Three main ingredients
Whisky has three main ingredients. It's made from water, yeast, and a cereal. Two other important factors are time and wood. These are not ingredients in the traditional sense. But ageing in a wood (often oak) cask is fundamental to turning new make spirit into whisky. You can read about whisky casks here.
The answer gets more complicated when we look at different styles of whisky. Different varieties of whiskies have different requirements. Particularly when it comes to the kind of cereal used. In this article we're going to look at:
What are all whiskies made from?
What is bourbon made from?
What is rye whiskey made from?
And, what is scotch made from?
Water throughout the process
The first ingredient in whisky is water. To make whisky, distillers need lots of pure, cold water. It's so important a lot of distilleries talk about how important their water source is. Many say they chose the site of their distillery because there was a perfect water source nearby. While it may be a key part of a distillery's story and history, the impact water has on a whisky's flavour is debatable. Some experts say the water actually has only little impact on the taste of whiskies.
Water has two separate roles in whisky production. It is an ingredient, but it is also needed in whisky production itself. You need hot water as part of mashing, to cook the grains, and it is also used to heat the stills at some distilleries. Cold water helps convert alcohol vapours created during distillation back to liquid form. Water is sometimes added to new-make spirit to reduce its strength before it’s put into casks. And again, adding water adjusts alcohol strength before bottling. So, if you have a bottle of whisky that’s 40% ABV, what you’re drinking is 40% alcohol and 60% water. A key exception is cask strength whisky, which has no added water before bottling. You can read about adding water to whisky here.
Yeast during fermentation
Our next ingredient is yeast. Without yeast, there is no alcohol and, without alcohol, there is less fun to be had! So yeast is an important ingredient. Not only does yeast play a role of converting starch into sugar, the yeast itself adds flavour to the whisky. The two main types of yeast used are distillery’s yeast, which is most common, and brewer’s yeast. There are various strains of each type available.
Distillers can use one strain of yeast, several strains of yeast of the same type, or a mixture of yeasts. Starward in Australia, for example, uses brewer’s yeast to get banana and tropical fruit notes. They also uses distiller’s yeast because it makes their fermentation more efficient. Around the world, distillers play with different yeast types to get different flavours.
So all whiskies have water and yeast as two main ingredients. Things get interesting when we start looking at the cereals used.
What is scotch made from?
If we ask the question: what is Scotch made from, then the answer is water, yeast and malted barley. To use the 'scotch' name, the whisky must use malted barley. This is also where we get the term 'malt' from. Grain whisky in Scotland traditionally uses corn or wheat. Wheat has become more popular in Scotland since the 1980s.
So, if we ask the generic question ‘what is whisky made from,’ the answer could be water, yeast and grain. And the grain could be anything from corn, wheat, or rye (or of course malted barley). If a distiller uses corn, it tends to make a sweeter whisky. Rye gives whisky spice and acidity and wheat gives a sweet and delicate taste. This results in Rye whiskey distinctive style.
What is bourbon made from?
Bourbon is made from water, yeast and grain where at least 51% of the grain used is corn. The other 49% of the mashbill can be a combination of any other grains. And, for a bonus point, can you guess what straight rye whisky is made of? Water, yeast and at least 51% of the grain used is rye.
So, what is whiskey made from?
So, after all that, what is whisky made from? Well, it depends on what kind of whisky you’re making. I did warn you that it wasn’t straight forward! Two key ingredients are water and yeast. The third is some kind of cereal. In scotch, this is malted barley. In bourbon, 51% has to be corn. The fourth and fifth elements are time and wood. These aren't ingredients in the traditional sense, but they do play a key role. You may enjoy our article about dunnage warehouses here.