Whiskey: A Primer: Part One

(Note: I realized halfway through writing this post that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. However, I shall venture forth regardless, and invite you to learn along with me! If I’ve made any inaccurate statements (which I’m sure I have), I apologize, and invite you to correct me (gently!) in the comments. I promise that I’ll accept any such criticism with all due humility. -JM)

The recent changes in the Washington State liquor laws behoove me to turn my otherwise wine-and-beer focused mind on a completely new category: Spirits! And since this blog exists as nothing if not a conduit for my own learning (and hopefully for yours as well, gentle reader), I’m beginning a new series of posts. In this series, I intend to examine the types of spirits, their various styles and methods of production, and how they come across on the palate. Since this is (of course) for my own edification in large part, I’ll begin with my personal favorite type of liquor: Whiskey!

First, let’s define our terms and come to a consensus on what we precisely mean when we use the terms ‘liquor’ or (synonymically) ‘spirits.’ Merriam-Webster defines liquor as ” a usually distilled rather than fermented alcoholic beverage,” but that isn’t quite accurate for our purposes. When we talk about liquor or spirits (which I’ll just call spirits for the sake of convenience) we’re discussing only the alcoholic product of a distillation process. Furthermore, this distillate is in fact the end product of both fermentation and distillation, since it is a fermented product that is distilled. With this in mind, let’s use our subject, whiskey, as an example.

The original fermented product used in the production of whiskey is made of grain mash. Grains (barley, rye, wheat, corn) are the original source of the sugar that is fermented into alcohol. If it’s barley or rye, then at least some of the grains have to be malted before fermentation can begin. As that oh-so-reliable source Wikipedia states: “The grains are made to germinate by soaking in water, and are then halted from germinating further by drying with hot air.” During germination, an enzyme is produced that converts many of the starches contained in the grain into sugars that can be converted into alcohol during the fermentation process. These malted grains are often added to a mixture of other grains. This grain mixture is combined with water (which, confusingly, is called the ‘liquor’) and this combination is known as the mash. The mash is heated, and the enzymes created during germination conduct their chemical processes and thus convert the grain’s starches into fermentable sugar. The sugars dissolve into the water and this sugar-saturated water solution is separated from the grain’s solids. This solution is now known as the wort.

Alright, so at this point we’ve gotten a key ingredient to any alcoholic beverage: A bunch of sugar combined with water. The method of acquisition may seem tedious and overly complicated – after all, can’t you just dissolve some table sugar in tap water? – but lends essential flavors to the end product. Basically, along with the sugars from the grain mash, the wort takes away delicate polyphenols that affect the flavor of the end product. The other key element to flavor development at this point is the water. There are innumerable (well, they probably are numerable, but I don’t intend to numerate them) mineral elements within water that affect the end flavor result, as well as vegetal particulate that may be solute within water. These factors vary wildly from water source to water source; one example of effects of water source on whiskey is the presence of peat particulate in water used in Scotch production. This is one element that contributes to the level of smokiness that varies so much in different Scotches (though the use of peat fires in drying the malted grains affects the level of smokiness even more). I’m not going to go into the whole ‘water influence’ thing too much more because, frankly, I’m not expert enough. However, suffice it to say, it’s kind of a big deal.

Back to something I’m more comfortable with: Fermentation. The water/sugar solution known as the wort is fermented. The end result of this is known as the beer or the wash – basically a water/alcohol solution (with polyphenols and other things that add flavor and uniqueness and the magic that is what makes the whole “beverage” thing so ephemeral, but mostly just water & alcohol). The wash is distilled, and this too is a pretty straightforward process.

(Note: Whenever I say ‘alcohol,’ I mean ethanol, not methanol or any of the other non-tasty forms of alcohol.)

Distillation: The process by which one substance is separated from another through the intervention of heat. Basically, this is possible because different substances (such as water and alcohol) have different boiling temperatures. Water (boiling point 100 degrees celsius) has a higher boiling point than alcohol (78 degrees celsius). Therefore, when heat is applied to a water/alcohol solution at a level at or above 78 degrees celsius but below 100 degrees celsius, the alcohol is converted into a gaseous form but (most of) the water remains liquid. If the alcohol is then trapped and reverted back into a liquid form (along with some water steam), the end result is what the Scottish call the low wine, a mixture of alcohol, water, and volatile esters that comes out at a little more than 20 percent alcohol. During this process, the first part and last part of the distillate – what American distillers call the heads and tails – are removed, because they contain either toxic elements (such as methanol, though apparently that’s not really as much of an issue with grain alcohol as it is with distillate of grapes or other fruits) or just nasty-tasting esters. Anyway, the middle two-thirds-ish is what makes the cut, and what becomes the low wine. The low wine is then redistilled – at least a second time, but sometimes three or up to twenty times. These additional distillations increase the alcohol content of the resulting spirit.

So that’s it, right? Bing-bang-boom, fermentation + distillation = spirit, right? Not so fast. Up until now, we’ve really been talking about distillation and not necessarily what makes whiskey unique and individual (other than the use of particular grains for production, and the use of peat in the Scottish malting process). This is the point in production where it begins to take on its individual characteristics, and where methods diverge amongst regional producers, thusly developing into what is labeled ‘Scotch,’ ‘Irish Whiskey,’ ‘Bourbon,’ et cetera. Labeling requirements include percentages of certain grains, length of barrel aging, region of production, blending methods, and approved additives. Most whiskey (okay, pretty much all quality whiskey) spends at least three years in barrel (most often more) to give it that rich, caramelly deliciousness that we all know and love. But there are more specifications! Stay tuned for the details in Whiskey: A Primer: Part 2, in which I’ll go into cooperage (that is, barrel-making), whiskey-making regions, and anything else that I’ve missed.