Whiskey, the name seems to have originated from the effect of such drink on man. Try saying it couple of times, and it would seem as if you are beginning to lose co-ordination, repeating same thing as you would often do after having one and most likely sound gibberish. It sounds funny, right. Well, I guess there must be some better explanations on this subject.
I looked at couple of websites and here’s what “Answers” has to report on this subject
“An alcoholic liquor distilled from grain, such as corn, rye, or barley, and containing approximately 40 to 50 percent ethyl alcohol by volume.” This sounds so much exact, well lets read form Wikipedia to see, what they have to say on this “Whisky (Scottish Gaelic: uisge-beatha), or whiskey (Irish: uisce beatha or fuisce), refers to a broad category of alcoholic beverages that are distilled from fermented grain mash and aged in wooden casks (generally oak).”
In simple words, Whiskey is a kind of alcoholic beverage where alcohol part comes from fermented grain, unlike Rum where it comes from Molasses.
The second and more interesting part of this story is to understand the process by which usually Whisky is made. I would not go wide and deep and wont make it more complex by mentioning different kind of whiskies but would rather focus on the standard methods.
Constituents / Raw Material – Essentially water, yeast and grain. Water is very important as it gives that local flavor. You probably would have noticed that a same beer brand tastes pretty different in different cities depending upon the source of water. There are lot of things which are responsible for this viz. salt content in water, purity level, carbonated or not carbonated, iron and so on.
Step By Step of overall process
Step1 – Get grains and store them in silos. Clean it so as to remove dust and other unwanted impurities. If its barley then it needs to be malted. Malting means, soaking in water for sufficient time and then keep it spread open till it starts to sprout. After you get sprouts, a certain enzyme called ‘amylase’ (the name sounds familiar) converts the barley into sugars. Once sprouting starts, dry the barley and then ground it. If its not barley then ground it, mix it with water and pressure cook it at high temperature.
Step2 – Mashing. Mix cooked grain with malted barley and warm water. By now the amylase in malted barley would convert starch in other grains to sugar. This would go on and in the end you would get a sugary solution which is called mash. In case of scotch there is no other grain and the end result of mashed barley which has now converted into sugar is called wort.
Step 4 – Distilling. Heat the ‘wash’ so as to vaporise the alcohol. Collect the vapors in a condenser. The product of the initial distillation—known as low wine—is distilled a second time to produce a product known as high wine or new whiskey, which contains about 70% alcohol.
Step 5 – Aging. Whiskey is mostly aged in wooden barrels, charred white oak. White oak adds a flavor. During aging, three things happen. First is that water, alcohol and congeners (things added to remove smell, or add some taste after distillation) mix with each other over time. Second, is their reaction with oxygen and third is about the interaction with wood. Its pretty natural that this solution would absorb something from wood over time. All these factors contribute towards ageing. Typically it takes 3-5 years for a whiskey to mature. Of course you can find whiskeys which have been aged in excess of 10 years at a premium.
Step 6 – Blending. A single malt whiskey is not blended. So once its out of cask, its bottled. All other whiskeys are blended. Blending is a trickier and difficult part. Sometimes you need to add different batches so as to get one consistent flavor. Blending also means adding more things for flavor like neutral grain spirit. Caramel addition helps in getting a color, sheery or wine also helps in blending for flavor reasons. There are some scotch whiskeys which are blended from a no of single malt whiskeys.
Step 7 – Bottling. Put it in a glass bottle, seal it and you are good. These days most of the bottling is automated.
Add water to make it drinkable. I know most of us want our whiskey on the rocks but still the ones which we have is usually less then 50% alcohol. So read it again if it overwhelmed you. The pictures are from internet and I didn’t shoot them, yet to visit a distillery but I am sure that if I get a chance to visit I am much more prepared.