You have probably heard many times that whiskey gets over most of its flavor from the barrel. This is true for really old whiskey (aged over 15 years), where the wood of the barrel dominates the flavor. However, most whiskeys sold today are relatively young, and factors other than the barrel contribute to the whiskey's flavor.
Lincoln Henderson (Brown-Forman Master Distiller for 40 years) was once quoted saying, "You need to get it right every step of the way. If you do not have good new make, then all of the aging in the world will not make it a good whiskey."
In this post, I go over six flavor sources for whiskey, namely grain, water, fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling. Understanding the impact of these six flavor sources can help whiskey enthusiasts appreciate the spirit even more.
The Six Sources of Flavor
Whiskey is a complex spirit that is shaped by various factors. Six primary sources influence the flavor of whiskey. Understanding these sources is crucial to appreciate the unique character of each whiskey.
Grains play a significant role in the flavor of the whiskey. The type of grain used and the malting process can affect the taste, aroma, and color of the final product. Here are two subsections that explore these factors in more detail.
Type of Grain
Most whiskeys are made with one or more of the following four grains: barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Each grain has a distinct flavor profile, which can affect the taste of the whiskey. For example, corn is known for its sweetness, while rye has a spicier taste.
The percentage of each grain used in the mash bill can also impact the flavor. Bourbon, for instance, must be made with at least 51% corn, while rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye. The remaining grains can vary, allowing for a range of flavor profiles.
Some distillers are experimenting with using non-traditional grains, such as quinoa, oats, and millet to create unique flavors. However, using non-traditional grains is still relatively uncommon in the whiskey industry.
The malting process involves soaking and germinating the grains to release enzymes that convert starches to sugars. The malted grains are then dried and used in the mash bill.
The length of the malting process and the temperature at which it is conducted can affect the flavor of the whiskey. Some distillers prefer lightly malted grains to create a more delicate flavor profile, while others opt for heavily malted grains to produce a bolder taste.
Barley is the most commonly malted grain used in whiskey production, but some distillers also malt rye, wheat, and other grains. The malting process can also affect the color of the whiskey, with longer malting times resulting in a darker hue.
Water is a crucial component in the production of whiskey. It is used during the mashing process to convert the starches in the grain to fermentable sugars. It is also added to the fermented mash to reduce the alcohol content before distillation. The source and mineral content of the water used can significantly impact the whiskey's final flavor.
Source of Water
The water source used in whiskey production varies depending on the distillery's location. Some distilleries use water from natural springs, while others use municipal water supplies. The mineral content of the water can also vary depending on the source.
For example, water from limestone aquifers can have a high calcium and magnesium content, while water from granite aquifers can have a low mineral content.
Historically, some distilleries really owe their success to their water sources. Examples include:
The Glenlivet: The Glenlivet distillery is located near the River Livet in the Speyside region of Scotland. The water used in the production of Glenlivet whisky is drawn from Josie's Well, a natural spring located near the distillery. The water from this source is soft and low in minerals, which is ideal for the production of whisky.
Laphroaig: Laphroaig is an Islay single malt Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland. The distillery uses water from the Kilbride Dam, which is fed by the Kilbride Stream. This stream runs through peat bogs, giving the water a distinct flavor and character reflected in the whisky.
Maker's Mark: Maker's Mark is a bourbon whiskey distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, USA. The distillery uses limestone-filtered water from a nearby spring, which is crucial to the flavor and consistency of the bourbon. The limestone in the water filters out impurities and adds minerals that contribute to the unique taste of Maker's Mark.
Bushmills: Bushmills is a whiskey distillery located in Northern Ireland. The distillery uses water from the St. Columb's Rill, which runs through basalt rock formations that give the water a unique character. This water is used to produce all of the Bushmills whiskies, including the popular Bushmills Original.
On the other hand, city-based distillers typically use water treated with the Reverse Osmosis process to take out undesirable chemicals and minerals found in the city water supply.
For example, high levels of calcium can create a chalky taste in whiskey, while high levels of magnesium can result in a bitter or metallic flavor. Sodium can also impact the flavor of whiskey by making it taste salty or briny
The mineral content of the water used in whiskey production can impact the flavor of the final product. For example, water with a high mineral content can result in a whiskey with a more robust flavor profile.
This is because the minerals in the water can react with the other ingredients in the whiskey during the mashing and fermentation processes, creating unique flavor compounds.
On the other hand, water with a low mineral content can result in a whiskey with a smoother flavor profile. This is because the lack of minerals allows the other ingredients in the whiskey to shine through without interference. Some distilleries even go so far as to adjust the mineral content of their water to achieve a specific flavor profile.
