DISTILLATION: THE PROOF IS IN THE PROCESS

In the world of alcohol, there are no set dates for when beer, wine, and spirits were invented or discovered (and we’re not entirely sure which of those terms is correct).  It is generally accepted that wine emerged sometime around 5,000-7,000 BC and there are tablets with beer recipes from Babylonia dating back to 4300 BC. Spirits came later, with indications of stills (the vessels used to make spirits) being used in India as far back as 500 BC.  Aristotle first wrote about the process of distillation in 327 BC, remarking that drinking a distilled beer or wine put ‘spirits’ into the body of the drinker.  However the person who is officially credited with the beginnings of distillation was Gerber, a scientist from Iraq who wrote about the chemistry and philosophy of distillation in the late 8th century.  Spirits came after wine and beer because, essentially, all spirits begin as either wine or beer.

The process of distillation is simply the concentration of alcohol through evaporation.  The word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al ko’hl”, or finely divided, which makes sense: alcohol divides from water when it is heated.  The theory behind distillation is similar to making a reduction sauce.  In its simplest form, we start with a fermented liquid (a wine or beer).  The liquid is then put into a pot and heated.  Where water boils at 212°F (100°C), alcohol boils at only 173.8°F (78.7°C).  The liquid is therefore heated only to 173.8°F, leaving the water as water but turning the alcohol into vapor.  As the alcohol vapor rises, it begins to cool down and return to liquid form.  This liquid—which is concentrated, as it has separated from the water—is then caught and drawn off. 

This newly concentrated alcoholic liquid is collected, reheated and put through this process again.  Some spirits are only distilled twice (such as Scotch or Cognac), and some are distilled three times (Irish whiskey, Bourbon, some gins and tequilas).  In a different method, some spirits are distilled over and over continuously by connecting two stills together.  The evaporated spirit is drawn off and directed into the other still where it condenses and the liquid falls to the bottom.  As this concentrated alcoholic liquid reaches the bottom of the second still, it is heated. The alcohol turns back into vapor and rises, is collected, and is drawn off back into the first still.  This process can go on continually.  Therefore some spirits may go through the distillation process only twice, while some spirits are distilled thousands and thousands of times. 

Each time a liquid is distilled, it becomes more and more concentrated with a higher percentage of alcohol.  The “proof” of a spirit indicates twice the amount of the percentage of alcohol.  For example, an alcohol that is 80 proof is 40% alcohol; one that is 100 proof is 50% alcohol, and so forth.  The name comes from early American distillers who would determine the strength of their spirit by lighting it on fire.  If it wouldn’t light, it was too weak, or if it burned too hot, it was too strong.  But an even flame indicated that the wine was considered 100% pure, which we changed to 100 proof.  A 100 proof mixture turned out to be 50% alcohol and 50% water.  Thus proof is twice the amount of the alcohol by volume. 

So what makes one spirit different from another?  Just like wine, the main difference comes in the base material.  All spirits begin as either a fruit or a grain or, essentially, a wine or a beer.  Many brandies (Cognac, Armagnac, Spanish brandy) are grape-based.  Grapes are fermented like wine and then distilled in pots.  Other brandies (eau de vie, framboise) are based on other fruits, such as raspberries or plums.  Fruits are fermented like grapes and then distilled in pots or column stills.  Whiskeys (Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon) are grain-based, using ingredients such as barley, corn, and rye.  Here the grains are converted into sugar, as with beer, and then distilled.  Gin is also made from grains, while rum is made from sugar cane, tequila from the blue agave plant, and vodka from anything you can convert into sugar and ferment (grapes, potatoes, grain, vegetables, anything!). 

Spirits are further divided into “brown spirits” and “clear spirits.”  The difference is determined by whether or not the spirits are aged in oak.  Some spirits are always brown, such as whiskey, as they are always aged in oak.  Some spirits are always clear, such as gin and vodka, which are never aged in oak. Other spirits, however, may or may not be aged, depending on the preference of the distiller or the characteristics of the materials.  Rums can be light or dark, tequila can be silver (blanco) or aged (reposado or añejo).  Some brandies are aged in oak, such as Cognac and Armagnac, while other fruit brandies are often un-aged and are clear.  The oak is what gives the spirit its darker color.  Just as with wine, oak will contribute smoky flavors, a heavier body, some nutty characteristics, and flavors such as vanilla, dill, cinnamon, and clove. 

What is compelling (and the most fun to research) is what makes some spirits higher quality than others.  Spirits can be analyzed the same way as wines or beers.  If the base materials are of lesser quality, the spirit will be too.  Just as meticulous winemaking effects the final product, the distiller’s attention to  still selection and his control over the distillation process itself is critical.  Unbalanced spirits can taste bland and one-dimensional or, more likely, “hot,” meaning the spirit tastes overwhelmingly of alcohol and most flavor and texture is lost.  Conversely, well-made spirits will be balanced and complex with flavors reflecting fruits, spices, flowers, nuts, and any number of other characteristics.  The alcohol in well-made spirits will be well integrated and the flavors will linger over the finish.  Just like we shouldn’t write off all Chardonnay or all Chianti, we shouldn’t write off all tequila or all whiskey.  Any poorly made spirit can be disappointing, but perfectly crafted tequila or an artistically distilled Scotch can quickly resurrect your confidence in a given spirit. 

When Aristotle wrote about spirits in the 4th century BC, what they were distilling was perfumes, and occasionally water to make it potable.  He didn’t have the opportunity to try Scotch, which didn’t emerge until the 5th century AD, or tequila (16th century), or rum (17th century).  A shame, really, for Aristotle.

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Categories: Wine & Spirits

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