Spirits made from grains such as corn, barley, and rye date back a few thousand years—ancient Egyptians enjoyed a form of beer, for example. Whiskey, however, is of more recent origin. Although whiskey has been made for centuries, few people know much about it, other than it’s something to drink.
Unlike wine, whiskey is distilled, rather than fermented. Scholars believe that the process of distillation was developed during the Middle Ages by Irish or Scottish monks. Whiskey was first distilled sometime during the 15th century, although historians argue about the precise date.
Over the years, equipment and technology has evolved to make the finished product more consistent and uniform, but the fundamentals of the distillation process have not changed drastically since they were first perfected. If a modern distiller traveled back in time, he would understand what the 16th century distiller was doing, and a Renaissance distiller brought to one of today’s large distilleries would likely recognize the major phases of making whiskey, too.
Whiskey is a Distilled Spirit
Whiskey can be made from a variety of grains, but barely is used most often. Barley seeds are soaked for a few days, until they germinate. After they do, they are baked in a kiln to kill the process. During germination, the seed produces sugars that will later be fermented, creating alcohol, via a chemical process similar to what takes place while making beer.
This initial fermentation will produce a spirit with alcohol by volume levels of approximately 15%. Whiskey, however, is always more than double the alcohol content of beer; whiskey is usually 35-40% alcohol by volume, or 70-80 proof. To reach the higher alcohol levels, whiskey is distilled subsequent to its fermentation.
The Artistry of Making Whiskey
Once the spirit has been distilled, an element of artistry is introduced into the process. The distiller can make choices that influence the color, aroma and flavor of the eventual product. He can choose to create a “Single Malt” whiskey, restricting his product to results from a single distillery, or make a “Blended Malt” from output collected from numerous distilleries and batches to produce the target characteristics of a given brand.
A spirit must stay in the barrel for at least three years to be sold as whiskey. However, a good whiskey is usually aged a minimum of 10 years.
After the distillation and blending, if applicable, the spirit is still clear. The distiller fills oak casks, or barrels, with the clear spirit. It must stay in the barrel for at least three years to be sold as whiskey, per regulations; however, a good whiskey or scotch has almost always spent at least ten years in the barrel.
The barrels themselves are often used barrels, having previously held sherry, bourbon, wine or any number of other beverages. In the barrel, the spirit gets color from the wood, but a small amount of caramel color is permitted, too.
Whiskey does not improve with age in the bottle. It is released to the market when it is ready to drink.