Everything You Wanted to Know About Distilling and Enjoying Spirits

Spirits 101


A number of different ingredients can be used in the making of distilled spirits. Basically, if it can be converted to sugar, alcohol can be made from it. The most common ingredients in the making of potable alcohol are corn, wheat, rye, malted barley, potatoes, sugar cane/molasses (Rum), and Agave (Tequila/Mezcal).


Mashing is the initial step in the production of beer and distilled spirits. It is the process where grains are combined (the mash bill) with water and the mixture is then heated activating enzymes that break down starches stored within the grains being mashed. These starches are then converted into fermentable sugars. The liquid extracted from the mash is known as wort and contains the sugars maltose and maltotriose that are the most important sugars that will be fermented to ultimately produce alcohol.


Once mashing has been completed, yeast is added to the wort. Yeast is a living microorganism that consumes the sugars in the wort and creates two primary byproducts alcohol and carbon dioxide. When making distilled spirits the fermentation may last anywhere from three to seven days depending on the spirit being produced.


Upon completion of fermentation, the mash is ready for distillation. Distillation is a process in which liquid is vaporized through heat and then condensed back into a liquid form. Different alcohol molecules vaporize at different temperatures. Thus, through distillation we are able to isolate different alcohol molecules. The first vapor to boil off is the Foreshots. These are the most volatile alcohols and include Methanol. As these are poisons the Foreshots are discarded. After the Foreshots, the distillation enters the Heads phase. Head alcohols include Acetone, Acetaldehyde, and Acetate, among others. The heads are collected and used in future distillations. Upon completion of the Head's phase, the distillation progresses to the Hearts. The Hearts is what is potable alcohol (used for consumption) with the primary alcohol being Ethanol, or Ethyl Alcohol. The final stage of distillation is the Tails or Faints portion. These are low volatility alcohols and other substances that vaporizes at the highest temperatures. Included in the tails are Propanol, Butanol, Amyl, Fusel Alcohols, and others.


Potable alcohol comes off the still with very high alcohol content. In the case of vodka, the alcohol exits the still at 95+% alcohol by volume. These high concentration levels are reduced through proofing making the final product more palatable. Ethanol is water soluble. Accordingly, Ethanol is "watered down" to reduce the alcohol volume. The water used may vary and may include spring water, "glacial" water, distilled water, and reverse osmosis.


Many distilled spirits are aged in wood barrels, in order to, remove harsh flavors from the alcohol and impart flavors found in the wood of the barrels. Most spirit barrels are charred internally. This charring serves two purposes. One is that the charring acts as a carbon filter helping to filter out certain impurities in the alcohol mellowing it over time. Charring also caramelizes the woods sugars allowing the spirit to extract these flavors from the barrel.


Vodka is made from ethanol and water. The ethanol can be produced from a number of different ingredients, the most popular of which are corn, wheat, rye, and potatoes. In the US, Vodka is defined as "a neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." It is required that vodka come of the still at 190 proof (95% ABV) or more.


Bourbon is a type of whiskey that can only be made in the USA. Additionally, the mash bill of bourbon must be at least 51% corn, the mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less (80% ABV or less), barreled at 125 proof or less (62.5% ABV or less), aged in brand new charred oak barrels, and bottled at 80 proof or higher (40% ABV or higher). Bourbon aged more than two years is considered "Straight Bourbon."

Rye Whiskey

The legal requirements for Rye whiskey are the same as that four bourbon with the exception that the mash bill must contain a minimum of 51% Rye.


Rum is a distilled spirit made from the fermented juice of sugar can, sugar cane syrup, molasses, or other sugar cane byproducts. It must be distilled at less than 190 proof (95% ABV) and bottled at not less than 80 proof (40% ABV). Additionally, the distillate must possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum.

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