How Whiskey Is Produced


Often considered to be the great American spirit, whiskey in all its forms is also a wonderful introduction to distillation science. We’ve put together a primer on the science behind it, and have included an awesome infographic our friends at Distiller made covering the subject.

Working With the Grain

Before whiskey production can begin, the producer must choose a grain or mix of grains as the base for the alcohol. The most common choices are rye, corn, barley and wheat, but some more experimental distillers are using quinoa, oats, millet, and other grains to play with taste.

To begin the process of fermentation, some grains must be germinated, then dried in a process called malting. Malted barley is the most common, and the drying portion gives Scotch whiskey its signature smokiness. Here, the sprouted barley is dried by a peat fire that imbues its flavor to the grain. But don’t try mashing oats or rye at home. If performed incorrectly, this process can foster toxic bacteria.

Tun Times

Once the grains are dried, they are then milled into a coarse meal called grist. Hot water is added to preserve enzymes and break down complex proteins and starches into amino acids and sugars. This mixture is then heated to specific temperatures in a vessel called a mash tun. During its time in the tun, enzymes in the grains begin breaking down starches into glucose and maltose.

After this step is completed, the mixture is filtered. Known as wort, the resultant sugary liquid is allowed to ferment after yeast is added (though fermentation without the addition of yeast is possible, it takes a lot longer). Called wash, the resultant coarse beer is the basis for distillation.

Distill Thy Heart

At its purest, distillation is the process of purifying or separating liquids using heat. Here, alcohol and water boil at different temperatures—approximately 173°F and 212°F respectively. As the wash is heated, more alcohol than water will be evaporated. The vapor is collected as it condenses in an externally cooled pipe.

What is collected is broken into three parts: the heads, heart, and tails. The heads is the first liquid out of the still. As it was produced at the lowest temperature, chemicals like acetone and methanol are part of this cut. Needless to say, it’s discarded for the drinker’s health.

The heart is the product that will become whiskey and is put aside. Normally, this booze rings in at about 70% ABV. As the temperature continues to increase, the concentration of water vapor increases while the alcohol concentration decreases. The last segment, or tails, of the distillate contains a lot of aromatic compounds that are often used in small quantities to flavor the spirit.

Cask Questions

After the distillation process is through, most whiskeys are then stored in casks to age. The regulations on several types of American whiskeys require that they be stored in new American white oak barrels. Whatever the wood, the whiskey leaches aromatic and flavorful compounds from the barrel over time.

To Blend or not to Blend

Producers must now face the question of whether to bottle a single barrel of their hooch or to blend multiple casks to create the ideal flavor and color. In the case of blended whiskeys, the age on the bottle represents the youngest whiskey in the mix.

Once blended or selected, the whiskey is usually diluted to between 40% and 46% ABV. Some producers will also release “barrel proof” or “cask strength” editions that are around 60% ABV. However, this process is not quite as simple as it sounds. Many of the aromatic and flavor compounds in whiskey aren’t soluble in water and might cloud the liquid. To improve its appearance, it's often cold filtered before it's bottled.

Taste Test

Years of aging and crafting went into the whiskeys in your home bar. Next time you’re drinking, take time to appreciate the appearance, flavor profile, and scent of your beverage—just as you would for a fine glass of wine.

To experience the whiskey’s full range, add a drop or two of water. How has it changed? What new scents and flavors do you pick up?

[Infographic via Distiller]

What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?

If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.


Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.


More from mental floss studios