How do you develop a whisky recipe?

How do you develop a whisky recipe?

Distillers put great care into the development of their whisky recipes, which are the key to both character and consistency. We engage in a though experiment to investigate the process

News | 23 Jun 2023 | By Matt Strickland

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The word ‘recipe’ might seem a bit odd when applied to whisky development. It tends to elicit thoughts of making pancakes for the kids on a lazy Sunday morning, or even clandestinely cloning a favourite beer in a home brewery. But whisky makers have recipes too. Whether the liquid is coming from a 200-year-old single malt distillery in Scotland or a plucky craft bourbon start-up in the US, all whisky distillers have a recipe they ardently stick to in order to produce a consistent house product that their fans will recognise and enjoy.

How these recipes are developed can seem somewhat arcane and mystical to the thirsty whisky drinker sitting at a bar, but it is really not that different from developing those perfectly fluffy pancakes. It takes a vision and a bit of trial and error, but in the end the distiller has a recipe formula that they can uniquely call their own.

There are perhaps as many methods to whisky development as there are distillers, but for many producers some commonalities exist. Interestingly, it often starts at the end.

Take the example of a new single malt distillery planning to begin production. There are countless factors that go into whisky flavour and product development, so much so that the whole process can seem labyrinthine in the extreme. After all, it’s not just about malted barley, water, and yeast. As we’ve seen in recent years with many grain-to-glass whiskies, grain varietal has an impact. Yeast strains produce different levels of esters, higher alcohols, and other congeners. Those things matter, but there are also the variables of fermentation temperature and duration, how the spirit is fractioned or ‘cut’ off the still, and how those various liquid streams are managed and even recycled. Then there is the herculean task of deciding on wood policy and maturation. Even how the spirit is filtered and diluted for packaging has an effect on how the final liquid tastes.

Oftentimes, the distillery’s production team and/or consultants will sit down to consider and discuss the type of whisky they want to make, essentially envisioning the end product. From there, they can work backwards to find the techniques and ingredients that will give them what they want. That’s the recipe-building process.

For example, imagine a single malt with light peaty aromas, a little bit of red berry, some stone fruit notes, some warmth on the finish, and light cereal flavours. How might the distillery go about it? Quite a few roads would lead to this destination, but here is potentially one avenue they could take.

The warmth might mean packaging at around 45-50% ABV – a higher-strength whisky , but not quite reaching cask-strength level. The cereal flavours imply a fairly young malt; depending on the maturation climate and programme, the liquid may have sat in cask for no more than eight years. Red berry notes could come from the use of a red wine or port casks, but those would likely need to be balanced by some ex-bourbon to keep the vinous notes from dominating. The stone fruit notes could partly come from the cask selection, but the distillation technique would be important as well. A simple double distillation would do the trick. The cuts would need to be clean and conservative to make the whisky palatable at a younger age, but not so much so that the stone fruit character is removed.

A clean distiller’s beer (also known as a wash) would be paramount, perhaps produced from a low to moderate ester-producing whisky yeast, and possibly even partnered with an appropriate beer yeast strain. Fermentation would likely need to be around four or five days, to ensure the yeast has enough time to clean up some of the ‘green’ beer character without running the risk of contamination or producing too many solvent-like esters in a longer fermentation.

Peat dissipates from liquid in a cask over time, but as this whisky is intended to be bottled young, the distiller will have to manage the peat influence carefully. So, the base grain probably would need to be lightly peated, perhaps to a phenol level under 10ppm. The cereal notes can be aided by not running too clear a wort out of the lauter tun into the fermenter, but if the wort is too cloudy, with high amounts of grain solids, it could affect the level of peat aroma and flavour in the final whisky and the yeast may produce too many esters. Balance comes to the conceptual fore.

The above-imagined whisky could be produced a number of ways, and this is just one of them. But this recipe, while serviceable, is quite simple and ignores a few factors that distillers should take into account such as water quality, still type and design, and fermenter materials and geometry.

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