Whiskey Basics: How alcohol is made

I’m going to oversimplify some things in a big way here. All of the information I include here is gathered from a handful of books and forums. This is meant to help you understand the basics of how liquor is made.

It won’t make you an expert or prepare you to make any alcohol, but it might give you the ability to answer some questions if you decide to host your own whiskey club. To help clarify some of the process, I’m including some doodles. To begin, let’s cover the process of alcohol being made!

Yeast - who is he?

Yeast is a fungus. It’s used in a lot of foods such as bread, and there are a lot of types of yeast. 

This illustration is meant to represent yeast. It doesn’t actually look anything like yeast, but it’s fun so this is what we’ll be using. Say hello to my yeast monster.

This is not really yeast. It's a monster I drew that I'm calling yeast.

How Yeast Poops out alcohol

This is a not-to-scale yeast monster eating a huge sugar cube and pooping out a whole bottle of alcohol

When yeast eats sugar and has very little air to breathe, it produces alcohol. If the yeast has enough air, it reproduces instead.

But wait! You may be thinking, “Whiskey is corn and barley and rye! How does the yeast turn that into alcohol? Corn is not sugar!”

Good call. Let’s talk about this next.

Enzyme - I haven't heard of him before, why is he here?

Enzymes are little guys that break down starches into sugars. They exist out in the wild and come in many forms. 

A very common one to see discussed in home brewing forums is amylase. This can be introduced very early in the process to convert the starches in rice, corn, rye, potatoes, and other stuff into sugars that yeast can digest.

Let’s see the enzyme in action –

Much like my yeast monster, this is not a real enzyme.

Enzyme Eats the corn starch

Actor portrayal of an enzyme eating a starchy kernel of corn. Look at him eat it. He loves corn.

Step 1 –


Enzyme poops out sugar

Step 2 –


Now he's going to poop out a block of sugar. It's funny because the fungus (yeast) is going to come along and eat it and then poop that out and then you're going to drink it. This whole process is disgusting.

That’s it! Well, there’s more to it than that but this is a generalization of the process. It’s plenty enough to get you through a basic conversation about brewing and distilling.

In the future, we’ll cover how this clear alcohol becomes whiskey, why it turns brown, and why it matters what ingredients are used if you just separate it all later anyway.

As a note, distilling is heavily regulated and usually requires special permits to do. However, making beer is usually fine in the United States, and that’s a huge amount of the work. In any case, before you actually try to make a beer or something harder, do much, much more research than just reading this and know all your local laws.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit
Close Menu