If all it takes to become a saint is to perform a miracle, don’t you think distillers should be canonised? Turning simple grain into the wonderful spirits that grace our glencairns, that’s surely the work of a divine force. But for you sceptics, here’s how whisky is made.
I don’t know how many distilleries I’ve visited or how many distillers I’ve had explain the process to me. It still seems like some kind of unearthly magic.
You sprout and roast barley, add yeast and water then put it all in a big copper kettle… and it just suddenly becomes whisky? Really?
I can’t help feeling that they’re keeping something back from me. Surely there’s some extra secret; an incantation or hidden panel, doves tucked up sleeves, rabbits in the swan neck…
Or maybe I have indeed seen inside the ‘magic circle of distilling’.
With a twist of the moustache and flourish of a wand, this is how making whisky works - if what those crafty distillers have told me is true:
How Australian whisky is made - the basics in 7 steps
First the distiller chooses their grain. In Australia, we have a bit of freedom compared to places like Scotland, where you only use malted barley to make single malt scotch.
The distiller can even use corn or maize to make a bourbon style whisky. Click here of you want to know more about the different whisk(e)y styles.
The grains are 'malted', where they're soaked and spread out on a malting floor for around eight days until they start to sprout. Some distillers malt their own grain, but not many.
Then the grain is dried and sometimes heated enough to roast it.
Once milled, the malted grain goes into warm water (at about 65°C), which converts the carbohydrates in the grain into simple sugars. This liquid is called a mash.
Moving the mash into a fermentation tank, the distiller then adds yeast, which gobbles up the sugars and excreting - among other things - alcohol and turning the mash into a kind of unhopped beer.
After three or four days, the ‘beer’ is at about 10% alcohol and is known as wash.
The distiller moves the wash into the copper still and heats the wash to turn the alcohol to vapour. The vapour returns to liquid form in a condenser, leaving about two thirds of the water and other stuff in the wash.
This is called 'low wines' and is at about 30% ABV.
This process is repeated a second time (and usually a third time for Irish whiskey) to create what’s called ‘high wine’ or new-make whisky, a clear spirit that’s close to 75% ABV.
Water is added to the new-make to bring it down from near pure alcohol to barrel-strength - between 50-75%. It’s then transferred to wooden casks to age.
What wood the distiller chooses for his barrels will make a big difference to the style of the whisky. In the States, whiskey must be first aged in new American oak barrels.
In Australia, we’re free to choose our barrel types, though Australian whisky must stay in barrels for a minimum of three years.
In that time, the spirit will soak into the wood, bringing out much of the whisky’s flavour, colour and body.
The whisky will also slowly ‘vanish’ from the barrels due to evaporation and absorption. This is called the angels’ share, which you can read about here.
Once the whisky has reached its desired maturity, more water is added to dilute the ABV and develop flavours and texture before it goes into glass bottles. The whisky’s flavour won’t change any further from here.
So now you know a bit more about how whisky’s made and the incredible effort that goes into every bottle.
It’s time to raise a glass to those clever wizards behind the still and truly appreciate all their hard work (and magic).