Making Distilled Spirits

When we’re out pouring Batch 22 for the public at events, the most common question we’re asked is, “What is it?” We usually reply with the following description: “It’s a neutral grain spirit infused with botanicals, spices, and citrus.” For some folks, this is a satisfying answer, but for many, it still begs more description. Truth is, not everyone really knows what a “spirit” is or how to make distilled spirits. Even fewer know what a “neutral” spirit is. No biggie. We’re here to help.

So, this week, let’s get technical.

What Is a Spirit?

Spirits are the category of alcoholic beverage that contain the highest ABV (alcohol by volume) liquors. Distilled spirits are made by fermenting a sugar-rich ingredient (grain, corn, potatoes, fruit e.g.). The fermentation process converts the sugars in the ingredient into alcohol after the introduction of yeast. The yeast are tiny organisms that love to eat sugar, so when they’re mixed into a sugary liquid, they go to town and eat as much of the sugar as they can. What they egest are alcohol and CO2. What they don’t ingest remains as residual sugar in the liquid.

Why don’t the yeasts eat all the sugar that there is? Well, once the liquid reaches 14%-18% ABV, the alcohol level becomes toxic to the yeast, so fermentation stops. So what if you want a liquor that’s stronger than 18%? You take the fermented liquid and distill it, which basically means you concentrate the alcohol by reducing the volume of water in the mixture. How do you do that? You boil it.

What Is Distilling?

In a nutshell, distilling is the process by which water and alcohol are separated from one another through a process of very controlled heating and cooling. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (alcohol boils at 173ºF. as opposed to water, which boils at 212ºF.) a distiller can heat a fermented liquid (also called a “mash”), so the alcohol evaporates while the water remains behind. This is done in a fairly simple device called a still. At its boiling point, the alcohol turns to a vapor and rises up through a series of chambers in the still, where it is then cooled, causing it to condense back into a liquid. Liquid alcohol, that is.

What Is a Neutral Spirit?

The stuff that’s produced by distilling spirits, the condensation in the still, is generally a clear, flavorless liquid that’s pure ethanol (alcohol). Because it is flavorless, it is generally referred to as a “neutral” spirit. This is the basis of vodka, gin, whisky, aquavit, and lots of other kinds of liquor. With vodka, the liquid remains mostly neutral. With gin, the liquid is infused with juniper berries and a whole host of other spices and botanicals. With whiskey, the liquid is barrel-aged, which can include a wide variety of barrels. For aquavit, the liquid is infused with caraway and is often accompanied by dill, citrus, and other spices or botanicals.

How Do You Get a Specific ABV?

Pure alcohol is 200 Proof. You don’t want to drink that. In fact, you probably don’t even want to inhale near it. In order to create alcoholic beverages that are palatable, spirits producers have to add water or other liquids to get their beverage to the desired proof. The more liquid that’s added, the lower the proof. Spirits producers have very specific methods for testing the alcohol levels in their beverages, partly because it’s important to create a consistent product (you can’t bottle one run at 40% alcohol and then bottle the next at 50% without calling it something completely different), but also because the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) has very strict regulations about listing alcohol levels accurately and consistently.

Stills vary widely, as do distilling techniques and fermentable ingredients that are used in a mash. All those variables help to populate the world of spirits with an infinite variety of flavors, colors, and aromas. At the heart of all those drinks, however, is the simple process of separating alcohol from water.

So, there you have it: Distilling 101. We hope learning more about the process lifted your spirits!

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