What is whisky made from?
Effectively, whisky is made from three ingredients: water, yeast and some kind of cereal. That’s the short answer, but it’s actually a bit more complex than that because different styles of whiskies have different requirements, specifically about the type and kind of cereals used. So, lets break this down and say:
- What are all whiskies made from?
- What is bourbon made from?
- What is rye made from?
- What is scotch made from?
Let’s get the first ingredient out of the way: water. In order to make whisky, distillers need a lot of pure, cold water. Now, a lot of distilleries talk about how important their water source is. In fact, many say they choose the site of their distillery because there was a perfect water source nearby. And you do get lots of distilleries talking about how special their water is. And it well maybe. I do feel duty bound to say that there are lot of experts who say the water actually has little impact on the taste of the final product. Whisky writer David Broom, for example, has said that while there could be an impact on fermentation efficiency, water is not believed to be a major contributory factor in the whisky’s final flavour.
Water has two separate roles in whisky production. It is an ingredient, but it is also needed to facilitate production itself. Hot water is used as part of mashing, to cook the grains, and it is also used to heat the stills at some distilleries. Cold water is used later in the process to convert alcohol vapours, created during distillation, back to liquid form. As an ingredient, water is often added to new-make spirit to reduce its alcohol content before it’s put into casks. And again, water is added to adjust alcohol strength before whisky is bottled (unless you’re drinking cask-strength whisky). So, if you have a bottle of whisky that’s 40% ABV, what you’re drinking is 40% alcohol and 60% water.
Our next ingredient is yeast. Without yeast, there is no alcohol and, without alcohol, there is significantly less fun to be had. So yeast is an extremely important ingredient. Not only does yeast play a role of converting starch into sugar, the yeast itself adds flavour to the whisky. The two main types of yeast used are distillery’s yeast, which is most common, and brewer’s yeast. There are various strains of each type available.
Distillers can choose between having a single strain of yeast, multiple strains of yeast of the same type, i.e. multiple strains of distillery’s yeast, or a combination of different strains of brewers and distiller’s yeast. Starward in Australia, for example, uses brewer’s yeast to get banana and tropical fruit notes in his whisky; but also uses distiller’s yeast because it makes their fermentation more efficient. Around the world, we see a lot of distiller’s playing around with different yeast types to get different flavours.
So, all whisky is made from water and yeast; but things really get interesting when we start looking at the cereals used.
What is scotch made from?
If we ask the question: what is Scotch made from, then the answer is water, yeast and malted barley. For something to be called scotch whisky, it has to be made using malted barley; which is where we get the single malt moniker from. Grain whisky in Scotland is traditionally made from corn or wheat. Wheat has become more popular in Scotland since the 1980s.
So, if we ask the generic question ‘what is whisky made from,’ the answer could be water, yeast and grain. And the grain could be anything from corn, wheat, or rye (or of course malted barley). If a distiller uses corn, it typically makes a sweeter whisky. Rye gives whisky spice and acidity and wheat gives a sweet and delicate taste.
What is bourbon made from?
Bourbon is made from water, yeast and at a grain where at least 51% of the grain used is corn. The other 49% of the mashbill can be a combination of any other grains. And, for a bonus point, can you guess what straight rye whisky is made of? Water, yeast and at least 51% of the grain used is rye.
So, what is whiskey made from?
Well, it depends on what kind of whisky you’re making. I did warn you that it wasn’t straight forward!
Broom, David. The World Atlas of Whisky. 2nd Edition, Octopus Publishing Group, 2014.
Wisniewski, Ian. The Whisky Dictionary. Octopus Publishing Group, 2019.