Distillation Basics: How Liquor Is Made

standard July 3, 2014 Leave a response

Liquor DistillationI’ve enjoyed a few cocktails in my day, but I’ve never really understood how spirits are distilled. So today I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about how liquor is made. If you find something that I’ve missed or would like to add something, let me know in the comments below.

Distilling: The Basics

In the most elementary sense, distillation is a process used to separate a substance into its basic parts and making liquor is no exception. Basically a fermented mixture of materials like water, grain and aromatics is heated and the resulting steam is condensed into spirits. Depending on the type of spirit to be distilled, the process can vary quite a bit. Generally if a spirit lower in alcohol is distilled only once or twice while more potent liquor can be distilled multiple times. And with every distillation some flavor is lost; so flavorful spirits like bourbon and rum are typically distilled fewer times while more neutrally flavored liquors like vodka and gin are distilled many times.

Equipment: The Still

At the heart of the liquor-making process is the distilling equipment, commonly known as the still. Believe it or not, the basics are remarkably simple to understand and not far-off from what most commonly see in old movies or even today’s reality TV.

But wait a minute there Jethro… before you run into your garage to assemble some sort of Rube Goldberg distilling machine you might want some details. Because the devil is definitely in the details. Let’s take a look at still basics and the different types.

Basic Parts of a Still

Although distilling liquor can get pretty complex, the still can be broken down into three basics parts: a vessel, a condenser and a flask with an outlet tube. From there on it gets nothing but complicated, so I’ll explain a little further:

  • Vessel – A holding tank that contains the fermented mixture (aka Wash) while it’s being boiled
  • Condenser – The device that captures and concentrates the vapor from the boiling mixture
  • Outlet Tube & Flask – Equipment to collect & store the resulting liquor

Generally all stills have these parts, however there can be differences that allow the distiller to adjust the quantity and quality of the liquor produced, like the variety of still.

Types of Stills

With the many different types of liquor available you’d think that there would be many different types of stills, but you’d be wrong; there are basically two: Pot & Column. The oldest and most recognizable, the pot still is pretty simple to understand while the column still starts to get complex pretty quickly. Let me give you the basics:

The Pot Sill

Basic Pot StillPopularized by American moonshiners and pop culture, the pot still is by far the easiest to understand. Containing the fermented liquid, the Vessel (1) is placed over the fire which generates the alcohol-rich steam. The condenser is composes of several different parts including the cap arm (2) and worm (3). Finally the outlet tube and flask (5) catch the resulting distillate.i

The Column Still

The Basic Column StillWhile the Column still is a bit more complex, it uses the same basic concept as the pot still.ii Known by other names like Patent, Coffey, Continuous and Reflux, Column stills can distill liquor for an extended period versus the simple pot still which needs to be cleaned out after a limited amount of production. In the column still the Wash is added to the still and heated from the bottom until it produces alcohol-rich steam. The steam then rises up the elongated still and encounters a series of partitions or perforated plates; as the steam travels upward the temperature in each section of the still is decreases and the resulting steam becomes higher in alcohol and lighter in flavor. Afterward the purified, alcohol-rich steam makes it to the top of the still it’s then removed and condensed into alcohol.

Granted this explanation of the two basic types of stills is really abbreviated, but I’m trying to keep it simple or my head will explode. I’m sure we’ll get into some greater detail in the near future.

Why is Copper Used in Stills?

Everyone has seen some version of the big copper pot stills, but did you ever ask yourself Why is Copper Used in Stills? Yeah, me neither. Frankly, if it tasted good and gave me a buzz I really didn’t care… until now.

While copper is used for a number of reasons, one major factor is that it improves the flavor of the liquor by removing sulfur during distillation. Sulfur arises naturally during fermentation process and copper reacts with the fermented mixture to produce copper sulfate which can then be removed. Certainly other reasons like tradition and effective heat transfer are important, but I think preventing your booze from tasting “farty” is a bit more important…

Pot Still vs. Column Still

Needless to say, the two primary types of stills are very different and that goes for the types of alcohol they produce. Let’s distill it down (get it) to touch on the primary differences in the types of liquor produced by each type of still:

Pot Still Column Still Small Batch Continuous Production More Flavor Neutral Flavor 60 – 80% Alcohol 90% + Alcohol More Expensive Liquor Less Expensive Liquor Single Malt Scotch, Meszcal, Navy Rum Vodka, Rum, London Dry Gin
As you can see, there are some pretty significant variations in the liquor produced by each type of still. Clearly there are exceptions, but these seem to be a fairly representative sample. Just for kicks, I selected a handful of popular spirits to confirm how they are produced and here’s what I found:

Liquor TypeStill Type
Jack Daniels Bourbon WhiskeyPot Still
Bacardi Rum Column Still
Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch WhiskeyPot Still
Absolut VodkaColumn Still
Tanqueray London Dry GinColumn Still
Jose Cuervo Gold TequilaPot Still

The Basic Distillation Process

Everyone has their favorite liquor, but interestingly enough the basic distillation processes used to create them is remarkably similar. The modern distillation process first began in the 12th century in Italy and China simultaneously. So either life really sucked or they were really bored back then; all I know is that without these early experimenters, today’s happy hours would be really boring. Regardless, the distillation steps surrounding our favorite hootch(es) are pretty much the same:

Preparing the Mash

Every spirit starts with a base that contains some sort of sugar-containing material and water, which is called the mash. In most cases the base material is grain, but it can be other stuff like fruit and potatoes. Preparing the mash focuses on making the sugars contained in the base material available to be consumed by the alcohol-producing yeast. So this step often includes milling and mixing grain, macerating fruit or mashing root vegetables. The resulting soupy mixture is then ready for the next step.

Fermentation

Fermentation is where the magic happens; alcohol is produced. Typically the prepared mash is placed into a fermentation tank where a specialized yeast is introduced. Temperature, acidity and sugar content are all important factors to ensure that the process produces a fermented mixture between 7 and 9% alcohol.

Distilling

The distillation process can vary quite a bit depending on the spirit but the basics are the same. Operating on the principle that the constituent parts of the fermented mixture have different boiling points, water and undesirable parts are removed by cooking the mixture. The resulting purified steam is removed and condensed to produce a distillate that is either the end product, or the precursor to your favorite liquor.

Blending & Aging

One key distinction between many different types of liquor is whether the product that results from the distillation process is the final product, or whether it is blended or aged. Both are used to enhance flavor.

Blending enhances flavor by combining a variety of materials to create a more balanced and distinct flavor profile. A good example is a blended Scotch which combines a group of flavorful malt whiskeys to create an even taste with a series of flavor undertones.

While aging can improve flavor in several ways, it depends entirely on the type of spirit being produced. Most neutral spirits like vodka, gin and some rums as well as brandies are unaged; however whiskeys and other more flavorful spirits tend to aged.

Aging can benefit flavor in a couple ways. First, time permits maturation of the liquor by allowing a chemical change to occur. Second, flavor is imparted to the spirit through the vessel used to store the liquor. For example, the bourbon making process involves the use of charred oak barrels that imparts a distinctive flavor on the resulting liquor.

Conclusion

As you can see, making our favorite liquors is simple in theory but complex in practice. I’m certainly no expert, but I’m excited to dig in more deeply to learn more about how the many different spirits we all enjoy are not only made but consumed.

Thanks & please let me know what you think by leaving a comment.

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About

Suburban adventurer, beer lover and Cocktail Novice, Bill has a variety of interests including cooking, blogging and "bad" surfing. If you're keen to connect, give him a shout on Twitter.