that the whiskey is bottled at the same strength it comes out of the barrel.
No more aging happens once bottled.
Major Styles of American Whiskey
Bourbon Whiskey – Bourbon can only be made in America. The grains used in production must be at least 51% corn, the rest can be comprised of other cereal grains. Bourbon must come off the still at or below 80% ABV, and then be aged in a brand new charred oak at or below 62.5% ABV. There is no minimum time needed in a barrel to be called “bourbon” however like all American Whiskeys, if it is aged less than 4 years it must carry an age statement.
Most bourbons are 70-80% corn with the remaining recipe being comprised of 2 grains, malted barley and either rye or wheat. Bourbons with wheat as the third grain are often called “wheated”. Bourbons with rye as the third grain are often called “low rye” or “high rye” based on what percentage of the mash bill is rye. A bourbon with a grain recipe above 12-15% rye is usually considered a “high rye” bourbon. Maker’s Mark is an example of a wheated bourbon and Bulleit Bourbon is an example of a high rye bourbon.
Rye Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey or Malt Whiskey – Must meet all the same aging and distilling requirements as bourbon but the grain recipe must be at least 51% rye, wheat, or malted barley respectively. Unlike bourbon, rye whiskey can contain up to 2% added flavoring unless it is labeled straight.
Corn whiskey – The Federal government defines corn whiskey as a whiskey with a mash bill of at least 80% corn. Like bourbon it cannot be distilled at more than 80% ABV. If a corn whiskey is aged it may be aged in new un-charred barrels or used barrels and not at more than 62.5% ABV. It cannot be subjected in any manner or treatment to charred wood. Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey is an example of a corn whiskey.
Straight Whiskey – Any of the above can be labeled “straight” if it is aged in it’s barrel for at least 2 years though it must carry an age statement if aged less than 4 years.
Tennessee Whiskey – The US Government does not define Tennessee Whiskey in its Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. Definitions exist in the North American Free Trade Agreement which define it as “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee.” Tennessee law also has a more strict definition which mostly mirrors the definition of Bourbon but also requires “Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee” and “Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging”. The latter is referred to as the “Lincoln County Process.” Most Tennessee Whiskies could be labeled bourbon but the producer chooses the Tennessee Whiskey labeling instead. Jack Daniel’s is an example of Tennessee Whiskey.
Blended Whiskey – is whiskey which contains at least 20% straight whiskey. The rest of the contents may be made up of neutral grain spirits and the blend may be colored. Per the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits if a blend contains 51% of a particular straight whiskey it may be designated as a blend of that whiskey. for example: A blended whiskey containing 51% straight rye whiskey may be referred to as Blended Rye Whiskey.
Other Terms and Styles
Bottled in Bond or Bonded refers to a spirit, like whiskey, that was has been distilled by one distiller during one distillation season and has been aged, for at least 4 years, in a federally bonded warehouse. The whiskey must be bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), have the name and location of the distillery and, if different, where it was bottled on the label.
Sour Mash is a term used to describe the process of adding some of the previously used mash into the new mash. This starts the fermentation process by introducing the exact yeast strain of the previous batch into the new mash. The acids introduced by the sour mash help to control unwanted bacterias that may damage the whiskey. The acids introduced also help to adjust the PH balance of the mash to allow the new yeast to work more efficiently.
Small Batch whiskey is a term that is not regulated by the US Federal government. Typically small batch bourbons uses less than 1,000 gallons of whiskey to create their small batch bourbons (About 20 barrels).
Single Barrel whiskey is a term that is not regulated by the US Federal government. It means that the whiskey in the bottle comes only from one single barrel. A blend is not used at all to create the end product.
Proof and Alcohol By Volume (ABV). What are they?
Alcohol by volume is the amount of alcohol a whiskey contains presented as percentage. A 50% ABV whiskey means one half of the bottles contents are ethanol alcohol. Proof, in the United States of America, is always double the percentage. A 50% ABV whiskey is a 100 proof.
Where do these rules come from?
The United States of America Federal Government created them. The federal guidelines for defining the identity of a spirit are officially called the, “Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits” You can look up the law here: The Federal Standard for Distilled Spirits.
An age statement is often predominantly featured on bottles of higher tier whiskey (especially Scotch whisky). An age statement is the length of time the youngest whiskey has been aged. For example, a 12 year old whiskey means all of the whiskey in the bottle was aged at least 12 years. However, there may be whiskey that is 13+ years put into the bottle.
Do not be fooled by age statements. Just because a bottle of whiskey has been aged longer does not mean it is “better”. Many distillers contend their whiskies have a sweet spot that is significantly younger than 10 years old. This is called “Aged to Taste”.
Store in a cool, dry place with a mostly stable temperature year-round.
Avoid direct sunlight, which can cause damage.
Store upright only. Contact with cork is not recommended. (more on that below)
Unopened bottles can be stored for decades without flavor/aroma loss.
Opened bottle are affected by air very slowly. However the more air in the bottle the more effect it will have and weaken the malt.
Expensive bottles can be transferred to smaller bottles if you know you will be letting it sit a long time and want to decrease the air contact with the whisky.
