Malt is simply a grain that has been allowed to sprout, and then through adding heat, toasted to stop the process. The grain, when it begins to sprout, creates enzymes that convert the grain’s starch to sugars in order to feed the new plant. These enzymes are needed in the mash in order for the yeast to make alcohol from the sugars created by the malt’s enzymes. Any grain can be malted for this enzyme creation, but some grains are more efficient than others in enzyme production. Barley malt is one of the most efficient and that is why it is the most common malt found in whiskey production. It takes about 10% malt to have a full conversion in the mash to obtain the best yield of alcohol from the mash.

Distillers have known about the need for malt for centuries, but the understanding of chemical need is relatively recent. In the 18th century, many distillers were using from 5% to 10% malt in their mash. Malt is the most expensive grain in the mash because of the cost of the malting process and it is the most difficult to obtain. Most early distillers were obtaining their malt from beer brewers, but some were malting their own grain for their mash. 

As the chemical properties were beginning to be understood, the distillers increased their percentage of malt in order to get the most alcohol possible from their distiller’s beer and produce more whiskey from the mash. Most distillers in the 19th century were using from 8% to 12% malt in their mash. Malt also contributes a flavor component in the final product, adding sweetness and nutty flavors to the final product. 

E.H. Taylor, Jr. bragged that he was using three times the malt used by most distillers in his whiskey production at the OFC distillery in Frankfort, Ky. He believed it added sweetness and a hazelnut flavor to his whiskey that set it aside from other whiskeys. Some distillers also malted rye for their rye whiskey. The Old Pogue distillery in Maysville, Ky. was just one distillery that made a 100% malted rye whiskey – Maysville Club Rye. 

For most of the 20th century, distillers used the 8% to 12% malt formula for making their whiskey. In the 1980s however, the production of artificial enzymes became economical and distilleries, looking to save money in this era of declining whiskey sales, began to reduce the amount of malt used to make their mash by adding these artificial enzymes. 

These artificial enzymes do not have the flavor components that malted barley has, so there was some flavor drift in their products. A prime example of this took place at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery in Shively, Ky. When Ed Foote was hired as the Master Distiller, his new bosses had him start reducing the amount of malt in their whiskey to save money in whiskey production. He experimented with the yield and found the artificial enzymes could create an equal yield if they reduced the malt from 12% to 8% and added the artificial enzymes. People often comment about the change of flavor from the Old Fitzgerald Bourbon made in the 1980s compared to earlier production. The 1980s whiskey does lack some of the hazelnut or pecan notes found in the earlier Bourbon. You can find out more about Ed’s experiments at the Filson Historical Society, as Ed donated his distiller’s diaries to the Filson and they are part of their collection. 

Some distillers do not use artificial enzymes at all because of the change in the flavor profile of their whiskey and would rather pay the extra cost for malt than have a flavor drift in their whiskey that might alienate their consumers.

In the 21st century, there are many distillers using artificial enzymes extensively. Many are using as little as 4% malt in their mash. Some have eliminated malt completely and use artificial enzymes to convert the starch to sugar. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it focuses the flavors from the grains they are using in the mash. 

Other distillers have gone the other route by experimenting with malting other grains. The Woodstone Creek Bourbon out of Cincinnati, uses malted barley, malted rye and malted wheat in their Bourbon. Others are experimenting with the use of other beer malts such as chocolate malt and caramel malt in their whiskey, each adding unique flavors to the whiskey.

Malt plays an important role in making whiskey. It is exciting to see how different distilleries use malt to make their whiskey unique and attract consumers. With the growth of the whiskey distilling industry, it will be interesting to see how new distillers handle the use of malt.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller