A basic guide to the distillation of Whisky!

So, you want to be a distiller? Easy you think.

And you want to make a tasty whisky as well? That shouldn’t be too hard.

Read a couple of books, drinks heaps of malt, make a beer, drink heaps of malts, boil the alcohol off in a copper pot, drink more malt, and chuck the boiled-off liquid into a wooden cask.


Not on your nelly! You may not know this, but the act of making a single malt whisky is one of the most complex and challenging tasks within the beverage world. Put simply, every step of distilling requires a series of unique decisions that will not only affect the style of whisky, but so to the flavour of the spirit as well.

So, here’s my guide to the world of whisky distilling.

Barley Charlie!

You may think barley is barely. But it’s not. Choosing a barley variety not only affects how much spirit you make but also impacts the maltiness and mouthfeel of your new spirit.

Some distillers prefer high yielding varieties like optic or chariot, while others like Macallan prefer an older but more flavoursome variety, like golden promise.

For peat’s sake!

Then, it’s a question of “to peat or not to peat?” This is a critical decision. Do you want your whisky to taste smoke-free, like Glengoyne? Maybe you’d prefer the low peat of an Isle of Jura. Or perhaps, you’re after the very peaty Ardbeg. One step further takes you to Bruichladdich’s Octomore, with massive amounts of peat.

In any case, once you’ve pondered on peat, you can decide where you’d like to get it from. After all, it appears that location plays a big part in peat’s smokey flavour.

Tasmania’s Bill Lark has a peat bog that is light and twiggy. The Isle of Islay produces peat that can be quite medicinal. While the Campbeltown peninsula produces a peat that smells and tastes of bonfires.


As all good beer brewers know, the method and speed of your ferments plays a major role too. Not only in the flavour development, but fermentation is also crucial to the resulting mouthfeel of your spirit.

Hot and fast for pungency, versus slow and cool for lightness. You may wish to fall somewhere in between. Next, what do you ferment in? Wooden washback’s for richness, or stainless steel for fruitiness?

Still life

Now we arrive at the stills. Lots of copper delivers very clean, light and delicate spirits. Meanwhile, less copper will result in heavier, oilier spirits.

This can be controlled by is the size of the still and how fast (how much heat) or slow you run them. Height also matters, as do the bits and pieces attached to the still, such as the swan’s neck, purifiers, and condensers.

Getting the cuts

Our precious spirit is about to come off the still and it will arrive in three stages.

Stage one is the foreshots, think methanol and blindness. Next, the hearts (our precious spirit) follow. Then the feints (heavy oils, toffee, spice and fudge flavours).

If we only take middle of the hearts, we will get a spirit that is light, pure, and perfumed (Glenmorangie).

If we take in a few feints and just a touch of the foreshots, we can add weight, oiliness, and spiciness to our final spirit (Mortlach). So the size of the cut, as we call it, is

Aaaah Robur! Or was that Alba?

Now we’ve come to crunch time. Remarkably, 75% of the flavour in a whisky comes from the oak you mature it in.

The basic choice is between American oak (Quercus Alba) and European oak (Quercus Robur). American oak interacts less with the wood and provides notes of sweetness like coconut and vanilla, whereas the Europena oak is said to taste savoury, with hints of spice and peppery flavours

And if you are filling used barrels, the wine or spirit that once inhabited it will also impart a big dose of flavour

What’s more, the barrel size is also a vital consideration. Rapid maturation occurs inside 80Lquarter casks (Lark), or slow maturation in 500lL sherry butts (Glendronach).

Time, Gentleman, Please?

It’s a simple equation.

Youth equals a light, bright and vibrant spirit. Middle age starts to see a larger role for wood flavours, increasing complexity, and a calming down of the spirit. Lastly, advanced age brings about smoothness, richness and woodiness. And remember if you’ve added peat, it slowly fades with time!

Plus, what about your barrel store? Heat, humidity, as well as other seasonal and climate factors can have a big impact on how your whisky matures too.

And finally?

Possibly the hardest decision you will make comes at the end. The question is, when will you bottle it? Youthful, middle aged or old age? Will it be a single cask or multiple casks? And at what strength?

So, there you have it. Each step of distilling can have a crucial impact on how your whisky will perform. Does it make your head spin? It certainly does mine in! I think I need a stiff drink.