One of the more common questions I receive from craft distillers is, what are the differences between your “Distillers” malt and your “Brewers” malt? To which, I typically respond with another question. What kind of whiskey are you wanting to produce, or what does your grain bill consist of? This cuts right to the chase and gets into which product will best serve that particular distiller’s need. There are many differences, which begin with barley sourcing, continue into the Malthouse with different processing parameters, to meet quite different specifications. Examining these differences in greater detail will give you a better idea of which product is best used for your spirit, and why.

Let’s first take a look at some of the key analytical difference between these malts. Below, is a chart that shows some of the most critical parameters, and compares general specifications for them.

General Specifications

 MoistureProteinExtract FG dbDPAA
Brewers Maltmax 4.5max 12.5%80%110 – 13040 – 60
Distillers Maltmax 6.5min 13.0%77%min 240min 90

Primary Differences

The most glaring difference is in enzyme level. Both Diastatic Power and Alpha Amylase levels are significantly higher in the Distillers malt than the brewers. We also see that the distiller’s malt requires a higher protein barley, which results in a lower extract, since those two parameters are inversely proportional to each other.

To start to understand why, we need to start discussing the application. Here in the U.S. our distiller’s malt has been designed to convert grain bills made of mostly corn. Barley malt is the only source of enzyme and used at low percentages (8-12%) required maltsters to produce a very high enzymatic malt. To help achieve this they have learned to use higher protein barley, which will have a greater potential to reach higher levels of enzymes, since enzymes are proteins. The maltster will also “modify”/grow the barley as much as they can during the germination step of the process. The higher degree of modification, the more enzymes are produced. Once produced they will try to preserve as much as possible during the final kilning step by using lower heats with increased air flow, limiting denaturing.

Distillers vs. Brewers

The American Whiskey Distiller will sacrifice having a slightly higher moisture, lower extract malt to assure that the enzyme levels are adequate to effectively and efficiently convert all the extract coming from the much higher percentage of raw grains. It’s all about the enzyme for these distillers. The better conversion, the more sugar and thus alcohol produced during fermentation, ultimately resulting in more proof gallons per bushel coming off your still.

A brewer, on the other hand, expects more from his malt. It not only provides the enzyme package, it is also the source of extract, provides much of the flavor, and all of the colors in a beer. For many brewers, it also provides the ever so important filtration media (the husk) for their lautering operations. In the Malthouse germination temperature is more tightly controlled to produce just enough enzyme while not consuming too much of the starchy endosperm. Higher temperatures are then used in kilning and/or roasting to develop flavor compounds through the Maillard reaction.


The craft distiller wanting to produce an all malt whiskey like a Scotch or Irish – style, shares many of the needs of the brewer. Their malt is also the sole source of extract and provides the entire enzyme package for conversion of that extract. While not providing color, flavor certainly is important for the all malt distiller, so a good 2-row brewer’s malt is a great start for an all malt whiskey grain bill.

At the end of the day you want to make sure you are using the right malt for the spirit you are producing. For the American whiskey or grain based vodka distiller that can’t or won’t use synthetic enzymes in their process, an American Distillers malt used at a small percentage of total grain bill is the best all natural solution. However, the “all” malt distiller, not wanting to purchase expensive EU distillers malt, can look to choose a good domestic 2row Pale or Pilsen brewers malt to be the backbone of their spirit.

This article was first published on Feb 29, 2016