What is Alcohol pt. 2 — Distillation

Without distillation, alcohol would very rarely be more than 30 proof. This process is the foundation behind creating many of the wonderful liquors and liqueurs that we saw on todays market.

Distillation roughly follows this process with manufacturers eliminating some of the steps depending on the spirit and their own unique production method:

  1. In a still, heat is added to the mixture of sugar and yeast as described in What is Alcohol pt. 1 -- Fermentation.
  2. The process is often repeated multiple times, in different stills, to get as much of the impurities out as possible while preserving a desired flavor from the esters, acids and other desired flavorings. The goal of this process is to slowly churn a low-proof mash (rarely over 20 proof) to at least 130 proof.
  3. The spirit is transferred to a holding container for aging or flavoring.
  4. Next, manufacturers choose from some or all of the filtration methods described in part 1 of our blog!
  5. Afterwards, spirits from different batches are married together to create the brand’s desired flavor. 
  6. The product is watered down to get the proofage correct. The exception to this is known as “Cask Strength” spirits.
  7. The spirit is then bottled and shipped out.

Why Distillation is Dangerous and How Alcohol Companies Avoid Murder

The biggest reason why distillation is dangerous is Methanol. 

Methanol is a by-product of forming alcohol with the fibrous pectin in foods during the distillation process. Some of it is also carried in through the air as well. While in fermentation, due to the low amount of Methanol in the final product this is almost rarely ever an issue. In Distillation, however, all of the methanol from all of your batches is concentrated to a very small region of the drink. For example, if you are doing a 100 gallon batch of a mash, and all of the Methanol is getting concentrated into under 10 gallons of alcohol, people start dying.

Moreover, because Methanol weighs more than Ethanol, it can also get concentrated in a very small portion of the beverage. This means that even if you don’t use a lot of mash (say just 10 liters which is likely not even enough to make a bottle of alcohol), drinking the wrong 5 ml of the product not only has the possibility to permanently blind you, but it can also kill you as well.

The way distillers avoid this is usually by separating the Methanol from the ethanol during the distillation process. Methanol has a lower boiling point than Ethanol, so many manufacturers can avoid Methanol poisoning by simply boiling it away at 65 degrees celsius and disposing the liquid that comes out.

While not as prominent in todays world due to tougher manufacturing standards, lead poisoning and other heavy metal poisoning is still a danger when using stills.

How Flavor is added to Distilled Products

Ethanol is basically flavorless, so how do different Whiskey all have distinct, complicated and wonderful flavors that we know in alcohol? 

We will talk more about flavors and how alcohol companies can manipulate the use of wood, sugar content, spices, water and chemicals to create an infinite assortment of different flavor profiles in part 3 of What is Alcohol.

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