I’ll admit it — I’ve been watching way too much of the Discovery Channel docudrama Moonshiners during quarantine. There’s something very compelling about the idea of producing a unique bottle of whiskey, one where your own heart and soul was poured into the glass alongside the alcohol. Thanks to the laws here in the United States, though, distilling and bottling your own spirits is difficult at best — and an illegal and impossible task to accomplish at worst. But you can still technically “make” your own whiskey at home, unique to your personal taste and style, without breaking any laws.
How Whiskey Is Made
There are four components to the whiskey production process (which, I can attest from experience, will be hammered into your brain more solidly than your own address should you ever decide to take the WSET Spirits Certification course).
The first step is processing the raw materials. For a whiskey, this usually means grinding up a bunch of grains and cooking them in a large pot. The goal of this step is to take the starch compounds in the grains and turn them into sugar, something that can more easily be digested and used in the next step of the process.
Once you’ve got a big barrel of sugary liquid, the next thing to do is to add yeast and allow the liquid to ferment. This process can take a couple days, and the end result is that the sugar in the mixture is used by the yeast to multiply and grow. The three results of that process are heat, carbon dioxide, and alcohol. The tricky thing here is keeping the yeast happy — too much heat and they die off (which is why commercial distilleries have water jackets around their fermentation tanks: to take away the heat produced as part of this process). But in the end, at some point the yeast finishes their feast and what’s left is a mildly alcoholic beer.
Up until this point, if you want to do this at home you are 100% in the clear from a legal perspective… usually. I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, and you should consult your own counsel if you have any questions. But home brewing is a common pastime here in the States, and I personally enjoy brewing my own ginger beer using champagne yeast and fresh ginger. This next step, though, is where you can run into problems with the law.
The process of distilling the mildly alcoholic beer into liquor is the regulated step in the process. This step is all about concentrating that mildly alcoholic liquid (usually about 10% alcohol by volume) into something much stronger using a still. Because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, if you heat your beer and condense the vapors coming off of it you can selectively capture the alcohol rich portions which is your “new make” whiskey.
Just about every aspect of the distillation process has a federal regulation and a tax involved. Still sites require licenses, bonded operators, and incur taxes as soon as the whiskey starts rolling out of the condenser. Record keeping is required for every drop of liquor produced, and federal regulators check and monitor those operations to make sure the right amount of tax is being paid to the government. And due to the complexity of the regulations, the difficulty in obtaining the licenses, and the other considerations (like zoning laws, etc) that go with them, the bar for operating your own still is set so high that almost no one besides well funded distillery operations can even consider giving it a try.
There are some who just simply ignore that whole section of the law, making moonshine (illegal whiskey produced “by the light of the moon” to avoid detection) in the back woods, constantly running from the ATF and selling their product on the black market. We here at 31W do not recommend breaking the law and, obviously, do not condone y’all trying this at home.
So, the legal implications of distilling alcohol pretty much put the brakes on any home distillation practices. But there is one last component to the whiskey making process, and that’s one that you can absolutely do legally in your own home.
Let’s Talk About Barrel Aging
First, why do we age whiskey in charred barrels?
Barrel aging is a process that originates from the wine and beer makers of centuries past. Once the liquid is inside the barrel, it actually moves into and out of the wood as the barrel “breathes” in the environment. When the temperature heats up during the day, the barrel expands and allows some of the liquid into the structures of the wood itself. That liquid breaks down some of the elements of the wood, which then releases flavor. And when the barrel contracts with the cold temperatures at night, that liquid is pushed back out of the wood and the flavors mix with the rest of the liquid.
Some of the flavors you eventually get in a whiskey come from the grains that are used, but the majority of the flavors are imparted from the barrels. There are a ton of variables in this part of the process: from the material the barrels are made from, to the climate they are stored in, even down to the aromas wafting through the local environment. Whereas wine gets most of its flavor from the grapes themselves, whiskey gets most of its character after the spirit has already been distilled.
Scottish distilleries typically use plain or only slightly toasted oak barrels for their aging process, which, combined with their milder climate, develops a lighter and sweeter flavor. American bourbon, on the other hand, uses newly made charred barrels in climates with wilder temperature swings for a deeper and richer flavor. In either case, the whiskey sits in the barrel for a few years before being bottled, soaking up all those delicious flavors.