The fermentation process is where the magic happens. Yeast converts the sugars in the mash into alcohol and produces a range of flavor compounds.
As a matter of fact, there are many different strains of yeast used in whiskey production, each with its own unique flavor profile. The length and temperature of fermentation also play a significant role in the flavor profile of the final product.
Type of Yeast
Distillers use their own proprietary yeasts to influence their desired fermentation and flavor profiles. This is often a closely guarded secret. But some distillers like Four Roses Bourbon are more open about their yeast strains.
With five proprietary yeast strains, the bourbon brand is able to create 10 recipes. Other distillers may use a single yeast strain, or a combination of different strains, depending on their desired flavor profile.
The type of yeast used can have a significant impact on the flavor of the whiskey. Different strains of yeast produce different flavor compounds during fermentation, which can contribute to the final flavor profile of the whiskey.
For example, some yeast strains may produce fruity or floral notes, while others may produce more spicy or earthy flavors.
Some distillers may also use wild yeast, which is naturally present in the environment, to ferment their whiskey. Wild yeast can be unpredictable but can also add unique flavors to the final product.
Length of Fermentation
The length of the fermentation process can also affect the flavor profile, as longer fermentations may allow more time for the yeast to break down the sugars, resulting in a more complex flavor profile. Typically, fermentation lasts two to four days, but some distillers may extend the process to seven days.
During fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugars in the mash and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. As the yeast continues to work, it also creates various flavor compounds contributing to the final product's taste.
A more extended fermentation period allows more of these flavor compounds to develop, resulting in a more complex and nuanced flavor profile.
The temperature at which fermentation occurs also plays a crucial role in the flavor development of whiskey. Most distillers aim for a temperature range of 60-70°F (15-21°C) during fermentation. However, some distillers may opt for higher temperatures, which can result in a more robust and fruitier flavor profile.
The temperature affects the rate at which the yeast consumes the sugars and produces alcohol. A higher temperature can speed up the process, resulting in higher alcohol content and a more robust flavor profile. However, it can also lead to the production of undesirable flavors and aromas.
On the other hand, a lower temperature can slow the fermentation process, resulting in a lower alcohol content and a lighter flavor profile. However, it can also allow for more delicate and nuanced flavors to develop.
During the distillation process, the whiskey gets its final character, which is a crucial step in whiskey production. The process involves separating the alcohol from the fermented mash to produce a clear, high-proof spirit. The following are some factors that affect whiskey's flavor during the distillation process.
Pot Still vs Column Still
One of the most significant factors affecting whiskey's flavor during the distillation process is the type of still used. Pot stills are traditionally used to produce Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky.
They are made of copper and produce a heavier, richer spirit. The pot still works by heating a mixture of fermented grains, water, and yeast.
As the mixture is heated, the alcohol vaporizes and rises up into the neck of the pot still. The vapor then condenses on the cooler surface of the still's neck and drips back down into the pot. This process, called reflux, removes impurities and heavier elements from the spirit, resulting in a more flavorful and complex whiskey.
On the other hand, column stills are used in the production of American bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. They are also used in the production of other types of whiskey around the world. Column stills are tall, narrow stills made of stainless steel or copper.
They use a continuous distillation process, in which a mixture of fermented grains, water, and yeast is fed into the top of the column still. The mixture is then heated and vaporized as it moves down the column. The vapor is then cooled and condensed into liquid form at the bottom of the column.
Column stills produce a lighter, more delicate spirit compared to pot stills. This is because the continuous distillation removes most heavier elements from the spirit, resulting in a cleaner and smoother whiskey.
The use of column stills also allows for a higher volume of whiskey to be produced faster, which is why they are commonly used in large-scale distilleries.
Number of Distillations
The number of times the whiskey is distilled also affects its flavor. Single-distilled whiskey has a more robust flavor and a higher alcohol content, while double-distilled whiskey is smoother and more refined.
Triple-distilled whiskey is even smoother and more delicate, with lower alcohol content. The number of distillations depends on the type of whiskey produced and the distillery's preference.
The cut points are the points during the distillation process where the distiller decides to separate the heads, hearts, and tails of the spirit. The heads contain methanol and other impurities that can cause headaches, while the tails contain fusel oils that can cause off-flavors.
The hearts are the purest part of the spirit and contain the desired flavor and aroma. The cut points affect the whiskey's flavor, and the distiller's skill is essential in determining the right cut points.
