Calling all whiskey snobs. Think you’re an expert in your favourite drink? The latest episode of Reactions, a show that uncovers the chemistry in everyday life, is here to turn your snobbery into nerdery.
Join Raychelle Burks on a journey to District Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C. for a deep-dive into the science of how whiskey is made. All alcohol-making begins with the same fermentation process, but different whiskeys come from different grains – Scotch, for instance, is typically made with malted barley, while bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and rye must be made from at least 51% rye.
What separates whiskey from beer and wine is what happens after fermentation. At that point, they’re only around 5-10 percent alcohol by volume, but liquors routinely get up to 40-50 percent alcohol. Distillation is the process that bridges the gap. During distillation, different chemicals are separated according to their boiling points. Poisonous methanol boils off first, followed by ethanol (the good stuff).
Whiskey makers use a still to raise the ethanol percentage while retaining the spirit’s distinctive flavours. Still designs and processes differ, and each distillery carefully protects the ones engineered to create their signature liquor.
The key to whiskey’s flavour is the aging process. The brew is put in barrels to age, during which time the ethanol dissolves flavour molecules drawn from the wood. Additional flavours are achieved by charring the wood inside the barrels. Some cutting-edge distillers are even experimenting with high-tech processes to artificially speed up the aging process (much to the chagrin of purists).
There’s a lot more to learn, so check out the video above if you want to be the smartest guy at happy hour.