Ever wondered how your favourite liquor goes from simple ingredients to a complex, flavour-packed libation?
Well, the answer lies in the magical process called distillation. Let’s dive into this mysterious world and unveil the secrets of creating your favourite spirits.
What’s the deal with fermentation?
First things first, what exactly is fermentation? Put simply, it’s the transformation of sugar into alcohol by yeast. These microscopic organisms munch on sugar from grains or fruits, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
This process results in the creation of the base alcohol, also known as “wash” or “mash,” which is the foundation for all distilled spirits.
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The art of distillation: a two-step process
So, how do we get from a humble mash to a high-quality spirit? The process of distillation involves two main steps: separating the alcohol from the wash and refining the spirit.
How is alcohol separated from the wash? It’s all about heating and cooling. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, heating the wash causes the alcohol to vapourise and rise, leaving the water and other impurities behind.
This vapour then travels through a cooling system called a condenser, where it’s cooled down and transformed back into liquid form, known as “low wines.”
Now that we have our low wines, how do we turn them into the good stuff? The answer lies in the second distillation. This stage refines the spirit by separating it into three distinct parts: heads, hearts, and tails.
Each part has its own unique characteristics and flavour profiles, which are crucial in determining the final spirit’s quality and taste.
These are the first vapours to be collected during the second distillation. They’re rich in undesirable compounds like methanol and other impurities, which can lead to off-flavours and even potential health risks if consumed in larger quantities.
This is the “Goldilocks zone” of distillation, where the most desirable flavours and aromas reside. The hearts contain the highest concentration of ethanol and are what ultimately become the final spirit.
These are the last vapours to be collected, and they contain heavier compounds that can make the spirit taste bitter or harsh.
Some distillers may choose to incorporate a small portion of the tails into their final product for added complexity, but too much can negatively impact the spirit’s quality.
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Aging: the waiting game
How do spirits like whisky, rum, and brandy get their distinctive flavours, colours, and smoothness? The answer is aging.
Many spirits are aged in wooden barrels, typically made of oak, which imbues them with unique flavours and colours over time.
The wood’s natural compounds react with the alcohol, smoothing out harsh flavours and adding depth and complexity.
Bottling: the final step
Once the aging process is complete, the spirits are ready for bottling. At this stage, the alcohol content may be adjusted by adding water, and any additional flavourings or sweeteners can be added as well. Finally, the liquor is bottled, labeled, and shipped off to eager imbibers.
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