So many new distillery projects have been in the news recently, with quite a few of them being established at working wineries, I suspect a lot of people wonder what it takes — besides start-up funding — to make distilled spirits.
It actually is at its core a simple process, one that has been used and refined over the centuries around the globe. When it comes to producing new-make spirits, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re high- or low-tech. The initial result is the same. The differences between a “moonshine” operation and a commercial facility are a matter of scale, then the process of aging and, in some cases, combining aged spirits to create a special blended whisky. However, the chemical process remains the same.
During a visit to The Glenlivet distillery in Ballindalloch, Scotland, as part of a lengthy tour of Scottish whiskey producers, I asked brand manager Ian Logan to demonstrate some scaled-down distilling, but first took a tour of the massive stills in the main building. They’re multi-story-high, gleaming copper creations with long, swanlike necks and a capacity of nearly 4,000 gallons. By comparison, the “personal” still used in the demonstration is smaller than R2D2 of “Star Wars” fame.
Logan emphasized that both sizes use essentially the same process — creating a fermented grain mash (depending on the country, using rye or barley or corn, etc., or a mixture of grains, plus yeast and water), then cooking the mash in a still to create vapors, then guiding those vapors into metal coils that are submerged in cold water that induces condensation into a purified liquid distillate. Large amounts or small, this is the final pre-aging product — a crystal clear distillate with a rich nose of spicy grain and just a hint of sweetness on the palate. The taste of the raw whiskey — or whisky, as it is spelled in Scotland — begins with a light strawberry note, then moves to banana. At this point it is about 70% ABV (alcohol by volume), or 140 proof, obviously far from the finished product consumers will find on shelves after it is diluted with water to reach the desired ABV level.
The best “cuts” of the new spirit — spilling off the bitter beginnings or weaker ends of a distillation run — usually are distilled one or two more times to further remove any impurities and smooth out the taste. Time in the aging barrel imparts the color and much of the flavor to the whiskey. In the case of The Glenlivet and most Scottish spirits, they are aged in used bourbon barrels, although used sherry casks sometimes are preferred for specialty whiskies.
The accompanying slideshow shows the “personal” still as well as a portion of the commercial still lineup.