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Eight Year Old Whiskey in Four Weeks

I’ve been wrestling with time and space in many an engineering project, but never tackled any issue involving the age of something. This excellent adventure I will discuss here did not start out with that intent either.
As a service manager for a machinery company I had access to lots of industrial toys. This company built a laboratory and workshop primarily so I could explore and develop new machine tool related stuff, but they also gave me a free hand and when it was time to look the other way, they did.
I found a large stainless steel tank in a junk heap and the wheels started to turn. The little voices in my head jumped aboard, too. I got the bright idea to build a whiskey still. Now, I had no illusion about inventing it, but thought just perhaps I could do something different.
To begin with, my still would be all stainless steel. No copper and the problems with soldered joints. Also, alcohol boils at 187 degrees. So a cooker with a water jacket could never exceed the boiling point of water, 212 degrees. I had been using a double boiler in my kitchen for years. Never a burned pot of soup! So I exported this technique to my whiskey still. It seemed like the right thing to do. It was.
After getting the hardware built, it was time to figure out the chemistry………..the recipe. I went to the VCU library and found a book on the subject. There was a good and simple recipe that I would use. Bad Idea! It turned out to be some author’s fanciful idea of how to make whiskey. Perhaps he sold books, but he never made whiskey like he wrote, I am here to tell you. It made a damn mess, and little more.
I called a dear friend on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation for help. I knew they had been making whiskey for centuries. Now, these guys aren’t ‘Native Americans’ or ‘First Americans’…………they are Indians and proud to be just that. My friend, Kevin was imported from a tribe in upstate New York because this local tribe was running out of young men. When he moved down, he first built a ‘longhouse’ in the ancient tradition. Well, he got tired of roughing it and built a more contemporary house, a fine two story civilized structure. Almost. His son, Ishi had his bedroom upstairs with no steps or ladder to get up there. He would have to run, jump and scale a wall to go to bed. Clearly these were Indians, still.
Anyway, Kevin came out to the farm and helped with my process and things turned around. I first made corn whiskey and it was OK, but not for me. I then experimented with rice. Now it did not have a great flavor, but to drink it was like taking speed and getting drunk all at once. A very alert drunk, I should say. Again, not for me.
When I tried different grains, I found the sweet spot. I settled for barley and rye. Kevin had tried everything………green tomatoes were interesting and really tasty. He even made whiskey from horseshit just to demonstrate that it could be done. No, I didn’t try it.
During the experiments, I discovered several things that are never written about. First, the fermenting stage is very important to get right. The correct yeast is pivotal. The, the brew needs cultivating and chemical entertainment. Yeast nutrients are added, but it really loves vitamin C. A vat of brew can chugging along, then I would add a quart of lemon juice and Katy bar the door! The drum would vibrate and tremble.
Two hydrometers are used. These little gadgets float in the solution and give a specific gravity reading reflecting remaining sugar content of the fermenting solution, and after distilling, a different one tells the ‘proof’ of the product.
If you distill too soon, low proof will result and sugars are wasted. Too late and it becomes vinegar of no use whatsoever.
Using the double boiler method, it was relatively easy to regulate the distilling temperature, which was found to be critical. The slower I distilled, the smoother the product would be. I found that the happy medium was to throttle the burner so a minimum stream would be produced. Just above a drip, but no more than a toothpick sized stream.
The coil leveling was found to be of paramount importance. If the condensing coil was out of level any more than the diameter of the tubing, an airlock would result, requiring an elevated temperature to cause a flow. It needs to breathe free and easy.
Remember, alcohol boils at 187 degrees. Any more than that, the impurities come on down the line, too.
Chance, my little girl was a willing co-conspirator at age three. Her job was to stick her finger in the jar to tell me when it was near full. She’s blind so the finger technique worked. Adapt, improvise, and overcome. The distilling process would take about ten hours as slow as we ran it, so I would nap with my trusted accomplice on stand-by.
So, then we have white whiskey. At first, it comes out strong, about 140 proof. That’s called the ‘high shots’. I would collect it down to about 75 proof and mix the whole batch which resulted in an easy 110 proof or so for the whole batch.
Now we get down to the aging process. The big distilleries will burn the interior of an oak drum, fill it with white whiskey and let it sit for years. The burned oak imparts the color and flavor, making Bourbon.
I put the whiskey in stainless steel canisters and inserted burned strips of oak, increasing the area of oak exposed to the volume of fluid. I then hung the canisters with rubber cords and attached vibrator motors to accelerate the aging. Also adding juniper berries and almonds, the batch would be done in four weeks. The product was eight year old whiskey and I would defy anyone to tell the difference.


606 Posts
Always a good read


You always provide a good read.
Wondering if "the Collected Works of Ryland Fleet" has ever been an idea?

11,847 Posts
I love th image of Chance waiting for the level to raise while you napped on a nearby cot.
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