Whiskey question

Over the years I have distilled my share of whiskey. I have used wine batches that were not good, sugar and water batches, fermented grain and corn. I have even used fruit that would have otherwise rotted. It all seems to come out the same, clear alcohol and water dependent on how high it was cooked off. This makes me think the recipes are not as important as we are led to believe and the storage and use of possible additives is the real secret. Does anyone know the real scoop?

Whiskey gets much of its flavor and color from the barrels, and takes a few years to develop. The initial distillate, also called white dog, is quite rough around the edges. I’ve had Maker’s White, and it was pretty interesting to taste what it’s like before the aging process. To me, it had notes of tequila and a clear fruit brandy like slivovitz. I actually enjoyed it, but it is quite rough and quite unlike finished whiskey.

Moved to Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

  1. You realize that home distilling without a license is a Federal crime, right? And that you’ve just admitted such on a public message board?

  2. Your thoughts on recipe are wrong. There are no additives in properly made whisk(e)y. It is all mash, process and aging. Pull the distillate off the still at the high end and you are going to get vodka no matter what you started with. Proper bourbon, for example, comes off the still at no more than 160 proof.

This was many years ago when I was out of the country.

Then I withdraw my first statement. :smiley:

Other countries have all the fun!

I would think you’re right, though there may be some really, really small subtleties, and possibly slight variances in chemical analysis (which might be important from a quality perspective). I brew beer and the occasional apfelwein/fruit wine recipe (which is just apple juice + sugar + yeast, basically). From fermenting those, it’s clear that the health of the fermentation and the ingredients used affects the formation of phenolic compounds, which can give you everything from weird flavors or odors to an actual headache or worse-feeling hangover than usual.

Obviously, when you take your fermented mash, whatever it is, and then boil off the alcohol, the idea is to basically get ONLY alcohol vapor and some water vapor. I suspect, however, that the wide array of phenolic compounds that may exist in the fermented liquid due (mostly) to stressed yeast from things like underpitching, temperature too high or low, little yeast nutrient or free amino nitrogen etc., I suspect that at least some of these compounds may be able to vaporized at the same temperatures as alcohol and water, and thus be carried into the distillate. Interestingly, in beer, aging can often mellow some of these compounds as certain ones break down over time, or react with others to form different, often more pleasing (or less offensive) compounds. So the process of aging the whiskey in barrels not only allows this to happen but also, of course, infuses the character of the wood.

In short, alcohol’s alcohol, yes, plus whatever’s done after the fact (aging, type of barrel, storage conditions, what type and quality of water is added, and so on). But unhappy yeast throw off all sort of chemical compounds that may have an effect; I’m not familiar off the top of my head with literature on how phenols react with distilling, but I would be surprised if none of those compounds were capable of vaporizing into the distillate.

I have worked with red oak quite a bit and notice it gives off a sour smell, I have also toasted it with my heat gun and can easily imagine being able to have some control over the flavor of something by carefully toasting a red oak barrel to a specific color.

The ingredients and distillation process can certainly contribute to the end result. Your home still probably has a relatively efficient reflux column, so you are stripping off most or all of the aromatics. In that case, the final result is almost entirely a result of how and in what you age it. With a pot still, you retain some of the aromatics and some of the flavor comes from your base mash. For example, the smokiness of an Islay scotch comes (partially) from the peat used to smoke the grains.

Given the mismash of ingredients you are using for your base, you are probably best off stripping the aromatics and focusing on aging it well.

Thats a good point, I have used the more primitive straight condensing method with only a thumper inbetween and you will pick up some off flavors that may require double distilling. Smokey tastes are persistent and do seem to travel with the alcohol.

This is true for some spirits (vodka being the most extreme case), but certainly isn’t true across the board. Gin is distilled to retain the flavors and aromas of the added juniper berries and other botanicals. As I noted above, Scotch whisky, in particular Islay, is distilled to retain some of the aromatics from the mash. Canadian whiskey, on the other hand, is typically distilled in a column still to produce much purer alcohol.

