Fermented beverages such as wine and beer are great. I have happily consumed a great deal of both and I intend to consume many more before my time is done. Although a lot of work is done by humans to create the wines, beers and ciders that I enjoy so much, that human interference isn’t necessary to make fermentation happen. Given the right conditions grapes, grains and anything else with a high sugar content will ferment. Distillation on the other hand cannot happen without humans. Our cleverness must be applied to turn a beverage from the low ABV (read our post about ABV here) that can happen naturally, to a higher ABV beverage worthy of doing shots of. When I hold a glass of a fantastic distillate to my nose; be it whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit; I am on some level aware that it would not exist with-out humankind. Somehow that awareness makes me feel an ownership over hard alcohol. Or maybe a kinship, something that I don’t feel with wine and beer. I have a sense of the romance of the creative process involved. And then there’s another feeling that I just can’t shake, despite my knowledge of the science involved; the feeling that there’s magic involved too.
From a historical perspective this feeling isn’t too off base. In its early days the practice of Distillation was the realm of alchemists looking for eternal youth¹, and witches (or at least people named and killed as such for their practice) ². The language we use refers to this magic as well, with the whole category of distillates being referred to as “spirits”.
To get those “spirits” The distiller has to start with what is called a “mash”.
This mash is a fermented substance, a crude beer or wine, generally made by the distiller to the distiller’s specifications. Those specifications are the recipe, or what in the industry is called the “mash bill”. For example, a distiller’s mash bill for their bourbon (for more on bourbon read our post “whiskey, what is that stuff anyway?”) might be 60% corn, 37% wheat, and 3% barley.
To distill the mash into hard alcohol, you need a still (For an overview of the entire spirits making process, read our post “Stealing the Limelight from Beer and Wine”). One of two kinds of stills is used. A pot still (often for richer spirits like whiskey or brandy) or a column/continuous still (often for neutral spirits, like vodka) In either case, the stills are made up of similar components. There are 3 parts that are key in a basic understanding of how the still works. The boiling chamber, condenser, and the collector.
The strained mash is put into the boiler. This is where it’s heated to the boiling point of alcohol (173° Fahrenheit), which is below the boiling point of water (212° Fahrenheit). The alcohol, which has now changed from its liquid form to its steam form, rises in the still trying to find a place to escape. What it eventually finds is the top of the still and a small tunnel offering the promise of escape. It goes into the tunnel, where it is led into and down a pipe that has cold water flowing around it. This is the “Condenser”, and the cold water lowers the temperature of our steam, turning it back into its liquid form. The alcohol that pours into the collector has now been separated from the water and many impurities present at the beginning. Ta Da, liquor!
Well, sort of. The first distillation “run” produces what are called low wines. These are lower in alcohol, and still carry more impurities than one wants in a distillate. So back in the boiler they go! The low wines are heated, alcohol turns to steam, the steam goes up up! and finds its way to the condenser, the steam is cooled and… Voila, liquor! For real this time.
From here all kinds of fun things can happen. Further distillations, distillation runs with spices, herbs, or various foods like oranges, barrel aging… but none of it needs to happen. Humankind’s ingenuity and science have come together to distill a magical (and hopefully delicious), beverage. Bottom’s up!
Spirits = hard alcohol = liquor = distillate, these are interchangeable.
Distill: From the Latin, de- meaning “down” or “away”, still meaning “a drop”. To “extract by distillation”.
Still: The apparatus necessary to perform distillation.
Distillate: The liquid that is the product of distillation.
Mash: Crushed malt or grain meal steeped and stirred in hot water to produce wort. (Mirriam Webster also defines it as a soft pulpy mass, which applies here as well. It also sounds slightly erotic, am I right?)
Mashbill: The recipe that the “Mash” is created from.
¹Bynum, William. “A Little History of Science.” Yale University Press, 2012, Great Britain. Ch 9
²Minnick, Fred “Whiskey Women” University of Nebraska, Potomac Books, 2013.
1. "The Alchemist" by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
2. Image of Mash from hillbillystills.com
3. Image of a Pot Still from malt-whisky.eu
4. Snow White gif courtesy of Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World