How to Make Homemade Whiskey in 9 Steps
Be careful with this information.
First thing's first: this article is wholly hypothetical. It is illegal and potentially super-dangerous to make your own booze at home. But, it is definitely interesting to see how you might be able to make it if it weren't super dangerous and illegal -- like a modern-day moonshiner!
We enlisted the help of Allen Katz, Master Distiller at the prestigious NY Distilling Co -- who is not a modern-day moonshiner, but a true craftsman of high-quality spirits. He pretty much knows more about whiskey-making than almost anyone else on the planet. And even though he considered the premise of this article to be highly dubious -- and definitely recommends you don't try this at home -- he was graciously willing to lend his expertise, and talk us through the (potential) process.
So let your imagination run wild here.
Step 1: Choosing your base
First off, you'll need a base to start off with, and whiskey is by definition a grain-based spirit. You've got options here: corn, rye, wheat, or barley -- or a blend of multiple grains. It doesn't really make a difference in terms of creation, though each grain definitely has a distinguished taste. For the sake of this article, let's just assume you would use corn.
"Corn would probably yield the most sugar, and that's what we're after. It will probably make things 'easier,' but that's a relative term here," Katz said. But corn is likely the least expensive grain to buy in bulk, and probably the easiest grain to work with on a small scale. You would need about 10 pounds to expect a reasonable amount of volume, which should translate to about 5 gallons of final product.
Step 2: Cooking your base
You would have to cook the corn at an exceedingly high temperature to expose the sugars in the grains, and you'd want to cook it in water. While master distillers like Katz usually have apparatuses that can do this with exactitude, and on a much larger scale, it's a lot harder to time and to gauge the cooking on your own. "The easiest and simplest way to do this," Katz said, while also reminding everyone that you probably shouldn't do it anyway, "might be to get a home brewing kit for beer, and just use it as a distilling kit in the initial stages." For much of the process, you are doing this same thing, anyway. And with a kit, you can regulate the cooking and entire ordeal with an extra guided hand.
Step 3: Starting fermentation
Once your corn is cooked and mashed (using a rolling pin is fine), it's yeast time! This is when you add the all-important yeast to your cooked corn mush. Again, you might want to opt to repurpose a home-brewing kit to streamline the process. "You can ferment in any type of sealed container, technically. But you don't want it to be too hot, or the yeast will die. Most home brewing kits have made it easy to ferment alcohol in a controlled environment, so again, that might be the easiest option," Katz said. The fermentation period will probably take at least several days, and your pre-whiskey mushy mash will start to change in new and exciting ways. It's like puberty for whiskey bases. What a confusing time!
Step 4: Getting your fermentation just right
"At first, it will go from the sweetest oatmeal you've ever had, to something that is fairly sour. That's the first sign that you are converting your sugar into alcohol. The absence of sugar means the yeast has done its job," Katz said, describing the fermentation process. On a larger scale, this should only take a few days. But at home, on a smaller scale without precise temperature management, it could take a little bit longer. Unfortunately, when you're working from home, it's an inexact science. Again, a home brewing kit might be able to help you keep things consistent and a little more precise. You probably shouldn't ferment for more than a week, and you can certainly taste test your product along the way as much as you'd like. Katz even recommends heading to your local distillery to figure out how your mash should taste before you start the distilling process.
Step 5: Putting your mash in a still
You need to strain your mash into some type of still. This is where shit can get extremely dangerous. In Katz's words, you need to be "damn sure" there are no leaks in your still: once alcoholic vapor is produced, the whole operation becomes extremely combustible -- which can result in explosions. Luckily, some companies actually do sell small-scale stills for this very purpose, which are probably safer than something you make at home based on a YouTube tutorial.
Step 6: Playing the waiting game
Once your mash is securely in a still, it's kind of out of your hands for a while. You need to make sure your mash is at a piping hot 80 degrees Celsius (if you buy a still, it should have a built-in thermometer), as that's the temperature where alcohol evaporates.
Step 7: Shocking the vapor
At that level of heat, the alcohol inside the mash will be converted to vapor, and turned into a "refined distillate" with the help of a condenser, which should have cold water running constantly around it. "You are quite literally shocking the vapor back into liquid form," Katz said. The vapor that rises inside the still, is basically converted back to liquid which pours into a new container. That's your liquor! It's really just basic science. If you don't get it, you should have paid more attention in chem lab.
Step 8: Making sure your liquor is tasty... and safe
The first 100 milliliters or so from a 5-gallon batch should probably be tossed. Not only is it potentially dangerous to drink (in some cases it can be comparable to pure methanol), it also might not be that great, taste-wise. "On a smaller scale, tossing this first yield is going to be primarily flavor-focused," Katz said, "but you take that cut for a couple reasons. One, you're flushing the still of its previous run -- whatever was distilled before is through the system, and you're on a clean, new run. And that can also impart off notes and off flavors and aromas. Also, it could be unsafe to drink, in general." So for safety and flavor, you would probably want to toss the first 100 milliliters or so you collect from your still.
Step 9: Bringing it all back home with barrel aging
If you want to call your fresh new batch of alcohol real "whiskey," you need to let it age in a barrel first. For a smaller volume batch of alcohol, barrel size definitely matters. "A smaller barrel means a decreased surface area. So the alcohol will be able to absorb the qualities of the wood, like the notes of oak, cedar, or other components that come directly from the wood itself," Katz said. So, small batches require smaller barrels to be fully effective. You can leave it in as long as you want, but if you are making your own small batch, you probably want to try it sooner than later, right? This will give you the most flavor, in the shortest amount of time.
The big, final piece of advice
"If you are even thinking about doing this for real, I cannot stress how much I recommend you visit your local distillery first," Katz confirmed. And while you now should have a general idea of how you can make whiskey in the comfort of your own home, it certainly doesn't mean you should. It takes a lot of risk, trial and error, and overall effort to do it right. Be careful! Use this new knowledge to impress your friends over a glass of the good stuff, instead of trying your hand at making it at home.