We all know that beer is made from barley, wine is made from grapes, vodka from potatoes and tequila is brewed in the fiery pits of hell by Satan himself. Not many, however, know the process behind the production of whiskey.
Situated just 5kms south of Sydney’s CBD, the Archie Rose Distillery is the very first multi-spirit distillery in Sydney in over 160 years and hand crafts spirits including gin, vodka and whiskey. Archie Rose also open their doors to visitors who want to experience a behind the scenes look at the Distillery process from the very first stage to bottling. Boss Hunting recently visited the Distillery to give you a first hand insight into the amazing process.
Step 1 – Malting
Just like beer, the process of making whiskey begins with a raw grain. Traditionally whiskies in Scotland and Ireland are made with barley grain where as American whisky is generally made from corn or rye. Each distiller has their own preference about the type of barley they use and Archie Rose use a Brewer’s barley, which is the same barley used for making beer. Barley contains starch, and it is the starch found in the grain which is converted to soluble sugars in order to make alcohol. Before this starch is extracted though, the barley must first go through the process of germination, also known as ‘malting’. Malting involves soaking the barley in water for 2-3 days before drying it out again, usually on the floor of the malting house. The drying process is stopped once the barley begins to sprout and it is now known as ‘malt’. The ‘malt’ is then ground into a coarse powder which releases all the starch.
Step 2 – Mashing
The grounded up malt is known as the ‘grist’, and the next step is adding this to hot water, which turns all the starch into fermentable sugar. This mixture is called the ‘mash’ and it is placed in a mash tun for stirring. Whilst at some distilleries this mixture is stirred mechanically, the distillers at Archie Rose prefer to use a bit of elbow grease: They use large mash paddles and literally stir the thick porridge looking substance by hand for about two hours every day. It’s around two and a half tons of weight the guys are having to move around but they do it so as to make sure as much starch is being converted into sugar as possible before it is strained off. The result is a thick sweet sweet sugary liquid called ‘wort’ and this is the substance needed to start making alcohol. Just as wine is made from grape juice, and tequila is made from the fermented juice of the agave plant, this is the sugar that comes out of grain and is the base for making whiskey.
Step 3 – Fermentation
The drawn off wort is then placed into large fermentation tanks where yeast is added. Yeast is a micro organism that eats up all the sugar and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is called fermentation and it is the same method used for making beer. The fermentation stage usually takes two – three days and the liquid that comes out, called ‘wash’, is usually at around 8-9% ABV. Flavours come from the esters that the yeast creates and just as each distiller has a preference about what barely they use, they also carefully select their yeast. Most distilleries use a distillers’ yeast, however Archie Rose add a secondary yeast, a brewer’s yeasts which they claim adds a lot more flavour.
Step 4 – Distillation
At this stage the wash is only sitting at around 8% ABV and as you would know whiskey generally sits at around 40% ABV. Therefore, the alcohol needs to be extracted from the wash and this done using a process called distillation. The wash is transferred into large copper pots called stills. Copper is used as it is seen as the most effective substance in extracting impurities including sulphur from the wash – making it a cleaner, rounder spirit.
Archie Rose boast the largest copper pot in the country and these pots are essentially big kettles: Gas powered steam rings on the inside of the stills heat up the wash until it vaporises and rises up to the top of swan neck, before cool water running down the line arm returns it to liquid from. This liquid is called the ‘low wines’ and sits at around 25-28% ABV. The shape and size of the still is very important to the flavour of the whiskey: A tall column produces a lighter spirit, as it is harder for the impurities to make it over the swan neck, where as a shorter fatter column with a wider base makes it easier for the less pure products to get over the swan neck – therefore resulting in a far richer spirit.
The low wines are then transferred to a smaller still and the process is repeated once again. Then, finally, we have alcohol. The first alcohols produced are very strong and not of a great flavour, these are called the ‘heads’ and they are re-distilled. The end alcohols are quite weak and also not of a great flavour – these are disposed of. The alcohol from the middle, however, is called the heart of the rum, it sits at around 75% ABV, is very rich and very flavoursome and this is what is used to become whiskey. The whole process takes 10 days, 600 litres of grain, 2200 litres of water, 2400 litres of wort and 700 litres of low wines to make just 200 litres of heart. From here the heart is cut with water to bring it down to about 63% ABV before the final stage of distillation.
Step 5 – Maturation
This is the really cool part. The final stage involves the placing of spirit in casks to mature. For their Scottish style whiskeys, Archie Rose use old bourbon barrels which have been been charred. The whole idea behind the charring of barrels is to add flavour: When you burn the wood you caramelise the natural sugars it contains, meaning that when the barrel heats up during the day the pores open up and suck the spirit into the wood, through the layer of caramelised wood sugars and deep into the wood itself. Then when the barrel cools, the pores push it out again and this process repeats over the years.
This is where all those colours come from, when the whiskey goes into the barrel it is a clear liquid, but as you know whiskey is a dark brown amber colour: 100% of the colour of the spirit comes from the wood of the casks. Around 60-70% of the flavour of the whiskey also comes from the barrels as the spirit takes on not only the flavour of the sugars and the wood, but also what was previously held in that barrel.
And then, you wait.
Archie Rose have over 300 casks in storage maturing, they don’t entirely know when they will be ready to bottle. The process usually takes between 5-7 years, it’s a long wait, but well worth the while.