How is whisky made?
How is whisky made?
Have you ever sat at your favourite bar or restaurant with a glass of whisky and thought: how in the world is whisky made? Well, we must have read your mind because this article will answer that question. We’ll also share some of the unique ways Starward approaches whisky making, and goes further for flavour, according to our Production Director, Sam Slaney.
So, what’s whisky actually made from?
At its core, whisky is made from fermented grains and water. Sounds simple enough, but there’s a meticulous step-by-step ritual involved to create this distilled spirit. The process of making just about every alcohol begins with an agricultural product that undergoes fermentation. In the case of whisky, it’s a universally acknowledged rule to use a mixture of grains like malted barley, corn, rye or wheat; each of these can play a crucial part in the flavour(s) of the final product.
You’ve probably heard of different types of whisky: single malt whisky, blended malt, blended whisky, rye whisky… the list goes on. When it comes to ingredients in these whiskies, there are a few key differences: a blended malt whisky will use barley from two or more distilleries. Blended whisky can include whisky made from any grains from multiple distilleries. Bourbon whisky is made from at least 51% corn – and unaged bourbon whisky is usually labelled as corn whisky. Rye whisky is made using a minimum of 51% rye and is often mixed with barley and other grains. Wheat whisky uses wheat for a large percentage of the grains, with some distillers using 100% of wheat in their mash. Other grain whiskies can use all different types of grain and the dominating grain will generally be marked on the label – these include millet, oats and many more. Alright, now you’re up to speed on the different whisky varieties and their ingredients, let’s get into how whisky is made.
How is whisky made?
To put it simply, there’s a fair bit involved when it comes to making whisky – but we think that’s a big part of its charm. In this section, we’ll explain whisky making more generally so you can wrap your head around the universal steps most distilleries around the world follow. Further down, you can learn more about our approach and the lengths we go to for outrageously delicious whisky.
All about the base
It all starts with making a fermentable base, this is where the grains (wheat, rye, corn and malted barley) are mixed with water and yeast. The mixture is heated and stirred into a mash, not too dissimilar to porridge, ready to kick off fermentation. Before this point, those grains are dried out, stored and then soaked in water for several days until they begin to germinate – then they’re toasted and ground into flour ready to be mixed with water and yeast. At this point in the process, the mixture is heated to allow the sugars in it to dissolve and sink to the bottom of the mash where they’re collected separately. This portion of the mixture is called the wort.
Fermentation, fun? Well, we think it’s pretty awesome because at this point the compounds in wort begin to break down and produce a simple, natural alcohol called ethanol or ethyl alcohol. In basic terms, fermentation is what creates the actual alcohol. First, yeast is added to the wort which is then left to ferment for at least 48 hours. During this time, the yeast ‘eats’ the sugar in the wort, and then produces alcohol.
Down to distilling
Ready to have your mind blown? Up until this point, making beer and making whisky is practically the same. Aside from the type of grains and yeast used, the steps are exactly the same. If you were making beer, instead of distilling, you’d move on to brewing. But, back to whisky for now. The distillation process involves purifying the liquid in a still (a copper container that has a firm seal and a thin cone-shaped vent on top) by heating and vaporising it, then collecting the vapour as it recondenses into a liquid. At this point the liquid is considered purer because impurities are removed when it evaporates – it’s also more alcoholic.
Ageing and maturation
At this point in the whisky's journey it’s placed in wooden barrels (oak being the most popular) for at least two to three years. Distilleries use different ageing methods, including new oak barrels, white oak barrels, charred barrels, or barrels soaked in wine or sherry – each plays a big role in the flavour of the whisky.
It’s worth noting that ‘maturing’ and ‘ageing’ are not the same thing. Ageing refers to when a spirit gets older. Maturing is when the spirit develops and changes over time. Whisky doesn’t mature with age though – it matures by absorbing the qualities of the barrel. Once the whisky is bottled, it won’t change further, like wine for instance.
The final step is the bottling process. All that hard work and time comes down to this point where the final product is placed into bottles, labelled and ready to be enjoyed. Attention to detail throughout the entire whisky-making production is paramount – something you can think about when you’re next enjoying a glass of your favourite drop.
