Blog 135

Distillation Part 1 - Introduction

Ben

Ben, is a director of Bar135 in Bristol.

What is it?

Simple Explanation – Distillation is simply the separation of alcohol from an alcohol containing liquid.  Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, therefore distillation simply heats the liquid to the required heat to vaporise the alcohol and not the water.  Then, when the vapour comes into contact with a cold surface it condenses back to liquid and is collected.

Scientific Explanation – The word distillation comes from the Latin destillare meaning ‘to drip’. It is the extraction of higher alcohols from fermented drinks by using the action of heat to vapourise them. Basically, distillation is the concentration or increasing of alcohol strength. A wine of 8% alcohol by volume condenses into distillate of 20% volume after being boiled off in a pot still; if it is boiled a second time the strength goes up to about 60% vol. If, when vapourising wine you take the wholesome middle-cut of the run, missing out the poisonous first part and the watery final part, as distillers learned to do, you have grape spirit, eau de vie, or brandy of about 70% ABV (alcohol by volume).

Burroughs & Bezzant (1990) define spirits as a ‘liquid of high alcoholic content which is obtained by distillation from such fermentable materials, they must be distilled only to a point where they are purified, yet still retain sufficient byproducts to impart the particular characteristic of the original base material’. The appeal of spirits lies in their delivery of fruit and plant flavours but differently rendered with more complexity and intensity – and alcohol.

Raw materials

Anything that can be fermented can be used as a raw material for spirits – whether fruit, grain or vegetable. Where sugar is present in the primary material, as in molasses or fruit, the fermentation can be started directly. With grain spirits, the initial fermentation can take place only after the starch that is naturally present has been converted into sugar. To do this the grains (barley, etc.) are steeped in water for a period and then exposed to gentle warmth. This simulates the action of rain and sun, and the barley will start to sprout. As it does this, the germ of the grain gives forth an enzyme called diastase, which turns the starch of the gain into a sugar called maltose; this sugar can be fermented by yeast to produce an alcoholic wash.

Fermentation

This is the action of yeast upon sugar in solution, which breaks down the sugar into carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and alcohol. This alcohol is contained within the original liquid which then becomes a fermented beverage. Some spirits can be made from one particular material only, such as whiskey, vodka, genever, some schnapps and akvavit from grain. Other, such as vodka, can be made from a broad range of raw materials, including various grains, potatoes, and even sugar cane and grapes (see Table below).

Base ingredients

The availability of the base ingredient and the uniqueness of the land where is it grown play an integral part in the different complexities and qualities found in distilled spirits. 

 

Methods of Alcohol Separation

Let’s consider a little science for a moment. Ethanol alcohol freezes at -133°C and boils at 78°C, which leads to two distinctively different methods to separate alcohol. The freezing method, commonly referred to as the congelation method or freeze distillation, and the boiling method or heat distillation, which is commonly referred to as the distillation method.

 

Congelation (cold extraction)

Congelation was originally used in the 8th century in Poland before distillation was discovered. It involved the cooling of the fermentable liquid (called the alcoholic wash) below 0°C or 32°F. This is a dangerous method of separation, because the poisonous fusel oils molecules tend to stick more closely together under cold conditions and can be left in. It is for this reason that most countries have made this method of alcohol separation illegal, but some operators use it to avoid paying taxes. It is sometimes used in Canadian homes to make Applejack. Cider is put out to freeze on a winter night. In the morning the ice formed is discarded. This process is repeated for 3 to 4 nights and the resulting residue is increased in strength. Less than 2% of the world’s distilled spirits are made using this method.

 

Distillation (heat extraction)

Distillation is the separation by vaporization of the fermentable liquid to create alcohol. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (78.5°C or 172°F compared to 100°C for water), so the alcohol vaporizes into steam some time before the water content in the wine, wort or young beer starts to boil. When the alcohol-laden steam hits a cool surface, it forms a dripping condensation, and reverts to a liquid of which the alcohol constitutes a much higher proportion than it did in the wine, wort or young beer.

The liquid produced is colourless, tasteless. This is scientifically the best separation method and research figures indicate that this method accounts for 98% of the world’s spirits produced. It is the most widely method officially recognized by governments to separate alcohol for creating spirits on which taxes and duties are levied.

Distillation is achieved by using a still.  There are two types of still: the Pot Still and the Continuous Still.  We'll explain these in more detail in our next post - Part 2

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