After distilling the whiskey, it is placed in barrels to age. The aging process can take years and is a crucial factor in the final flavor of the whiskey. Several factors contribute to the aging process, including the type of barrel, char level, and length of aging.
Type of Barrel
The type of barrel used for aging whiskey can greatly impact its flavor. Most whiskey is aged in oak barrels, but the oak used can vary. American white oak is a popular choice, as it imparts vanilla, caramel, and coconut flavors. On the other hand, European oak can give the whiskey a spicier flavor with notes of cinnamon and clove.
Another factor that can affect the flavor of whiskey is the presence of other substances in the barrel. Some distilleries will age their whiskey in barrels previously holding other spirits or liquids, such as sherry or port. This can impart additional flavors to the whiskey, such as fruitiness or sweetness.
Smaller barrels, those of less than 53 gallons, such as 30 gallons, 10 gallons or even 5 gallons, have thinner staves and less toasting and tend to produce flavors dominated by wood tannins alone.
The char level of the barrel can affect the flavor of the whiskey. When barrels are charred, they create a layer of charcoal on the inside. This layer can filter impurities and give the whiskey its characteristic smoky flavor. The char level varies from light to heavy, with heavier char levels producing more intense flavors.
Length of Aging
The length of time that whiskey is aged can also significantly impact its flavor. Generally, the longer a whiskey is aged, its flavor becomes more complex and nuanced. However, there is a point of diminishing returns, where the whiskey can become over-oaked and lose some of its original flavors.
The minimum amount of time that whiskey must be aged to be considered "straight" whiskey is two years. However, many whiskeys are aged for much longer than that. Some premium whiskeys are aged 10, 15, or even 20 years or more.
Temperature and humidity can impact the rate at which the whiskey interacts with the wood of the barrel. In warmer, humid climates, the whiskey will age more quickly and may take on flavors of tropical fruits or other notes. The aging process may be slower in cooler, drier climates, and the whiskey may have more subtle flavors.
The location of the aging warehouse can also play a role in the flavor of the whiskey. Warehouses in a city will age whiskey differently than those in the countryside and even those in the country will age differently if they are on a hilltop compared to those in a valley. Heated warehouses age differently than unheated.
Whiskey aged in higher parts of the warehouse may have a different flavor profile than those aged in lower parts. This is because the temperature and humidity can vary at different levels of the warehouse, which can affect how the whiskey interacts with the wood of the barrel.
Overall, the aging process is a crucial step in whiskey production. By carefully selecting the type of barrel, controlling the char level and length of aging, and considering other factors such as climate and barrel quality, distillers can produce unique and delicious whiskeys that are prized by connoisseurs around the world.
When a distiller bottles a whiskey, there are many things to consider that will impact the flavor of the final product.
Filtration removes bits of charcoal created in the aging process and many oils that make the whiskey cloudy when it gets cold. The more the whiskey is filtered, the more flavor is also removed.
This can be an excellent thing in super old whiskeys as filtration will remove many bitter tannic flavors and allow the sweeter caramels and vanilla compound to come forward in very old whiskey. However, in younger whiskey, filtration can remove flavors and natural oils and make the whiskey thin and watery.
Blending involves mixing together whiskeys from different barrels or batches to create a consistent flavor profile. This can be especially important for more prominent brands that want to ensure that each bottle of their whiskey tastes the same.
Blending can also be used to create unique flavor profiles for different brands or expressions of whiskey.
Type of bottle used
The bottle's shape and material can impact the whiskey's flavor by affecting how it is stored and served. For example, darker-colored bottles can protect the whiskey from light, which can cause it to degrade over time.
Additionally, bottles with a wider neck can allow more air to interact with the whiskey, changing its flavor over time.
The closure used on the bottle can also have an impact on the flavor of the whiskey. Cork closures can allow for a small amount of air to enter the bottle, which can cause the whiskey to oxidize and change in flavor over time.
Screw caps or synthetic closures, conversely, can prevent air from entering the bottle and keep the whiskey more consistent in flavor over time.
Finally, the labeling and marketing of the whiskey can also impact the perception of its flavor. The name, design, and description of the whiskey can all influence how consumers perceive it and may affect their enjoyment of the product.
Those are the six sources of flavor for whiskey. Each plays a role in the flavor of the final product. That being said, the maturation process will still dominate the flavor of the final product, but its share of the flavor is more like 55-60% than 70% or more, as some claim.
The exception to this is whiskeys aged for over 15 years that naturally have more wood flavors from the barrel.
The good news is that in a well-crafted whiskey, every step will have been performed correctly and contribute its fair share to the final product.