Learn with A Bar Above

Distillation 101

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Distillation:

Step 1: Convert Starches into a Fermentable “Tea”

This step isn’t needed if your raw ingredient already has a lot of simple sugars in it (example: grape juice). If you’re starting with a starch like potatoes, wheat, rye, corn, etc. This step is important as the water, heat and/or enzymes break down the starches into fermentable sugars.  In short, the starches are broken down and added to water, then heated.  It’s almost like you are making a starch “tea.”

Step 2: Fermentation

Now the “tea” is ready to have yeast introduced to undergo fermentation.  All of the alcohol in alcoholic drinks originates with a fermentation process, and spirits are no different.

  • Fermentation yeast is added to the warm “tea” and the mixture is set aside to ferment.
  • During this time the yeast feeds on the sugar and excretes alcohol.  (Yes, alcohol is yeast poop.)
  • The yeast will continue to consume the sugars until they are gone, or until the mixture’s alcohol content becomes too high for the yeast to survive.

The result of the fermentation is called “mash”, and it’ll be an alcoholic liquid.  If you were making wine or beer, you’d stop here – you’re done.  But since we want to make a spirit, which has a much higher concentration of alcohol, we need to remove the extra water and other non-palatable byproducts of fermentation.

Photo by Brankomaster / CC BY

Step 3: Distillation

Distillation serves the same purpose as filtration, but since we’re separating two liquids, we can’t just use a fine-strainer. This process requires a great deal of precision (and/or repetition) to get a neutral grain spirit like Vodka.

  • Distillation is the process of taking the mixture to a temperature high enough that alcohol vaporizes, but not so high that water does.
  • The vapor is then re-condensed back into a liquid in another, separate container.

In a perfect world, this would result in a separate container filled with 100% alcohol and our original container with all of the water & impurities.  Unfortunately, water & impurities often “travel” with the alcohol.  As we’ll discuss later, some spirits rely on these impurities to add to their flavor.  But for vodka, you generally want a very pure output.

So how do we get to Vodka from here?

Vodka

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We’d distilled the mash into a purer version with less water and less impurities.  But if we’re looking to make a “Neutral Grain Spirit” like vodka, there needs to be very little water and very few impurities.  How’s it done?  Easy, just distill it again!  Different types of stills and highly precise temperature management can reduce the number of times the distillation is needed.  In general for vodka, the distillate can be up to 97% ethanol when complete.  It’s brought down to bottling strength of 40% by adding water.

Vodka & Flavor:

While it is possible to taste slight differences in flavor between different vodka brands, the moment other cocktail ingredients are added it is likely to become impossible.  For the purposes of this course we really are going to treat vodka as a “neutral grain spirit”, and assume that it has no sweetness, bitterness or inherent flavor.

Of course, I am skipping right over flavored vodkas for a reason – while they certainly have their place in the marketplace, they tend to get their flavor from chemical, artificial and natural flavorings. I’ll let you make your own decisions if you want to include flavored alcohols in your beverage program, but I tend to steer clear of them.