How does Starward approach whisky making?
Now for the fun part (we may be a little biased): where we get to share Starward’s take on whisky making according to our very own Head Distiller, Sam Slaney.
“We use materials that are available in Melbourne – within a day's drive. Local is important to us, as we want to make a whisky that reflects the place it’s made.” explains Sam.
Pale malt: This grain also goes by the name malted barley. The barley is grown within two hours of Starward’s Port Melbourne distillery and is available from primarily three farms. “The maltsters take the barley and begin the malting process, which involves germinating the barley and then kilning it so the sugar in the barley is easily accessible for us at the distillery,” explains Sam. “The malt is kilned to a higher level than typical distilling malt which means we have some more developed, biscuity flavours.” he adds.
Water: “We use super soft Melbourne water from our pristine catchments; the water is consistent year-round and so soft that we add some salt to the mash to harden it up. We love Melbourne water and believe it’s the best in the world,” says Sam.
Yeast: “We use two yeast strains to convert the sugar in the wash into alcohol and flavour! One is a classic distilling strain that is good at making booze; the other is a brewing strain that yields classic Starward fruity esters, pears, bananas and apples which makes our spirit more delicious,” says Sam.
Barrels: “After distillation, we have some high strength New Make Spirit that we need to put in a barrel to turn into whisky,” explains Sam, going on, “We source barrels from Australian wineries, using a mix of French and American oak from the Barossa, Yarra Valley and other amazing Australian wine regions. We fill most [barrels] fresh from the winery, and char a portion to create a diverse portfolio of barrels allowing us great depth when we are blending our whiskeys,” says Sam.
Melbourne: Turns out this city isn’t only the third most liveable in the world, it’s also a city where whisky maturation thrives. “The climate and weather cycles in Melbourne mean we’re able to make the maturation process work faster than traditional cool maturation environments like Ireland and Scotland,” says Sam. “With our four-seasons-in-a-day weather and the massive variation across days, weeks and seasons, the weather is a key part in making Starward, Starward.”
The uniqueness of Starward’s materials
From how our malt is sourced to picking yeast carefully and a passion for red wine barrels, there are plenty of ways we go further for flavour at Starward according to Sam. “Our malt is sourced locally, reflecting the local environment in which it is grown. We don’t need to distil the water before using it for diluting the final whisky – most distilleries will use purified or distilled water for final whisky dilution, but we love being able to use the water as is – it adds local flavour to the whisky,” explains Sam.
“Our distilling yeast is standard in the malt distilling industry, but the brewing strain is pretty special to us and creates that trademark Starward fruity character that we strive for,” Says Sam. And as for our love affair with red wine barrels? Sam says it’s a commitment Starward is proud of. “We go all in on red wine barrels. No other distillery in the world is as committed to red wine barrel maturation as us. These barrels tell a story of the forest, the cooperage (how the barrels are made), the vineyard, the wines and the winemaker. We still love bourbon barrels, but they’re not as distinct and reflective of the place they’re made,” says Sam.
Choosing the right ingredients for each Starward whisky
Location, location, location. It’s about determining where the best materials are available locally and then what ingredients will work for our flavour profile. “We do heaps of testing, tasting and refinement to make our whiskies great. We’re constantly looking for new ingredients or different ways of using them to keep making fun, interesting and delicious whisky,” says Sam. “Our philosophy is finding complexity through simplicity: use great materials and a solid process and you’ll have a great whisky at the other end.” We’ll drink to that.
As for what has a bigger effect on how whisky tastes: barrels or ingredients, Sam says both are important. “It depends on the type of whisky and how much the wood or spirit leads the flavour profile. For Starward. We’re about 50/50 ingredients/spirit to wood in terms of impact but it is hard to quantify!”
So, consider your “how is whisky made” question, answered. Now when you’re next out at a bar with your mates enjoying Australian made whisky or thinking about buying a bottle of whisky online you’ll know the ins and outs of this universally loved spirit. If you’re thirsty for even more whisky facts, then a whisky tasting class will be right up your alley.