Many people confuse the distillation process with the process of “making alcohol.” In reality, distillation is the process of separating one chemical (in this case, ethanol alcohol) from another chemical. This process has been around for hundreds of years and has been used in various applications, including alcohol distillation and essential oil extraction.
The entire alcohol distillation process can be divided into three parts: fermentation, distillation, and finishing.
Those who have brewed beer or wine before may find this process familiar, but we will explain it briefly for clarity. The basic steps of fermentation are as follows:
Add sugar and yeast to a liquid.
Over time, yeast converts sugar into alcohol.
After a certain period, yeast stops producing alcohol because all the sugar has been consumed.
What many people don’t realize is that alcohol is essentially yeast excrement. Yes, alcohol is yeast urine.
In most cases, alcohol and grains are used as sources of sugar. Initially, they exist in the form of starch, but after boiling and adding malt or specific enzymes, starch is converted into sugar, which is then processed by yeast to produce various chemicals, including ethanol.
Once the liquid fermentation is complete, it is heated in a still.
There are various types and designs of stills, but we will focus on the basics in this example. Every still consists of three components: a boiler, a column, and a condenser. As the temperature slowly rises from room temperature to around 190 degrees Fahrenheit (F), the liquid evaporates and rises through the column. When it reaches the condenser, it contacts the cold surface and condenses back into a liquid. It then exits the still as a mixture of different chemicals.
During the fermentation process, the yeast secretes certain special chemicals. Acetone, methanol, ethanol, and isopropyl are just a few examples. Each of these chemicals has a different boiling point. Just like water boils at 212 degrees (F), these chemicals also have their specific boiling points.
By increasing the temperature in the still, these chemicals evaporate and go through the distillation process. However, the distiller is only interested in obtaining pure ethanol. Through a process called “cutting,” the distiller separates different chemicals and isolates pure ethanol.
Finishing is the final step before bottling. The specific steps involved in this process depend on the desired type of alcohol.
Filtering: Filtering primarily serves two purposes. It removes unwanted odors and helps create a smoother overall taste and flavor.
Flavoring: Depending on personal preference, one can add commercial flavoring agents or soak fruit in the spirit to impart a specific taste. The options for enhancing flavor are virtually endless.
Oak barrels/aging: The color of whiskey does not come from the grains used in fermentation but from the oak barrels in which it is stored. Although most flavor comes from grains, the oak or other hardwoods used during aging contribute additional layers of flavor. The same applies to bourbon, scotch, tequila, and other brown spirits.
The finishing process brings us back to the initial stages of fermentation. Grain selection plays a crucial role, especially when making bourbon, as it must contain at least 51% corn.
Undoubtedly, the alcohol distillation process is complex, but breaking it down into manageable steps makes it easier to understand. With practice, each step becomes more familiar.
Our next article will delve specifically into the fermentation process. Cheers!