How are spirits made? (from seed to bottle)

Have you ever asked yourself a question: “What are spirits made from?” or “What is it that you need to be spirit production from seed to bottleaware of when choosing a spirit?”

Why should you even care?

Here are a few reasons to be educated about alcohol:

  • No hangovers next day
  • You can impress your friends with your knowledge
  • You can make outstanding cocktails
  • Or simply you can do it for yourself

Humans have benefited from the process of alcohol production for thousands of years. Here you will explore how the complete process of spirit production works today. Plus, you will learn about different types of spirits and liqueurs based on distinctive flavours and different types of body.

So if you are on board, let’s dive right in.

Raw Materials

It all start with the basic materials grapes, apples, barley, rice, sugarcane or corn, any of them can be with a help of yeast transformed into alcohol. Basically, any material that contains sugar can be transformed into alcohol.

The raw materials used for making a distilled spirit are two basic types:

  1. Those containing a high concentration of natural sugars (grapes, molasses, fruit juice).
  2. Those containing other carbohydrates(starches) that can easily be converted to sugars by enzymes (grains. potatoes).

raw materials for fermentation

Potatoes are firstly boiled until gelatinized, then the water is discarded and potatoes are mashed. Mashed potatoes are mixed again with water, malted barley and boiled. The mixture is then cooled and the barley malt enzymes break down the potato starch.

Grain(corn, rye, wheat, barley) is firstly grounded then mixed with water and cooked. The cooked grain is then mixed with malted barley and warm water. After several hours the mixture is converted into a sugar-rich liquid known as mash.

The Grape itself contains all the necessary ingredients for the production of wine (alcohol): pulp, juice, sugars, acids, tannins, and minerals. Grapes are firstly harvested then crushed and pressed to release grape juice( must).

The sugarcane is the primary ingredient for the production of alcohol in which molasses and sugarcane juice are the by-products. Sugarcane is firstly cut into short pieces or shreds. Sugar cane juice is then extracted, clarified, and transferred into evaporator that boils the juice so the syrup remains. The raw sugar crystallises and separates from the concentrated syrup. The remaining syrup is called molasses.

Malted Barley – The raw barley is firstly soaked for a couple of days with water, absorbs the moisture and start to sprout. The grain is then transferred to the malting floor and constantly turned over for a couple of days while it is air-dried. The grain at this point is called ”green malt”, a dried barley grain full of sugar, starch and a particular kind of enzyme.

FERMENTATION

fermentation of alcohol

” Fermentation is the process in which yeast breaks down sugar into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide(CO2). ”

  • Carbon dioxide(co2) is what makes the drinks fizzy. Why are all the drinks not carbonated then? Simply because when the process of fermentation is being placed in a VAT Carbon Dioxide(CO2) escapes. On the other hand, brewers usually keep a little bit to make a beer foamy. And Carbon dioxide is also essential during the second fermentation of Champagne.
  • Yeast is a single-celled organism present in the materials themselves but also everywhere around us, capable of preserving food or fermenting drinks. A few of the species are extremely effective at fermentation so that brewers and distillers decided to add them manually for the more efficient fermentation process.

By fermenting the raw materials we will get a wash (typically less than 15% ABV) which is a similar product to beer, wine or cider.

Yeast usually can’t survive in high levels of alcohol because the more alcohol they create, the less sugar there is for them to feed on.

That’s why we can’t keep fermenting the wash to get a higher strength spirit, we usually need the second stage distillation.

DISTILLATION

distillation of alcoholic products

Distillation can be typically done in two ways either in a continuous column still or pot still, each particular distillation process will influence its flavour and body.

The goal of distillation is to extract ethyl alcohol from a fermented mash or wash similar to wine and beer.

There are typically 4 stages of alcohol distillation:

Distillation is commonly used to separate ethanol from water. It works when the liquids have different boiling points. 

  1. Heating – Water and ethanol solution are firstly heated. Ethanol(78.5 °C, or 173.3 °F) has a lower boiling point than water(100 °C, or 212 °F) so starts to evaporate first.
  2. Evaporating – Pure ethanol vaporises and the water is left behind.
  3. Cooling – Ethanol gas is caught and cooled.
  4. Condensing – Cold temperatures force the alcohol to condense back into the liquid with higher alcohol concentration or strength.

The basic cycle of distilling can be divided into the  “head,” “heart,” and “tail”—also known as “fractions”.

  • Heads(foreshots) – Although you are distilling, alcohol never evaporates alone. The first 5 percent of the run contains the high amount of Congeners (acetone, aldehydes, esters, and fusel oils) that can evaporate with it. Although congeners give the spirit character and flavour, they should be used in only in small quantities and some of them should be removed completely.
  • Hearts – Although this is the most desirable component, distillers mix the hearts with small quantities of heads. With too high a percentage of congeners, the drink might be too harsh but with a too little, it will be bland.
  • Tails –  The tails are often set aside and redistilled later for the next run (recycling any trapped ethanol).

The clear liquid, a product of distillation is often a colourless and harsh to consume that’s why it’s often aged for a few years in a barrel where it takes on colour, richness and complexity.

The white spirits such as vodka or gin are not aged, therefore often filtered(charcoal) to remove any impurities and then diluted with water to the bottling strength.

BARREL AGEING

benefits of barrel aged spirits

The first question to answer is “What spirits should be aged?”

It depends on the base spirit and whether its column or pot distilled. Column distillation typically results in higher alcohol with fewer congeners(compounds that alter flavour and character).

