Spirits and liquors are all created using a millennium-old process called distillation. While many of the ingredients and processes vary dramatically, they all rely on this ancient process. Good distillation is part art, part science. It takes an artisan's keen and developed senses to properly “cut” the product during this process. However, it is equally important that there be some serious attention to detail. Ingredient ratios, temperatures, and time are all variables that must be exact in order for the product to turn out right. In this post we'll go through the basic steps a distiller must take in order to bottle that perfect batch of booze.
Fermenting the Mash
All forms of alcohol start their lives in some kind of mash. This is typically a mix of simple or complex carbohydrates, water, and yeast. The mash is then left to ferment for about 2 weeks on average. During this time, the yeast feeds on the carbohydrates but produces a metabolic byproduct in the form of alcohol. Different types of alcohol use different mashes. Wine usually uses grapes whereas beer, vodka, and whiskey all tend to use grain. Some vodka uses potato, or even beets, and some whiskey uses plain table sugar. It all depends on the flavor profile the distiller is trying to achieve.
Distilling the Mash
Once fermentation has completed, all of the liquor is there in the mash. The only problem is that it's mixed up in a slurry of enzymes, carbohydrates, proteins, debris, and volatile alcohols like methanol and acetone. Lucky for us, alcohol has a much lower evaporating temperature than all of that other stuff. This is where the ingenious technology of the still comes in. A still is basically just a pot to heat up the mash, with a lid that funnels the steam into a tube. The tube is then directed into a container to collect the distillate. Voila, high-proof alcohol trickles out one drop at a time.
There are many different types of stills out there these days. A reflux still, for example, has a column between the boiler and the distillate container that is packed with copper mesh. This allows condensation to collect and drop back to the boiler that is not pure alcohol, resulting in a much purer alcohol. Other stills have chambers where you can pack herbs or other flavoring materials to infuse the product with different flavor tones during distillation.
Collecting the Distillate
The process of collection is the most difficult step in distilling. This is because a run of a still has four stages that have to be accurately identified by the distiller's senses in order to maximize quality.
These four stages are known as the foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails.
The foreshots are the first 5% or so of the run and contain volatile compounds like methanol. Consuming methanol can make you blind, among other uncomfortable side effects, so those get thrown out. Next come the heads, these are marked by a solvent-like scent brought on by the high levels of acetone present. While the alcohols in the heads are also volatile, they're more likely to give you a whopping hangover than take your vision. The hearts are the sweet spot, identified by the very sweet smell and taste of ethanol present. A good distiller will maximize the hearts by knowing exactly when they start and end. Finally, the tails begin to produce an oily layer on top of the alcohol. This is from water and other compounds present from the mash. The tails can be re-distilled at a later time.
A Good Time in a Bottle
As you can see, the process of making liquor and spirits is pretty simple in theory but extremely challenging in execution. It's amazing that some brilliant alchemist “cooked up” this process several thousand years ago. Today, it's easy to get your hands on the equipment necessary to make your own spirits. Mile Hi Distilling carries all of the equipment and supplies you would need, they also have excellent write ups that go into more detail. Check out this post on how to make vodka. Always keep in mind that your local laws probably regulate this activity carefully, so educate yourself before you purchase.
Author: Kyle Rutten is a Colorado native and a writer for Mile Hi Distilling. He thoroughly enjoys the distilling process and loves learning about new and different ways of creating spirits.