Distillation has been around for centuries, with links to alchemy. The first racks, the alembic, the predecessor of the current pot, were probably invented around 200-300 AD.

Today’s distilleries range from the artisan producer with a homemade still made from spare parts to sprawling, sparkling wonders with silver poles stretching across the fields. Yet each of them produces perfume in essentially the same way.

Below is a simplified overview of how spirits are created. As traditions and rules vary greatly depending on the type of spirit and the place where it is made, this guide is very general. Learning the nuances of rum, whisky and other categories of alcoholic beverages is encouraged.

However, most spirits go through the following stages.

Raw materials are grown, harvested and processed

Whether it’s grapes, cereals, agave or anything else in general, most distillates start as agricultural products. The raw materials are grown and harvested, partly by hand, partly by machine, and then delivered to the distillery.

From there, some ingredients are chopped or ground (agave, cane sugar); pressed (grapes, apples or other fruits); malted (barley, promotion of germination) or smoked with peat (cereals, mainly barley).

Yeast added for hop fermentation

While some raw materials (fruit, sugar cane, agave) already contain sugar, others, such as sugar cane, need to be processed. B. cereals, starch is first converted into fermentable sugar. This is done by boiling the grains in hot water with the enzymes present. In the production of whisky and beer this process is called brewing, and the resulting liquid is called wort.

Whether it’s grapes, cereals, agave or anything else in general, most distillates start as agricultural products.

At this stage, the juice, must, etc. are transferred to the fermentation tanks and the yeasts are introduced. Some producers buy commercial yeast varieties, others grow their own yeast strains and others depend on naturally occurring wild yeast. Fermentation usually takes three to five days, but in some distilleries it can take seven to nine days.

Fermentation is considered to be a critical process for the production of flavours and aromas. For example, rum producers claim that fermentation can account for at least 50% of the flavour of the rum.


Liquid becomes alcohol by distillation

During distillation, the fermented liquid is heated to boiling point and the vapours escaping from the boiling liquid are collected and returned to the liquid as it cools.

As a result, the alcohol content is concentrated, but it is also necessary to separate the desired and undesired elements.

The first and most volatile substances, the so-called heads, evaporate first. These undesirable substances are often compared to nail polish removers. Then come the desired flavor compounds called heart. These are tails, with rubbery scents, or vegetative tones resembling overcooked broccoli. The tails are separated and thrown away or re-distilled. Part of the distiller’s art is determining the right moment for the first cut to catch as much heart as possible when cutting the tails.

Spirits are often distilled several times. A common practice with, for example, Scotch and Irish whiskies is to distill two or three times to get a lighter and sweeter character. Vodka, on the other hand, is known for its many distillation varieties aimed at producing alcohol that is as neutral as possible.

In general, ghosts are made from two kinds of photographs. The jugs have a rounded body resembling a teapot, are usually made of copper and tend to produce stronger and more flavorful alcohols. On the other hand, columns with high, thin, column-like chambers can be made of copper or stainless steel and have a lighter distillation style.

Distillates aged in wooden casks or other containers

After distillation, spirits such as whiskey, brandy and other brown spirits are placed in oak barrels to mature. This stage produces the well-known amber hue of many spirits, as well as notes of vanilla, dried fruit or herbs on the nose and palate.

Bourbon producers are obliged to use new and charred American oak, while most other producers have more freedom in their choice of cooperage. Some use oak from other countries, while cognac makers, for example, use oak from the French Limousin; and Japanese whisky makers can choose Japanese mizunara if available. The wearing time can be days, months or years.

After the first maturation, some producers put the distillate in another vat to finish it. These drums may also contain other liquids, such as. B. ex-bourbon casks or ex-cherry casks, and may also leave traces of fruit or spices.

It is noteworthy that bourbon manufacturers claim that bourbon can account for 60-70% of the flavour and 100% of the colour.

Some spirits are poured into glasses or clay trays instead of wooden ones to allow the smell to melt without adding colour, taste or aroma. And many pure alcohols (vodka, gin) completely eliminate the ageing process.

Addition and correction improves alcohol

With the exception of the products in one barrel, most manufacturers mix the distillates to a uniform consistency. This process also adds flavour and complexity. Whiskymakers can, for example, mix different liquids from different casks to create a much spicier or sweeter whisky. Rum and cognac producers also often mix distillates of different ages.

While some spirits are casked, most are diluted with water to obtain a delicious degree of alcohol in a process called fermentation. A handful of manufacturers are also experimenting with fermentation with liquids other than H2O.

Filtration produces varnish

Before being bottled, the spirits are filtered to remove coarse and fine particles and polish the liquid. These can be simple metal sieves used to remove charcoal flakes when draining bourbon from barrels, or charcoal filtration that can remove both colour and taste and impurities, a technique used on a variety of spirits.

Vodka in particular is characterised by the use of complex, often bizarre materials for multiple filtration: Quartz, lava stone, diamond dust, coconut shells, etc.

In addition, many manufacturers cool alcohol filters, particularly for distilled whiskies, by lowering the temperature of the alcohol a few degrees below freezing and then passing the liquid through a series of filters. The aim of this exercise is to eliminate the chemical compounds that create a fog or mist when the alcohol cools below 45 degrees Celsius. This is done for aesthetic reasons, although more and more distilleries are choosing to skip this step in order to preserve the desired flavours and texture and call these spirits unfiltered.

Some finishing

At this stage, some spirits are ready to be bottled and sent to the door. But for others, the basic spirit is just a starting point. Neutral alcohols such as juniper and other plants are used to make gin. Spiced rum, flavoured whiskies and other spirits as well as liqueurs and other sweet spirits also start with alcohol, which is then bottled or combined with other ingredients. Whatever the technique, the goal remains the same: to create a pleasant flow.


Illustrations and text summarizing the distillation process Computer graphics by Eric DeFreitas

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