  • The white spirits such as vodka or gin that use column distillation are less appropriate for ageing because not much in there is likely to change.
  • On the other hand, pot distilled spirits retain its character and funk through the distillation process and therefore benefit from ageing in a barrel.

But this not a rule and there are of course exceptions to that.

The mastery of barrel ageing depends on different factors such as time of ageing, type of vessel(barrel), temperature and climate or chemical reactions between the liquid, air and the barrel.  

Now that we have decided on the choice of the spirit, the second the most important question is ”what vessel do you use to age your spirit in?” 

It depends on what you want your spirit to taste like. Most of the spirits are aged in some form of wooden cask or barrel(often oak) which imparts the typical flavours of caramel, vanilla, clove, oaky flavours or tannins.

Some spirits such as Bourbon use the charred oak barrels(toasted, smoky flavours), and some distillers may also choose to age their spirits in barrels previously used to age other spirits or fortified wines sherry or port (Scotch is often aged in a used Bourbon barrel).

Temperature and climate influence the amount of alcohol that evaporates from the barrel during maturation. An average of 2% of the Scotch being aged actually evaporates from the barrel each year and obviously more in hotter climates. This is called ” The angel’s shares.”

SPIRITS

spirits and liqueurs bottlesSpirits are typically differentiated from other alcoholic beverages (beer or wine) with its higher ABV(alcohol by volume) which is achieved by the second stage the distillation process.

There are other spirit-based alcoholic beverages such as liqueurs or bitters that have a sugar and other flavourings added to them and tend to have lower ABV.

All spirits have to follow certain rules and regulations in order to be called that particular spirit. Each spirit has a wide spectrum of distinct flavours with different types of body.

If you would like to have a deeper understanding of spirits, I would highly suggest you start tasting different types of spirits to pick up their tasting notes, aromas and texture.

It all takes time and practice but by doing this regularly, you will build associations with each particular flavour and memory bank of flavours. All of that will give you a better understanding how to use them in cocktails and pair with other ingredients.

VODKA

It’s a clear spirit which can be distilled from pretty much anything that can be fermented to make
alcohol.

3 factors that influence taste of any vodka

GIN

Today’s definition of gin is that it’s a neutral spirit (high strength vodka) flavoured with juniper berries (predominant flavour) and other botanicals (fruits, seeds, herbs, roots).
Commonly used botanicals:
 anise, angelica root and seed, cardamom, orris root, liquorice root, cinnamon, almond,  lime peel, grapefruit peel, saffron, baobab, coriander, nutmeg, cassia bark

4 different styles of gin London Dry, Distilled, Old Tom and Genever

RUM

Rum is always made from fermented molasses, sugar cane juice or other by-products.

Different styles of rum based on nations, ageing, colour and alcoholic strength.

WHISKEY AND WHISKY

The word whiskey derives from the Gaelic “Uisqea Beatha” meaning water of life.

Whiskey (whisky) is in general category of a spirit with a wide diversity of flavours with a long
tradition of whisk(e)y production in both Europe and America. The spelling varies between the countries and depends mainly on the location and style in which it was produced. Scotch, Japanese, Canadian whiskies are spelt without (e) and American and Irish whiskies (e) included.

SCOTCH WHISKY

For any whisky to be called Scotch, it must be made from water and malted barley (grains of other cereals may also be added) and distilled and aged for at least 3 years in an oak cask in Scotland.
There are 2 main categories of Scotch whisky Single malt and Blended.

AMERICAN WHISKEY (Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee Whiskey)

American whiskey can be defined and divided into categories and styles based on a percentage of grain in a blend, ageing process, level of alcohol content or additional other spirits, colourings or any other additives.

CANADIAN WHISKY

Canadian whisky produces a blend that is much lighter in body than other whiskies, delicate without any overpowering flavours.

IRISH WHISKEY

Triple distillation Irish whiskey leads to a lighter style that matures well resulting in a smoother drinking experience.

JAPANESE WHISKY

Japanese whisky production is highly inspired by Scottish whisky and undoubtedly their whisky is a real success.
4 Different ways to drink Japanese whisky

TEQUILA AND MEZCAL

Tequila is made from one and the only blue agave plant which is produced exclusively in the Mexican states mainly in the Jalisco region. On the other hand, Mezcal is produced from the collection of Agave plants in much southern located Oaxaca region.

Different types of tequila are classified based on the method of production and ageing process.

Good quality Tequila is best served simply neat it doesn’t need anything else.

BRANDY

The word Brandy refers to a distilled spirit fermented from grapes or other fruit.

The difference between Grape brandies Cognac, Armagnac or Pisco and Fruit brandies Calvados or Eau de Vie.

ABSINTHE

Absinthe is an anise-flavoured green spirit with its high ABV of around 70%.

Absinthe was banned in some countries due to heavy Absinthe consumption and possible negative effects on our body.

There are two ways to serve Absinthe Bohemian method and the traditional French method.

AQUAVIT THE SCANDINAVIAN SPIRIT

Aquavit is the Scandinavian spirit with the predominant flavour of Caraway.

LIQUEURS

A liqueur is an alcoholic beverage made from distilled spirit that has been flavoured with fruit, herb, spice, flower, nut or cream and bottled with the addition of sugar or other sweeteners. Liqueurs usually have a lower alcohol content of 15% – 30% but there are exceptions to that.

ORANGE FLAVOURED LIQUEURS

Difference between Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Pierre Ferrand brand Dry Curaçao

FRUIT LIQUEURS

The real taste of Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Differences between Crème Liqueurs

HERB/SPICE LIQUEURS

Difference between Green And Yellow Chartreuse

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