Right now, we* are making whiskey.
Specifically, it’s whiskey distilled from bourbon mash.
The moment it goes into a new and unused, charred, American white oak barrel, it becomes bourbon.
Often, people are surprised that we can make bourbon: there’s a widespread myth that it has to be made in Kentucky; in particular, Bourbon County, but – fun fact! – Bourbon County is dry, and contains exactly zero distilleries. You can neither make nor drink bourbon in Bourbon. However, Kentucky or not, there are strict guidelines regarding bourbon. In short: it has to be made from all grain (no extracts or additives), and that grain must be mostly corn (we also use rye and barley). It must be made in the United States – any ol’ state will do - and aged in a new barrel. It can be aged for 30 seconds or 30 years; it doesn’t matter, as long as the barrel is new. After two years of aging, it can be called straight bourbon. The barrel is where the color comes from; bourbon is brown because of the char of the wood – artificial coloring is not allowed in bourbon.** When it goes into the barrel, it can be no stronger than 62.5% alcohol by volume; however, it can be produced slightly stronger, at no higher than 80% alcohol. When it’s bottled, it has to be 40% or greater.
Side note: Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon produced in Tennessee. We can not make that at our current address.
We’ll also be bottling some of the whiskey “unaged” – really, marginally aged in used barrels; legally, we can’t sell anything straight from the still. Instead, from every batch, anything that doesn’t fit neatly into new barrels will be splashed into a used barrel for half an hour before being bottled; thirty minutes in a used barrel won’t add any color or wood character. That way, the same batch will be available both aged and unaged. Take note, whiskey geeks! This will give you the opportunity for side-by-side comparison of the aging process.
Legally, the clear, “unaged” whiskey will not be bourbon; instead, it will remain “whiskey distilled from bourbon mash” – which is not to be confused with “moonshine”. “Moonshine” is a catch-all term that’s used to described any illegally produced spirits; i.e. made by the light of the moon. It could be whiskey, or something close to it; however, being illegal, there aren’t any rules or standards. Often, it’s not made with grain, but rather whatever convenient fermentables are at hand – sugar, fruit, prison dessert – whatever. Anything that comes off the still is clear, regardless of the color going in. If a spirit is being produced illegally, it probably won’t be conspicuously stored in large oak barrels to acquire color, so by default most moonshine will be clear.
Since this post so closely resembles a Wikipedia article already, I will dispense with the usual list of things to look up. Your poor brains have had more than enough fascinating information crammed into them for a Monday morning.
However, I’m sure you’re disappointed because you were looking forward to another couple hours of research to further distract yourself from work. May I suggest reddit or tvtropes instead? I disclaim any responsibility if you get nothing done today.
*Actually, right now, WE aren’t doing anything. We have created and enslaved billions of little yeasties to do our bidding. Tomorrow, they’re going into the still, where they’ll going to be the lucky recipients of billions of one-way tickets to Yeast Heaven. Hooray!
** Caramel coloring is actually used to color a lot of other whiskeys, including a remarkable number of high-end single-malt scotches; since scotch is aged in used barrels, even a decade or more of aging will naturally result in a spirit the color of white wine. The use of spirit caramel – E150a-d – has become quite controversial in scotch, although it is permissible by law. Caramel coloring is also used in a variety of other spirits, both imported and domestic; ever drink “gold” tequila or dark “spiced” rum? Guess what…