What is Distillation?

March 14, 2011

I’ve been poking around distilling a little bit, though I’m not really that serious about it. As a result, my husband and I took a two afternoon workshop called “Distillation of Spirits 101.” It ended up being a very chemistry intensive class, but it kind of just launched itself without really explaining things. I understood because I had toured and read up enough on the topic, but some of my classmates were completely lost from the moment we stepped in the door. Funny thing is, our instructors would pause sometimes and say, “You know there are people out in Kentucky without any front teeth making excellent moonshine and they don’t have the foggiest notion about all this chemistry stuff.” That is to say, you can make excellent spirits without exactly knowing the chemistry that is happening. Still, it got me thinking, how would I explain to someone what distilling is?

First off, there is the standard warning: Distilling in the United States is illegal without a license. It is, however, completely legal to study the topic. That said…

Our instructors did make a good point that distilling is broken down into five steps:

  1. Raw Materials
  2. Fermentation
  3. Distilling
  4. Aging
  5. Bottling

So step one is to find raw materials, such as grapes, fruit, grains, etc. with either sugars or complex carbs in them that can be fermented into a beer or wine in step two, which is legal. I know I was oblivious that distilling started with beer and wine until I toured a distillery. I didn’t know where the alcohol came from, but I didn’t realize it came from beer or wine.

So step three is taking the beer and wine, which could range from 5% to 13% alcohol, and kind of boiling it to separate the alcohol from the water. Simply put, certain elements of the mixture will boil off as steam before other parts do, and the stem is collected and condensed back into a liquid.The first part to boil off is acetaldehyde and methanol and is called the heads, which is undesirable and sort of smells like nail polish remover. It makes an excellent cleaner due to the methanol alcohol. The second part, called the heart, is mostly ethanol, which is drinkable alcohol. Then the last part of boil off, called the tails, contains fusel oils and will kind of smell like a dirty dishcloth. Again, this is not really kept for drinking. Remember, this is a simplified explanation – the process of distilling requires technical distillation equipment that I’m not at all discussing in order to end up with a nearly pure alcohol, and the level of chemistry I am discussing here can be detected via smell and taste.

At this point, the spirit is clear, sometimes referred to as silver. It is completely drinkable, and it can be bottled and sold. However, many of the better spirits are often aged in oak barrels, which impart a few other flavors on the spirit such as vanilla, caramel, toast, or even tannin, and it changes color to a yellow, which can be called a “brown spirit” or a “gold spirit.” You never see a clear colored whiskey for sale because it is always aged, giving it the gold color. This aging time can also make the spirit mellower and less sharp. After aging a bit, this too can be bottled and sold.

And remember, a liqueur is a clear spirit which has been flavored and sweetened before bottling.

So that is my simple explanation about distilling. This also applies, to some degree, in making essential oils and fuel, but I’ve never looked into the difference in technique.

Other posts in which I talk about distilling:

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3 Responses to “What is Distillation?”


  1. […] Yesterday, I went through the basic outline of how spirits are made. I said that all spirits start with a raw material such as fruit or grain, which is then fermented into a beer or wine and then distilled. Today I will briefly discuss which spirits are made from what raw material sources. […]


  2. […] part of our workshop called “Distillation of Spirits 101,” my husband and I got to tour three distilleries in Portland, OR one […]


  3. […] The second person of interest that I met was a former wine maker turned mead maker. He had a beef against the California wine marketing, and I don’t blame him. There has been a recent trend to make wines without sulfites, a trend started in California. Thing is, the use of sulfites has been going on for probably 2,500 years, longer than Christianity has been around. Sulfites keep wine stable and help prevent spoilage. Along comes California, who has been making wine for maybe 200 years, and in the last 50 years, they decide to go against all this tradition. Why? Because it might give people headaches. This is not true: sulfites occur naturally in fermenting grapes anyway, and they will still be in the wine. Yes, they can harm one’s lungs, but not cause headaches. That is a result of alcohol, especially acetaldehyde, methanol, and fusel oils. […]


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