The Simplified Guide to the Whiskey Making Process

There is nothing better than finding a whiskey that you love; that is the entire mission of Abov. But have you ever stopped to wonder where your whiskey comes from? No, not what great whiskey shop it comes from, but how your whiskey is actually made. The whiskey making process can be somewhat scientifically complex, but we have attempted to simplify things, covering the main points in summary.

Check out our below infographic for a high-level guide to whiskey making, and keep scrolling for some additional details on each step of the process.

Infographic guide to the simplified process of making whiskey

Base Grain

You can’t make whiskey without the grains that eventually go into the glass. Grains are the core ingredient to whiskeys of every style. 99% of world whiskeys are made from some combination of barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The proportion of these ingredients, as well as other unique ingredients does vary by location and style.

  • Single Malt Scotch is exclusively made of malted barley (more on malting up next), while blended Scotch will contain other grains.
  • Bourbon must use at least 51% corn in it’s recipe, with then remaining 49% coming from barley, wheat, rye, or more corn.
  • Japanese whisky is mainly barley similar to Scotch, but some distilleries have experimented with using rice as well.
  • American distilleries in Texas as well as a few Mexican whiskey distilleries have explored unique varieties of corn for different flavor profiles.
  • Some other unique grains that have been turned into whiskey include: sorghum, oats, and quinoa and triticale.


Once the desired grain ingredients have been sourced, they must then be prepped for whiskey making. If any barley is used in the recipe, then this is completed by the three step process known as malting.

  • Steeping: First, the grains are repeatedly soaked in water to activate the germination process. Essentially, the goal is to get the harvested barley to start growing.
  • Germination: As a result of steeping, germination begins. This is the exact same idea as germinating a plant seed to begin growing it prior to potting in soil. We won’t get into all the science behind why this is important, but to summarize, the enzymes released in this step support the fermentation process coming up.
  • Kilning: This is a fancy way of saying heat drying. The germinated grains are heated to reduce the moisture content and halt the germination process. This can be accomplished with something similar to a large convection oven. This is is the step in the whiskey making process where smokey flavors can be introduced, as peated scotch instead burns harvested peat to kiln the malt.


The various processed grains must finish preparation before they can be fermented and distilled into alcohol. In this steps, the grains are ground into a fine powder, called grist. This will make it easier to extract the sugars.

Mash & Fermentation

All of the grains have been processed; now it’s time to start making booze. The blend of grains chosen for the whiskey are mixed with hot water, creating the mash. When bourbon drinkers talk about the “mash bill” of their favorite drink, it is exactly that recipe of grain mix used in creating a mash.

The mix of grain and water are heated, with yeast added, to begin processing the sugar content and converting it into alcohol. If you are familiar with how breweries and beer production works, this should all sound very familiar. Until this point, the beer making process and the whiskey making process are quite similar.


Now we get to the fun part! Distillation is the fundamental step conducted at… well… distilleries, and where the underlying “beer-like” liquid that comes out of the mash & fermentation step is concentrated into hard liquor. In simple terms, distillation is a number of cycle of heating and cooling/condensing the mash to separate the spent grains and water, and the flavor-infused alcohol. The more cycles completed, the more “pure” the resulting alcohol. This is why Vodka ideally has very little natural flavor, as the five cycles of distillation render it very pure. Whiskey on the other hand, is more often twice or triple distilled.

Check out this quick article from Feast & Field for more about the distillation step.


Although not the only spirit to be aged, time maturing in wooden barrels is essential today to whiskey production. Although unaged whiskey is a thing you can buy, it’s more of a novelty, or used as an experiment to understand what the distilled grains alone taste. Barrel aging generates a lot of the flavors desired in a good whiskey.

You can read more about whiskey barrels here to learn more about how the type of wood, size of the barrel, and what it contained prior to aging the whiskey all impact the aging and flavor.


Once the whiskey reaches the desired age for optimal deliciousness, the barrels are emptied and the whiskey is bottled. In this step, multiple barrels may be batched and blended together, and water may be added to reduce the alcohol content of the whiskey depending on the final product.

There you have it, the entire whiskey making process, highly simplified. Although today, there is a great deal of science involved to get a batch of whiskey just right, there is still a lot of art as well. There are so many variables in the process that can fluctuate or go wrong, that is often up to the master tasters and master blenders to craft the resulting whiskey into a delicious dram.

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