A Flavor-Positive Whiskey Wash

Glean grains of understanding about the importance of yeast and bacteria in enhancing whiskey flavors through fermentation, prior to distillation.

| Winter 2019

Shutterstock/Leszek Czerwonka

During presentations on liquor distillation, I’m often asked why we mash grain into hot water to produce a wort that’s further fermented into a wash, and then distilled to make flavored spirits, such as whiskey and brandy. If you’re mashing the grain to produce fermentable sugars, the argument goes, wouldn’t it be more efficient and simpler to dissolve sugar in water and go from there? If it were simpler and cheaper than using grain, then commercial distilleries would be doing just that. After all, they’re in business to make a profit, so why wouldn’t they use the cheapest, easiest process possible? But there’s a sound, scientific reason for beginning from grain to distill alcoholic beverages.

Some commercial liquor, particularly inexpensive, mass-produced vodka, is fermented and distilled from sugar derivatives, such as molasses, but making whiskey requires a different type of distillation. Vodka is a flavor-neutral spirit, unlike whiskey, rum, and brandy, which are flavor-positive spirits. Some of the flavor in finished spirits results from their particular distillation process, and even the type of still used to produce them. But much of the flavor profile comes from the grains: their malting process, their extraction through the mashing process, and partially via fermentation.

For our purposes here, we’ll be discussing how to optimize your flavor just during the step of fermenting grain into a wash, which follows the grain mashing and precedes the distillation and aging process. After the grain has been mashed and heated in water, it’s either strained out or left in, depending on the type of whiskey, leaving you with a wort you can then ferment. Most types of American whiskies are fermented with the mashed grains left in. On the other hand, the wort is generally drained off before fermenting malt whiskies and Irish whiskey. It seems the reason for keeping the grains in during fermentation — especially with bourbon, as corn has a lot of fermentable sugar — is to maximize the extraction of fermentable sugars, as well as for specific flavor nuances of the particular grains used.

Mash, Wort, Wash

The terms for each step of the process for making beer, whiskey, and other spirits are sometimes unfamiliar. Here’s a short glossary to guide your reading.

  • Mash: The first step in both beer brewing and other alcoholic beverages. Malted (germinated and dried) or milled (mashed or crushed) grains are soaked in warm water. The diastatic enzymes go to work on the starches in the grains, converting them to fermentable sugar. As starches convert to sugars, the sugars are released into the mash water.
  • Wort: The residual sugary liquid of a mash is called a wort. If you’re making beer, the wort is drained off of the grain, then boiled, usually with hops added during the boiling stage, and later, yeast is added to begin fermentation; for distillations, sometimes the grain is removed from the wort, and other times it’s simply cooled before yeast is added for fermentation.
  • Wash: The wash is a cooled wort to which yeast has been added, and then fermented. A wash is ready to boil in the still and begin distillation.

Nourish Your Yeast

Creating a wash begins with the addition of yeast to the wort. In order to grow and multiply rapidly, yeast needs nutrients, such as amino acids and nitrogen, which are present in grain and the subsequent mash. If you’d started by fermenting pure sugar dissolved in water, you’d have to add large amounts of yeast to compensate for the lack of nutrients in the wash. Furthermore, the yeast simply wouldn’t need to multiply as much if there were already sufficient yeast cells present to ferment the available sugars. Under these conditions, with no added yeast nutrients, you’ll rarely end up with a wash of more than about 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) before the yeast dies off and stops fermenting. This isn’t efficient.



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