The impact that has on the price of the whiskey is pretty dramatic. Every year that the whiskey isn’t on the store shelves, the distillery is paying to maintain the warehouse, paying people to tend to the barrels, paying insurance, taxes… there’s a lot of money that goes into a lengthy aging process. Which is why well aged spirits are expensive.
Is Aging Someone Else’s Whiskey Really “Making” Your Own Whiskey?
The dirty secret in many of the whiskey bottles you find on the shelf today is that, for the majority of them, they are mass produced. The whiskey comes from a large commercial distilling operation, who provide it to other brands and companies who bottle it themselves and sell it on to you.
In some cases, that feels like a bait-and-switch operation. Companies like Templeton Rye have actually been sued (successfully) for trying to market a mass produced whiskey as their own locally distilled craft spirit. And especially for larger companies like USDP, where they have a number of smaller brands with purposefully obscured provenance, it makes you question the quality of the spirit inside.
That said, historically speaking, whiskey has always been a product where the original distiller might not be as important as the aging process. Especially in the Scottish whisky tradition, blended scotch whisky was actually the accepted norm for centuries. Individual merchants would buy whiskey from multiple distilleries, blend it together to form a unique flavor profile, and often finish the whiskey themselves in different flavored casks to produce a new and unique product that was more than the sum of its parts. That’s how we got brands like Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse, and Cutty Sark.
The same thing is happening in the whiskey world today, with mass produced whiskey from places like MGP in Indiana going to smaller distilleries that all put their own twist on the product. Aging the whiskey in unique materials or unique climates, and all of them getting different results.
Aging a pre-distilled whiskey and calling it your own is a time honored tradition, and one that is generally accepted and even celebrated. Personally, where I start drawing the line is when you make claims (or even just give the impression) that you distilled it yourself. If you are honest about the process and what role you played in the spirit’s production, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be proud of calling a whiskey you aged your own.
How To Age Your Own Whiskey
So clearly, there are a number of ways to age your own whiskey. If you’ve read up to this point, you probably have an idea of the basic components (barrel material, climate, etc) that typically impact whiskey flavors… and especially because you aren’t likely going to be selling this whiskey, there really isn’t any limit to what you can do to it.
That said, there are a couple common paths that you can take, and some choices that will have a bigger impact on the final output.
The first thing to consider is what whiskey to use as your base.
If you are really looking for your personal touches to add the most flavor and character, then you should probably start with a lightly aged and lighter flavor profile whiskey. Personally, I use Mellow Corn a lot in my home aged whiskey projects primarily because it’s a corn whiskey (like the base for a bourbon) but it hasn’t been aged with nearly the same strength as something like a Maker’s Mark. There are some good base flavors but still a lot of room to improve.
Starting with other options can impact your final product, and depending on what you are going for that could be good or bad. If you have a favorite bourbon that you think just needs a little something special, then grabbing a couple bottles and starting with that isn’t a bad idea.
For those who want to try the “hard mode” of really finishing a raw whiskey, one option is using a white whiskey as your base. Some local distilleries offer a “white” or “moonshine” version of their spirits, which is pretty much just their usual whiskey straight off the still without any aging whatsoever. These whiskies are a great blank canvas for you to really see the impact in terms of the flavors that your aging process brings to the table.
One word of warning though: often times things marketed as “moonshine” (especially mass produced versions) are from lower quality grain alcohol or have some added sugar sweetness. That’s not to scare you off of using them — rather, just to advocate giving it a try first before investing in a bunch of whiskey that might not turn out so good.
One option for aging is to do exactly what the “big boys” do: grab an oak barrel, slam a bunch of whiskey in it, and roll it into the shed until it is ready. There are a couple considerations you should be aware of here, though, and a couple tips I’ve picked up along the way that might help.
First, be very careful about your barrel size. You’re going to be barreling tax paid whiskey, meaning that it will be expensive to fill a 55 gallon barrel. Thankfully, there are a number of places online where you can buy barrels that are only a liter or two in size — which, frankly, should be about perfect for this purpose.
