A whiskey primer (Fortune, 1933)

June 24, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

FORTUNE -- All whiskey making begins with some sort of grain. Pure rye whiskey, as you might suppose, begins with rye: usually about 85 per cent. It was invented in the U.S. and is made and drunk mostly here. Bourbon whiskey starts with a majority of corn, a minority of some small grain-rye, barley, etc. It came to fame in Kentucky, but the drinking of it is not so local. Irish whiskey features barley (not potatoes). Irishmen who are particular drink Scotch. Scotch whiskey (the Scotchmen spell it whisky) is made largely from barley in pot stills fired by peat. Its success is due to native Scotch ingredients and it is the chief whiskey of most of the world except North America.

You take your grain and add water, malt (partially fermented, kiln-dried grain), and yeast. The combination is called mash. The yeast causes fermentation which produces a liquid called distillery beer, and the Messrs. Pabst and Busch would be insulted if you thought there was any connection. This beer is distilled (heated to produce a vapor, which is drawn off and condenses, forming whiskey). The residue is called slops, which are sometimes used to aid new fermentation. Then the mash is called sour mash. When fresh yeast is used, you have sweet mash.

The alcoholic content of whiskey is known as proof. The standard is 50 per cent alcohol by volume which is known as 100 proof. A proof gallon is a gallon of alcoholic liquor containing half its volume in alcohol. Such a gallon with 75 per cent alcohol would be 150 proof gallons. And so on.

You now have your whiskey. It is straight whiskey and, if you have done the job well, of the best sort. But it contains impurities, so it must be aged. The longer it is aged, the better it will be. Scoth is aged in oak barrels formerly used for whiskey or sherry or both. American whiskey is aged in new, charred white oak barrels. The theory is that during several years' aging, chemical changes purify the whiskey, and the liquor absorbs tannic acid (with coloring and flavoring effect) from the barrel.

If the whiskey is stored in a warehouse under government lock, from which it can be removed only on payment of revenue tax, it is bonded whiskey. Otherwise, it is moonshine. Barrels in a warehouse are placed on racks ("ricks"), hence whiskey men speak of a bonded warehouse as a rack warehouse. If the whiskey is aged in a bonded warehouse for a length of time prescribed by the government (in the U.S. four years, but Congress is expected to change this to two years), it will be stamped by the government as bottled in bond. Keeping whiskey in a warehouse is expensive (because of the investment involved), so distillers used to sell warehouse receipts for whiskey as soon as it was made. This fall, there has been a flurry in U.S. receipts. More

Search This Column
View all entries from this: Week, Month
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.