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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What is Alcohol pt. 1 — Fermentation

In order to create modern day ethanol (the ingredient that gets us drunk in alcohol), a process known as fermentation is always invoked.

The formula for alcohol is VERY roughly as follows:

Sugar + Reagent (Yeast)—> Alcohol + CO2

By changing the sugar and catalyst it is possible to produce other types of alcohol other than ethanol. One example is methanol which is in most alcohol as well and comes from the fibers of fruit like grapes and is eaten by bacteria known as methanogens instead of yeast! For humans, this is very toxic as it turns into formaldehyde in the human body. However, for rats, they are able to survive more methanol than ethanol before dying!

Another is Xylitol which changes this sugar by hydrogenating the sugar of wood before adding yeast! This sugar is commonly seen in gums to replace sugar and has many reported teeth benefits!  

Understanding the Ingredients


In order to understand distillation you first need to understand how consumer made alcohol is made. The three necessary ingredients for this are sugar, yeast and time.

Sugars are a great storage unit of energy that nature needs to work. They are naturally occurring in all plants and fruits through a process known as photosynthesis. Everything needs energy to survive. While humans might have poop as our waste ingredient, some enzymes survive by eating sugar and pooping alcohol and carbon dioxide! These enzymes are known as yeast.

Yeast are small little bacteria that exist naturally in the air. They contain an enzyme known as zymase which is the enzyme needed to create alcohol! To further understand how common alcohol, unless you somehow killed off all the bacteria in the air, it would be absolutely impossible to stop alcohol production from occurring.

As a result, many alcohols are made naturally with very little lab work! Two great examples of this occurring is barley and grapes.

In the case of grapes, the skin typically has carried over yeast from a period of time of being exposed to nature. These little bacterias are airborne and then latch onto the skin of the grape.  So wine makers typically stomp on the wine in order to break down the skin and merge it with the juice of the grape so that it ferments more evenly and the bacteria grows stronger than ever. Even without the mashing process, they are literally eating the skin of the grape and pooping out alcohol slowly—just at a very small scale and at a slower time frame!

In the case of barley, the process just a little more complicated! Water is added to the grains to germinate the barley, then it is quickly right when the grain generates the highest concentration of enzymes. This process is known as malting.

The reason malting is a desired process in alcohol production is because malting barley cultivates a ton of enzymes known as amylase. Amylase is an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates and turns it into sugar. This enzyme breaks down the starches into sugars and attracts yeast cells from all over to feed on the sugars of the barley.

While these are both naturally occurring ways of making alcohol, don’t mistake natures powerful force for lack of innovation! If you don’t want to make a malted barley whiskey or a red wine distilled beverage, factories in universities across the country have cultivated thousands upon thousands fantastic strains of unique yeast that brewers are able to add in separately. This is why you can find lots of amazing spirits without malted barley!

How Fermentation Works

 

Once you have your ingredients ready, you need to start the process of fermentation. This is generally as simple as putting these two ingredients together and throwing them in a vat for a few weeks!

However, brewers and winemakers are constantly aware of a multitude of different variables which can and will change the end product!

A short list of the variables that every brewer and winery thinks of:

What type of container will you use? (white oak barrels, copper, stainless steel vat, or something else)

Each of these provide a different flavor profile, with oak barrels having very unique flavor complexities in each one! However, this is not always desired in an attempt to get a consistent product! Other woods might be very hard to work with or might not provide a flavor that is very good! However, many people have experimented with many types of containers and woods! Some of them create really unique and wondrous flavors!

Is the vat going to be open or closed?  

An open vat adds for a unique complexity to the fermented beverage and allows for easier maintenance. A closed vat will help control outside elements and is not at risk of spoilage.

What temperature is it fermenting at?

If it’s too hot or cold the yeast won’t work activate properly. If it’s way too hot, a lot of it will evaporate before becoming alcohol and you won’t have any product left to sell!

Do you want want the product to be bubbly?

If so you will have to do a secondary fermentation and wait for weeks to months so that the CO2 won’t escape the new product. Do you want to add additional flavors to your beer like fruit? Then you might even need to do a third fermentation!

How long to ferment?

The longer you ferment the less yeast you have to use! However, this has diminishing results over time and may just take space. After a long enough period of time, the yeast will die from a lack of sugar. If you wait too long, the flavor of the non-alcohol ingredients can also disappear or rot!

Getting Rid Of Impurities

 

To be clear, this step isn’t always necessary and getting it right is one of the most complicated and difficult parts about fermented beverages. In wine, it's a constantly subject with tons of manpower going into the research of what is the best way of getting rid of impurities while also preserving or improving taste.

Without the filtration process, you may see a lot of gunk that you may see in the bottom of many wine bottles or beer bottles. Moreover, you may sometimes purchase wine that still has a bit bubbles because they didn’t remove all of the yeast cells!

Suspension Method:

The suspension method is where a substance known as fining ingredient are added to ingredients. These ingredients bind to the chemicals that aren’t liquid and make them big! The way they do this is because opposites attract at the molecular level. For example, by using a negatively charged agent like Bentonite, or Silicon Dioxide, you will attract the positively charged substances (typically proteins).

Moreover, yeast, while alive has a strong negative charge. By using a positively charged ion like isinglass, albumen you will get rid of unwanted yeast that may spoil the beverage.

Enzymatic Method:

To get rid of excess wine skin or other fibrous materials, pectinase is sometimes added. Other enzymes can be used to make a similar effect if unwanted complex particle enters the product.

Centrifuge Method:

A centrifuge is occasionally used to separate the solids. A centrifuge works by using the forces gravity obtained by spinning a compound at a very high speed, in turn separating things by there specific weight. This will typically force all the solids to one layer, and all the liquid can be captured through a filter.


These are not all the methods of clarifying. One of the most traditional of removing impurities is through a process known as distillation! Read more in Part Two of What is Alcohol!

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