There has been a recent surge in the popularity of craft whisky in the past few years. Many of these small batch whiskies are made by small distilleries with a handful of employees.
This has led more whisky drinkers to wonder if they could also start making whisky — after all, it only contains three ingredients (grains, water, and yeast). You’ll be happy to discover that making whisky is a fairly simple process, which I’ll share in this post.
Before You Begin – Legal Considerations
Before purchasing any ingredients or equipment, it’s important to remember that distillation of spirits at home is illegal in some areas of the USA (and other countries). Check your federal, state, and local laws to confirm home distillation is legal.
You should also remember that distillation is a potentially dangerous process. There will be a lot of heat generated and alcohol vapour is flammable.
If you don’t use a well-maintained still, there is a risk of a blockage occurring, which can cause alcoholic vapours to leave the still and be ignited.
Making Whisky At Home
Step 1: Choosing Your Ingredients
Whisky is made from a fermented grain mash that is distilled and aged in wooden casks. The type of grain you use in the mash will have a significant influence over how the finished product tastes. The most common options are:
Malted barley is barley that is submerged in water and allowed to germinate before being dried. Almost all whiskies include some malted barley in their mash as it adds enzymes that are essential for converting long-chain carbohydrates into simpler sugars.
Single malt whiskies will use 100% malted barley. You can expose your malted barley to peat smoke to impart the smokey flavour found in many single malt Scotch whiskeys.
Un-malted barley will enhance the grainy flavours of the whisky, adding some sour fruity notes, including citrus and green apple.
Corn is the main component of bourbon whiskys. It is cheap and easily obtainable, which makes it a great choice for a novice whisky maker.
Early American settlers switched from barley to rye because rye was much more common. Adding rye to a mash imparts spicy flavours (pepper, anise, mint) and a dry mouthfeel.
Adding wheat to a mash can soften the spirit, adding some honey, bread/toast flavours, and a hint of mint.
Many home distillers start with mash that is mostly corn because it is easily obtainable and very cheap to buy. However, if you prefer the taste of Scotch whisky, use malted barley.
In the example below, we’ll be creating a single malt whisky with the following ingredients:
- 10 kilos Barley Malt
- 40 litres Water
In terms of equipment, you will need:
- Small Still (available on eBay or from home-brew shops)
- Large wooden spoon
- Very large pot with lid (for cooking the mash)
- Small wooden whisky cask (oak)
Step 2: Prepare your grains
The grains need to be crushed to make it easier to extract starches, sugars, and enzymes during the mashing process. While it is possible to buy pre-crushed grains, many amateur whisky makers prefer to crush the grains themselves.
If you decide to crush your own grains, your goal will be to break the husks from the kernel of the grain. The husks should remain intact while the kernels are ground into small pieces. Be careful not to over-grind the grain, as it will become flour (unsuitable for whiskey-making).
There are several ways to grind grains, including:
- Electric grain mills
- Roller mills (Powered or hand operated)
- Coffee grinders and Food processors (a bit hit and miss)
- A rolling pin (simple and cheap)
Step 3: Cook Your Mash
Heat the water in a large container until it reaches 70°C. Slowly pour the milled grain into the water and agitate it with a wooden spoon. This solution is your “mash”.
Reduce the temperature to about 65°C and place a lid on top of the container. You will now maintain this temperate for at least 90 minutes.
Give the mash a stir every 10 to 15 minutes. As this process continues, the grains will sink to the bottom of the vessel and a sugar-rich layer will appear on top.
After 90 minutes, rapidly cool the contents of the mash by placing it in a cold bath. Your goal is to drop the temperature of the mash to below 25°C as quickly as possible.
Step 4: Fermentation
Pour the cooled solution into a home brew fermenter. The yeast should be diluted according to manufacturer instructions then added to the fermenter. Stir it in slowly before sealing the container.
Place the fermenter in a dark room that has a temperature of between 18°C to 25°C. Add an airlock to the fermenter, to allow carbon dioxide to leave the container without letting any air in.
The fermentation period can last anywhere between 5 to 15 days, based on the room’s temperature and wort’s yeast activity. Once the airlock is no longer bubbling and the solution take on a clearer appearance, fermentation is complete.
Step 5: Distillation
The fermented solution is called a wash. Pour the wash through a colander into another container to collect the spent grains. Discard the grains, or throw them into the garden (they are great fertiliser).
Next, distill the solution using the instructions that came with your still. Discard the first 100 ml of alcohol produced by the still as it will be extremely strong. The last part of the alcohol produced by the still should also be discarded.
You are looking to capture the middle 60% to 80%, as it contains the volatile compounds which make a delicious whisky.
Step 6: Maturation
At this point, you will have a very strong white whisky, which needs to be aged to take on the characteristics of a Scotch whisky. Place your whisky into a small oak barrel for at least 6 months.
Feel free to try different types of wooden casks. Ideally, find barrels that were once used to house bourbon or sherry, as this will improve the flavour of your whisky even more.
After 6 months, open the cask and have a small taste. If it doesn’t live up to your expectations, seal it up and let it mature longer.
Making whisky is a process if trial and error, so keep experimenting with different ingredients and maturation techniques.