The Booze Street Journal: What is Whiskey?

Alcohol, one of many things that are so much better going down than coming up. A craft that is intricate and scientific so that we can forget how to be those things. For those of you that still try to act suave while getting hammered, the drink of choice is a fine aged spirit like whiskey. For most people, the question arises, what is whiskey? How do I know if it’s good? In the words of the famed host from Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!!!, ‘Let’s find out!’

What is it made of?

First thing to making whiskey are the ingredients: water, grain and yeast. These are the only things that make up any whiskey. From here, things can change though. It can taste slightly different depending on the pH of the water and the strain of yeast used for brewing, but only if you are super into whiskey. Where it gets real dicey grows from the grain. A whiskey can use barley, corn, rye and wheat. From there, the taste can change further depending on if the grain is malted (roasted with actual fire) or not, though this only really applied to barley. For example, Irish and Scotch whiskey will typically use barley with Scotch using mostly malted barely and Irish using not that much. Bourbon on the other hand, will use corn. So we have ingredients. Now we mix them up and make some spirit.

How do you turn water, grain and yeast into whiskey?

From here, the water and grain are mixed together and heated up. The grain then gets removed so all that’s left is a liquid called wort. Yeast is then added to the wort and it sits in a container for a few weeks to ferment. This is when all the alcohol begins to form. After it is done fermenting, you have a beer, but it would taste really bad so don’t drink it.

The beer then goes through a process called ‘distilling’. The mixture gets heated up in a big pot called a still, which looks something like this:

The process of distilling boils the beer and condenses it, making it more potent and creating the high alcohol volume. The length of the process depends on the type of whiskey being made. For a bourbon, the beer is distilled once. This means it goes through a still one time. For Scotch, the beer is distilled twice and for Irish Whiskey, it is distilled three times. After all that waiting and distilling, we get to the next step, more waiting.

What to do with all that spirit?

The next and possibly final step is casking the spirit. This is done in a wooden barrel typically made of ash, maple, or oak. The spirit will then sit in this cask for a year or more, depending on the type of whiskey. During this time, the spirit will pick up some of the flavorings from the wood that give the whiskey its taste. While this step is probably the most boring to watch, it is possibly the most important. Without the wood cask, whiskey would be much more bland, almost like a vodka. Watching people make casks is super interesting and awesome though (and will likely get its own article one day)!

After the spirit is done maturing in the wooden cask, the liquid is a full-fledged whiskey, ready for drinking. What usually happens next is it will be transferred from the cask into many regular-sized glass bottles. These bottles are what you will eventually buy in your local store.

What kind of whiskey should I get?

Shoot I don’t know. Personally, I am partial to Irish Whiskey, but that’s just me. Go out there and try them all! Each one is different in its own way, so the only way to find out if you should get it is if you try it and like it.

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