How Whisky is Made
The process is also fairly straightforward: it involves mashing the grain, fermenting it, distilling it, and then aging the distillate in wood barrels for a period of time.
Of course, the devil is in the details, as they say. 😉 There is considerable variation in how each of those steps is performed, and with what the starting materials exactly.
Single Malt vs Grain Whiskies
One of the biggest distinctions is probably between the traditional Scottish process for “single malt” whiskies and les autres (i.e., every other method). Simply put, “single malt” whiskies involve only the use of barley (of various strains) that is “malted” – which is a process whereby the grain is partially germinated to open up the kernel to allow access to the starchy interior for subsequent fermentation. Germination involves the release of natural enzymes that will help in the breakdown of the grain starch into sugar, necessary for the added yeast to do its work during fermentation. “Single malt” whiskies also have other restrictions, including the method of distillation (i.e., using small batch copper pot stills, as opposed to the more common continuous column distillation method). Please see my Single Malt vs Blends page for a fuller discussion.
There are in fact many regional variations – and often, specific country legislation – that defines aspects of the process for specific designations. An important point to keep in mind is that there is no “right” or “wrong” here, simply what has been chosen over time to represent the minimum standard of certain categories. You could easily fill up a whole blog just discussing the regional variations in whisky making across the world.
For that matter, there are also endless discussions around spelling – is that whiskey or whisky? These are generally arbitrary language distinctions, but Scotland, Canada and Japan typically refer to “whisky”, while America and Ireland refer to “whiskey”. For consistency, I have chosen to adopt the traditional Canadian spelling norms throughout this blog – which means calling it “whisky” (and for that matter, discussing things like “flavour” not “flavor”). I trust you will be able to follow along. 😉
Resources for More Information
There are plenty of websites out there with background information on the distillation process for making whisky. A good example is this page from the Beginner’s Guide on the Malt Madness site. Despite the title, it is actually a very detailed examination of all aspects of whisky production. For a simpler introduction, Whisky Advocate has a succinct Whisky 101 page that may be helpful to the casual reader. And the Whisky Science blog has a great technical page of pot still distillation (among other things).
If you want to know more about what traditionally constitutes a whisky in different countries, there are a lot of good resources online. You can check out the Scotch Whisky Association for the rules that govern scotch (although Wikipedia has a fairly succinct page on that point). Wikipedia is also a good starting point for American bourbons (which is a subtype of American whiskies). For Canadian whiskies though, I recommend you head straight to Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian whisky primer on canadianwhisky.org – there tends to be a lot of misunderstanding out there about my country’s native hooch online.