How to make whisky – The water of life

Fredrik Stockborg

“Hi! “I want to produce my own whisky. What will I need?”
“Well, good question. Time, patience and a large empty room. Oh, and lots of barley and water. And a little yeast.”

Making whisky is basically very similar to making beer. But instead of mixing malt, hops, yeast and water, you drop the hops and follow a slightly different process. Take the ripe barley and soak it in water for a few days. Then spread out the moist seed across a large flat surface and turn it over each day for a week or two. This process makes the barley begin to grow, with the enzymes converting the starch into sugar.

“Ok. Is that all?”
“I’m afraid not. “You’ll also need a malt kiln, a malt mill and a large tank.”

When the barley has germinated to around two-thirds of its length, it is time for it to be dried. This is done by supplying hot air from beneath using a malt kiln. At this stage of the process, it is possible to substantially affect the final result – for instance, the smokiness – by adding for example peat or brushwood to the fire in the kiln. The aim is to achieve a moisture of around four percent before grinding the barley into flour for fermentation.

“Flour? In whisky?”
“Yes indeed, this is the foundation of most alcoholic beverages. Fermenting sugar is a complicated process!”

During the mashing process, the flour is then mixed with hot water in a large tank, or tun. The trick is to achieve an even, balanced dilution of mash in order to extract the sugars from the flour. The sugar solution is then cooled down to 20 degrees to allow for the addition of yeast. One kilo of yeast is added for every 300 litres of sugar solution, with the resulting liquid is known as wort. The fermentation process is complete after two to four days, after which, in layman’s terms, the yeast has converted the sugar into carbon dioxide, resulting in a beer-like beverage containing around 8–9 percent alcohol.

“So how do I turn this into whisky?”
“Good question! You’ll need different kinds of large copper stills. Stripped to essentials, whisky is basically distilled beer; however, the distillation process is fundamental to how whisky is made.”

Distillation – in which the vapour is drawn from the mash – takes place in copper stills. The mash is normally distilled twice. Initially distilled in low wine stills, the fermented mash is then pumped into the pot still. The pot still makes it slightly easier to control the characteristics of the spirit. All in all, the distillation process takes around five to six hours. Among other factors, it is the shape of these stills which gives the whisky the desired characteristics.

“Cool! Is the whisky ready then?”
“Patience! That was one of the first things I said you needed to have. The next step is maturing the whisky in a cask. After that, you’ll only have to wait a few years until your product is ready to drink.”
“A few years?”
“Yep, at least three years for blended whiskies and preferably no less than 10 for single malts. In Scotland, it’s actually a legal requirement for Scotch whisky to be matured for at least three years and a day.”

The whisky is initially matured in oak casks, a wood which is highly durable and possesses breathing qualities. The type of oak used plays a key role in creating the flavour intended. Of less importance is the location, although everyone has their personal favourite sites and ideas. With each year that passes during maturation, the ABV (alcohol by volume) falls by around half a percent. This evaporation is commonly referred to as the Angel’s Share. The volume of liquid also drops, by around two percent a year. To imbue whisky with a distinctive character, it is usually finished in another type of cask – often sherry or port – before being bottled. 

“Wow, seems like time isn’t all it costs to make your own whisky.”
“Absolutely right. Oh yes, and you can only make it for private consumption. That’s unless you obtain all the necessary permits, in which case you’ve practically started up an entire company!”
“Hmm, I think I’ll go home, pour myself a dram and give it some thought…”


/ Fredrik Stockborg, Instagram: @maltteasers