Besides cost savings, another impact that smaller barrels have on the whiskey is that it takes far less time for the whiskey to age. As we discussed, the aging process is all about getting the whiskey and the oak barrel to interact. Smaller barrels means that there’s more surface area for each drop of alcohol to interact with, which speeds up the process. The only real reason why distilleries choose the bigger barrels is because the material cost of the barrel is reduced if you store more whiskey in it, since there are fewer barrels required to store the same volume of whiskey.
Another consideration for the barrel is the location in which you store it. Whiskey requires changes in temperature to really get the most out of the aging process, which is why whiskey warehouses are typically not climate controlled. The temperature shifts are a feature, not a bug. So, when placing your barrel down for aging, consider whether there will be sufficient enough temperature shifts to get the most out of the process. Putting it in a dark corner of the whiskey shelf in your house will have less of an impact on the whiskey than storing it in your backyard shed, for example.
Another caveat here is to also be careful of the smells that are around your whiskey barrel. Storing in your garage is not advisable, for example, because the oils and compounds in your car and the smell of gasoline can be detrimental to the final product. The same thing can be said of the backyard shed if there is a gas powered lawnmower in it.
In short: barrel size and barrel placement are key if you choose this path.
Not everyone has enough space, whiskey, or time, for a barrel aging process. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still age your own whiskey at home.
One process becoming more popular is bottle aging. In this process, instead of putting your whiskey in a barrel, you put the barrel in your whiskey. Stay with me here, I promise this isn’t crazy talk: you place the oak in a bottle along with the whiskey, seal it up, and let it age.
This is something that the folks at Oak & Eden actually do on an industrial scale, and their products come out tasting pretty darn good. While this process isn’t as visually appealing as the barrel aging and won’t have all of the same benefits of your local environment acting on your whiskey, there are some very good reasons why you might want to give this a try.
The first benefit is that this is a very compact process. There’s no need for a lot of space or a huge investment in equipment, it can be as simple as popping the cork on a bottle of whiskey and dropping a stick of wood inside. As seen in my photo above, you can do it in a mason jar if that’s what you have handy.
The second big benefit is that the process is quick. According to the folks at Oak & Eden, at six weeks the maximum flavor has been extracted from the wood that you’ve added to the bottle, and there’s nothing more that will change in terms of the flavor profile. So you’ve gone from a mediocre bottle to a custom aged masterpiece in less than two months, compared to potentially years with an oak barrel.
We here at 31W have reviewed a couple of commercially available options, and you can check out those reviews here:
Considerations for Adding Flavors
Another option that you have is the ability to add flavors beyond just the charred oak.
One option is to smoke your barrel (or in-bottle stick) with some local wood before adding the whiskey. This is something that Ranger Creek in San Antonio does with some of their whiskey, adding a mesquite wood smoke to the barrels that then seeps into the whiskey and makes for some amazing flavors.
Another option is to add flavors to the whiskey by maceration. Basically you grab a bunch of fruit and/or spices, put them in a big tea bag, and make a whiskey tea by letting the components steep in the whiskey. You can speed up the process by adding some heat, or just let it naturally leech out into the spirit. This is actually the exact way that some gin is made, as well as spiced rum.
Adding artificial flavors is possible as well — but allowing the real fruits and spices to interact with the whiskey will typically get the best results.
Over the last few decades we’ve seen a shift in the market towards a desire for authenticity. From local craft distilled whiskey to “#nofilter” photos on Instagram, we are all looking for something we know is real and not something put together by computer algorithms or large marketing firms. Real, homemade whiskey is quite possibly the most authentic thing I can think of — and one that really does take some time and personal effort. It’s something where you, as a discerning drinker, have the ability to put your own heart and soul into producing a whiskey you like and sharing it with others. Personally I like to encourage that kind of adventurous spirit wherever I can — especially when it’s not breaking any laws.
Should you decide to try this yourself, please know: you will make mistakes. You will have terrible batches of whiskey that go straight down the drain. But once you make that first glass of truly great whiskey, I guarantee the journey will feel worthwhile.