A wise, well-whiskered man once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”1 That man was named Samuel Clemens, but you probably know him as Mark Twain—iconic American writer and famed whiskey enthusiast.
If you and Twain have a love of whiskey in common, you might be wondering what goes into the process of making that beautiful, burning beverage.
Grab a seat, and your favorite sipping-whiskey—this is your go-to guide for how distillers take a few simple ingredients and transform them into liquid sunshine.
Whiskey or Whisky? A Quick Note On Etymology
How is whisky made? It’s mostly the same as how whiskey (spelled with an e) is made. It really just depends on where it’s made.2
- Whisky (no e) is the only whiskey produced in Scotland
- Whiskey (with an e) is any whiskey produced anywhere. Some of the more well-known examples include Tennessee Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, malt whiskey, Bourbon whiskey, etc.
(Your leveling up has already begun)
Whiskey’s Main Ingredients
Nowadays, innovation has brought us all sorts of takes on whiskey, from premixed cocktail flasks to SLIQ’s alcohol ice pops. No matter the fancy final flavor, all whiskey starts with a few basic ingredients:3
- Grain – Wheat, barley, rye, and corn are mixed in different ratios to create different types of whiskey.
- Yeast – Yeast is the biological agent used to kick off the fermentation process—a requisite when making any alcohol.
- Water – Water goes into the initial fermentation mixture and is also added before aging to achieve the correct quantity of liquid and alcohol by volume.
- Time – Whiskey isn’t whiskey until it’s aged in a wooden barrel or cask for at least two years.
The Whiskey Making Process
Distilling is a complex, fascinating sort of alchemy. What to our ancestors may have seemed like magic has now been broken down into an exact science. Here are the individual steps of the whiskey making process.3
1. Make the Mash
Whiskey makers start by combining their base ingredients into a mash. Ratios for this initial mixture are a large part of what distinguishes different types of whiskies:4
- Bourbon mash must be comprised of at least 51% corn.
- Rye mash must be comprised of at least 51% rye.
- Scotch mash must contain only one type of grain– malted barley.
2. Foment Fermentation
With the addition of yeast to the mash, the process of fermentation begins. Over time, the yeast (comprised of single-celled living organisms) consumes starch molecules from the grain in the mash. The byproduct of that all-you-can-eat feast for yeast? Booze.
By breaking down these molecules into ethanol, alcohol, and sugar, the yeast produces the liquid base for whiskey.
Type and strain of yeast are very important in determining the end flavor of the whiskey. In fact, fabled whiskey maker Jim Beam considered his yeast to be so precious that he used to escort it to and from the factory daily, ensuring it stayed safe and sound.4
3. Strain the Solids
Once the fermentation process is complete, whiskey-makers strain the remnants of the solid mash away from the liquid. The solids are discarded, and the liquids continue on to complete their transformation.
4. Distill it Down
Distillation is one of the most crucial processes of whisky production. Distillation requires the heating of a liquid to the point of evaporation. The evaporate is collected and cooled back into a liquid form with fewer impurities.
Distillation is an involved and intricate process all on its own. Here are a few interesting tidbits about whiskey distillation:
- Not all of the distilled mixture can be used. The first third of it that is collected will contain acetone and must be discarded. The second third is usable, and the final third can be further distilled.
- Whiskey is frequently triple distilled. In fact, triple distillation is a key element in making Irish style whiskey. However, Scottish whisky (scotch) is only ever double-distilled.
- Distillation mechanisms come in two types: column stills and pot stills. Column stills allow for continuous distillation, while pot stills must be changed over between batches.
The distillery equipment is just as essential as the distillation itself because any defect can wreck the process and ruin the whiskey’s quality.
5. Allow it to Age, Dilute, and Distribute
Whiskey is always aged in wood containers, whether they be casks or barrels (although most whiskey makers prefer an oak barrel). The environment of these containers has a huge effect on the final flavor, from humidity to the type of wood used in the barrels to the temperature in the air where they’re stored.
Once the whiskey has been adequately aged (whether that means two years or twenty), it’s diluted with fresh water, bottled, and shipped to eager consumers across the globe.
Discover Whiskey’s Freshest Twist with SLIQ
Congrats! You’ve earned the right to identify yourself as a burgeoning whiskey expert. You deserve a drink—or hey, how about a whiskey cocktail pop?
SLIQ’s new line of frozen whiskey ice pops are the latest craze in the world of whiskey. Pick up a variety pack and host a tasting of three premium flavors.
- Apple will remind you of that first bite of sun-ripened fruit picked straight from the tree (paired with a smooth whiskey finish, of course).
- Ginger keeps things spicy, even when it’s frozen.
- Cola is a refreshing classic, updated for the modern age.
You can enjoy them as is, or you can crush them up and turn them into a creative blended whiskey drink – check out our blog posts about fruity whiskey drinks and whiskey slush recipes for more info. Either way, good times call for great whiskey—pack your cooler with SLIQ whiskey ice pops to let them roll.
- The Manual. The 9 Best Whiskey Quotes of All Time. https://www.themanual.com/food-and-drink/best-whiskey-quotes/
- The Three Drinkers. Unusual Facts About Whiskey. https://www.thethreedrinkers.com/magazine-content/unusual-facts-about-whisky
- Masterclass. How Whiskey is Made… https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-whiskey-made-of-explained#what-is-whiskey-made-from
- Eater. An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey. https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/8/13/9113965/whiskey-guide#:~:text=The%20mash%20bill%20of%20a,definition%20100%20percent%20malted%20barley