Decanters are not recommended as older crystal can leach lead into the whisky and also aerating the contents when transferring is not recommended.
A cork is a stopper used in the opening of a bottle to stop the contents of the bottle from spilling out during transport and storage. The cork also helps to prevent evaporation of the liquid inside of the bottle. Cork comes in two varieties: Natural and Synthetic. A natural cork is made from the bark of the cork oak tree. This special type of oak has developed an extremely thick yet lightweight, fire resistant, rot resistant, termite resistant, impermeable to to gas and liquid, soft and buoyant bark as an adaptation to it’s harsh mediterranean environment.
The bark is stripped from a cork oak tree that is at least 25 years old. Following the initial harvest it can be re-harvested after 8-14 years. Once the bark is removed from the tree it is washed by boiling and removing the rough outer layer of the bark. Aside from cleansing, boiling of the bark softens the inner bark making it easier to work with. Next the cork slabs are punched for bottle stoppers. These stoppers can then have a branding applied or be printed on with the name or logo of the ordering company.
Natural corks are excellent for plugging the top of your whiskey bottle, but they aren’t without their drawbacks. Corks are made from a naturally occurring substance and can break down. This is especially true in a whiskey bottle. When a cork is used in a wine bottle, typically it is removed once. A whiskey bottle’s cork may be removed many times which can damage the cork and speed up it’s break down. When a cork does break down, or just break, it can wreck the whiskey in the bottle. Not only do little bits of cork ruin the texture of the whiskey but the high alcohol content (remember at least 40%!) can dissolve the cork and take on some nasty flavors.
If a cork breaks apart in a bottle of whiskey, immediately dump the whiskey into another container. Rinse the bottle without using soap to clear all the cork bits out. Then run the whiskey through a metal strainer a few times. After the whiskey is clear of the cork debris transfer it back to the original bottle. Replacement synthetic stoppers are available for purchase at most home good stores.
Synthetic cork is a cork made of plastic and is used in the same fashion as a natural cork stopper. It does not break down the same as a natural cork does and is also impermeable to liquid and vapors.
Screw caps, while not corks per se, are also a means of sealing a whiskey bottle. Many mass market or “lower shelf” whiskies employ this method of sealing their bottles. Higher end whiskies will often employ a cork as a cork is viewed more favorably in certain markets. Screw caps may become brittle with age and allow air to enter the whiskey bottle.
How to Enjoy and Taste Whiskey
The golden rule of drinking whiskey is to drink it the way you prefer. Here’s a few to try:
On-the-rocks is a popular way to drink whiskey, and it is great for blends or cheaper whiskies. On-the-rocks simply means served in a glass with ice cubes.
Whiskey and… Whiskey is an excellent cocktail ingredient. Whiskey and Cola, Mint Juleps and Manhattans are examples of whiskey based cocktails.
Straight-up means shaken with ice and then poured into a glass.
Whiskey with water means what it sounds like. The amount can be a drop or spoonful or however much you want to dilute it. Some like to dilute higher proof whiskey down to 40%. In the southern US, it may be called “Whiskey with a branch”.
Neat is no ice, no water. Whiskey only in the glass at about room temperature.
Drinking whiskey neat is not something many can do when they first start out tasting whiskies. Adding water to a whiskey is a way of reducing the alcohol burn that may make drinking whiskey neat intolerable. Tastes and sensitivities vary from person to person but your palate will mature over time. Many highly regarded whiskey enthusiasts prefer to experience whiskey neat or with a small amount of water. When tasting a whiskey to it is advisable to avoid ice as it dilutes the whiskey and mute the flavors the colder a beverage gets. It is generally accepted that the best way to experience all of the flavors of a whiskey is by drinking it neat.
If you do add water it should be filtered and very clean, preferably distilled water. Tap water may contain iron deposits and chlorine which can dramatically alter the way a whiskey tastes.
If you wish to cool your whiskey without water, whiskey stones are an option. Whiskey stones are small cubed pieces of soapstone store in your freezer. When frozen they can be added to a glass of whiskey to reduce its temperature without dilution. Be cautious though as the whiskey stones may absorb flavors from previous whiskeys and alter the flavor of the whiskey in the glass. Chilling your glass is an option as well. Just place it in the freezer until you are ready to use it.
However you choose to enjoy your whisky, share your knowledge with others gracefully. Don’t tell them they’re enjoying it wrong and don’t be a whisky hipster.
The glass is an important part of any tasting. Any glass can be used to drink whisky but some can heighten the experience. Here are a couple recommended glasses:
12 3 4
1. The Tumbler. A cylinder glass with heavy bottom. Recommended for use when drinking with Ice cubes.
2. The Snifter. Balloon shaped glass with stem, very common at bars for Brandy or Scotch.
3. The Copita. A small wine style glass with a narrow opening. By holding the stem you won’t warm your whisky.
4. The Glencairn. specifically designed for drinking Whisky It combines the Copita with the Tumbler.
Who makes which American Whiskeys?
A list of major US distillers, the brands they produce and the mash bills used can be found here.