Ah, I was thinking a little about gin as I was writing that – I assumed that the juniper and other stuff was actually added after distillation (gin is not my favorite spirit, by a log shot, so I never really learned the details of it).

The actual process of distilling whiskey is pretty similar the world 'round. But there are three huge components that will significantly determine what the end result tastes like

  1. Distillation number. Bourbons are distilled once, scotches twice, Irish Whiskeys three times.

  2. Barrel aging. What type of wood are they made of? Is it new or was anything else (like brandy) aged in the barrel beforehand? How long is it sitting in the barrel (3 years minimum and probably needs closer to 7 to be of a decent quality).

  3. What wheat did you use? This is also key. You know what the difference is between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet and Glengaryglenross? Where they gather the ingredients to use for the mash. Like how sourdough tastes different from region to region? Same concept here.

I also should have noted that the flavor, especially in a home process, will also depend on how much of the heads and tails you retain, no matter what kind of still you use. The initial distillate (heads) contains the low-boiling compounds like methanol, acetone, and some esters and aldhehydes. Some of these (in addition to being poisonous) can give it a nasty taste, but some of the later ones at the edge of the sweet spot (the “hearts”) can contribute pleasing flavors.

The tails contain more water as well as bad crap like fusel alcohols. I’m not sure where your smoky tastes would be coming out in the process. If you try it again, do some taste tests at various points along the way.

You’re both right and wrong. The typical process is an initial distillation to produce fairy pure alcohol, then steeping the botanicals in the resulting liquid and redistilling. The botanicals are often suspended in the chamber during the second distillation to enhance the flavors and aromas.

And the mash certainly does make a difference in the taste. I’ve discovered that I tend to like higher rye content whiskeys, and I don’t like as much the whiskeys that are distilled with wheat (often winter wheat) in the mash, which gives them a sweeter flavor. Wheated whiskeys tend to be sweeter, rye whiskeys tend to be spicier, and so on. The big bourbon distilliries here tend to use a column still or a combination of column and pot stills. Scotch and Irish whiskeys use pot stills. From what I’ve read, most whiskeys tend to be distilled twice (Maker’s, for example, is first distilled using a column still, then a copper pot still), etc. I’ve never gotten any indication that they are any additives to these types of whiskey. It’s all about the malting (and whether its dried with peat smoke, in the case of Scottish whisky) mash, yeast, distillation, and what kind of barrels are used, how and if they are charred, how long it is aged, etc.

Yeah, the gins you get at the store are typically made in the above fashion. I’ve heard of gins or faux gins than are after-the-fact macerations of botanicals in a neutral spirit, but I’m not aware of that process being used in any of the major gin brands. Same thing with absinthe. There are some “quickie” absinthe recipes out there that have you steep the wormwood and other botanicals afterwards, but real absinthe is generally (re)distilled after this maceration step.

As does Missouri

Hopefully this was a typo as it is white oak that is typically used for whiskey barrels.

I have used “sticks” of white oak to flavor neutral spirits many times. I have found that “toasting” the oak gives better results than scorching does. I will put some oak (wrapped in foil to prevent bursting into flames) into a toaster oven at 300 deg for an hour or so.

Yes. My father in law was telling me of a store he ran across in Missouri (he’s in IL, I live in MO) that basically has a showroom full of nice copper stills and other equipment. So I looked it up. Yep, MO law says you can make up to 200 gal/year of any kind of alcohol. SWEET, thought I, but wait a minute…so of course, it’s still against federal law and thus still illegal. So how do they sell this stuff in the store? Basically the same way head shops openly sell pot paraphernalia and say it’s for tobacco: apparently it’s pretty much ok to make alcohol for fuel, so that’s “technically” what the store says it’s selling the stuff to you for. To make ethanol for fuel.