Whiskey Basics: Distilling alcohol

I’m going to oversimplify some things in a big way here. All of the information I include here is gathered from a handful of books and forums. This is meant to help you understand the basics of how liquor is made.

It won’t make you an expert or prepare you to make any alcohol, but it might give you the ability to answer some questions if you decide to host your own whiskey club. 

1. Make Beer/ Wort/ Mash

Making alcohol is done by feeding sugar to yeast. In most cases, sugars are taken from grains, fruits, or extracted (as in molasses) and added to water. This is all heated to kill bad bacteria and then cooled to a temperature that yeast can survive in. Yeast is then added. It bubbles and becomes very active at this stage.

Once the yeast eats all the sugar in the water it will die and the bubbling will stop. What’s left is known as a wash, beer, or wort depending on the ingredients and type of yeast that’s used.

2. Separate the alcohol from the dead stuff, water and fungus poop

This isn't an actual still. I know, my doodles are amazing and hyper-realistic, but it's just a doodle.

A very common misconception is that alcohol is made by distilling. This isn’t the case at all. In fact, some alcohol is usually lost during the process. 

Distilling is the process of separating alcohol from the beer or wort. In other words, the alcohol is already made before the distilling happens. All distilling does is take that existing alcohol out of the beer and put it into a different container without the water, yeast, grains, and other stuff. Fun fact, all distillate is clear when it comes out of a still because it’s just alcohol.

 Distilling can be done with cold treatment but for the purpose of alcohol it’s commonly done through heat. The way most distillers do this is by using a tool called a still (see the doodle above)

The beer is put into the still and then heat is applied. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so when the still gets hot enough the alcohol will become vapor but everything else will stay at the bottom of the container. Once enough alcohol evaporates, it falls down a tube at the top of the still and trickles all the way down. It’s then collected in a jar or bottle.

There are other components that make this work better, different kinds of stills, various methods of cooling the coil, and distilling a single batch can be done multiple times, but all of that is out of scope for this post. 

That’s it! Well, there’s more to it than that but this is a generalization of the process. It’s plenty enough to get you through a basic conversation about brewing and distilling.

In the future, we’ll cover how this clear alcohol becomes whiskey, why it turns brown, and why it matters what ingredients are used if you just separate it all later anywy.

As a note, distilling is heavily regulated and usually requires special permits to do. However, making beer is usually fine in the United States, and that’s a huge amount of the work. In any case, before you actually try to make a beer or something harder, do much, much more research than just reading this and know all your local laws.

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