History of Spirits
Thousands of years ago it was discovered that by heating a fermented liquid, the alcohol could be separated from the other substances in the liquid. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who coined the term 'spirit' for the cooled distillate.
Historical references to distillation date back to many centuries before Christ and it was known to the ancient Egyptians. Arak was distilled in the East Indies from sugarcane and rice hundreds of years before Christ. However, it was the Arabs of the 10th century that gave us the words alcohol and alembic; this latter word means "a still." Alchemists produced aqua ardens, 'burning water', or an alcohol and water mixture that would burn, and aqua vitae, 'water of life', or alcohol. The French still call this 'eau-de-vie.' The Celts called this 'uisege baugh,' which was later, shortened to whiskey. It was apparent though that alcohol had medicinal benefits and early experimentation mixed it with all sorts of herbs and spices so as to mask its harsh flavor.
It is likely that the first distilled spirits were grape brandy and mead, made from sugar-based products. The earliest use of starchy grains to produce alcohol is unknown but records begin to appear during the Middle Ages. Alcohol distillation gained in popularity during this period and its production became more widespread. In Germany it was known as gebrandtwein or 'burnt wine', a term adapted by the Dutch into brandewijn and later changed by the English into Brandy. During this period, distillation was used mainly as a way of using up old wines or a too-abundant harvest. Late in the 17th century it was recognized that the wines of the Cognac region of France produced a better tasting brandy, particularly when aged.
Spirits are produced by distillation. Distillation is the separation of the constituents of a liquid mixture by partial vaporization of the mixture and the separate recovery of the vapor and the residue. It occurs because alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit while ethyl alcohol vaporizes at 173 degrees. If heat between these two temperatures is applied to a fermented liquid, the alcohol vaporizes and separates from the original liquid. If, at the same time, the alcohol vapors are somehow trapped and then cooled, they will condense into liquid form. The result is an alcohol of high purity.
Distillation is used to make a variety of spirits. When applied to wine, or any other fermented liquid, the result is a considerably stronger alcoholic liquid. Brandy is produced by distilling wine or a fermented mash of fruit. Cognac and Armagnac are examples. Fruit brandies include Kirsch or Kirschwasser (from cherries), Calvados or Applejack (from apples) and Slivovitz, Mirabelle and Quetsch (from Plums). Whiskey is made by distilling fermented grain. Distilling neutral alcohol in the presence of Juniper berries makes Gin. Vodka comes from a fermented mash of grain, although potatoes are also used. Rum comes primarily from sugarcane and Tequila from the agave plant.
Whatever base product is used, since the 17th century distilled spirits have had a considerable historical and economic impact on society.
How spirits are made
In its simplest form, production of spirits can be reduced to a six-step process:
1. Select the raw materials.
1. Selection of the Raw Materials
Spirits are alcohol beverages that are made from a variety of raw materials. Potatoes, grapes, fruit, corn, rye, barley, wheat, rice and sugar cane are some examples. Historically, whatever was locally available was used to produce spirits. Corn was used to make Whiskey in North America. Potatoes were used in Eastern Europe to make vodka and grapes were used in France to make brandy. Nowadays, transportation and climate are no longer restrictions.
These materials can be categorized in two ways: those that contain sugar and those that contain starch. Those that contain sugar go right to fermentation while those that contain starch must be milled and mashed before fermentation. Whatever material is used, the sugar must be released or formed so that fermentation takes place.
Grapes are the raw material used for maing Cognac and brandy. Other fruits, such as apples and peaches, cherries and plums, are used in other spirits. Sugarcane is used primarily for making rum. This includes sugarcane, cane juices, molasses, sugar and sugar beets. Agave is used to make tequila. Barley was the first cereal used for distillatioin. Corn, grown worldwide, is the most widely used cereal grain. Rye, more flavorful than corn but less efficient in fermentation, is used in Whiskey production in Canada and the United States. Wheat is not used as often because of its high cost. Rice is used for distillation mostly in Asia. Potatoes have been historically used in central Europe, not as much recently.
Milling is the grinding of the grains into grist. Milling breaks down the raw materials to make the starch or sugar they contain more available for enzyme action. Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts to promote chemical reactions. Enzymes convert to sugar the carbohydrates found in the starchy materials. It should be noted that for Scotch whisky, where the key raw ingredient is barley, the barley is malted before being milled. Malting is the germination and then drying (kilning) of the barley grains, which increase the starch content. Barley malt for Scotch whisky is kilned over peat fires giving it its unique smokey character. For grapes and other fruits, milling consists of crushing and pressing. Sugarcane uses a combination of milling and pressing. Cereal grains are milled to form the grist.
Mashing converts the starches to sugar. So it is a step in the distillation process that only applies to the starchy raw materials. Mashing is done in a vessel called a mash tun, which is equipped to mix and heat the ingredients. Milled raw materials are fed into the mash tun and mixed with water. The mash is boiled, allowing the starches to become soluble for break down into fermentable sugars. The temperature is then reduced and enzymes convert the starch into sugar. When all the starch is converted to sugar, the mixture is ready for fermentation.
Fermentation is the process by which yeast convert sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. The formula for fermentation is: Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + CO2 + Heat. If grapes or other fruits are used they are fermented into wine. For the grains, the cooled, starchy mash (sometimes referred to as the 'wort') is moved to fermentors where additional enzymes are added and then yeasts. Fermentation takes place, producing alcohol and congeners. Congeners are the flavors generated by the yeasts. Like caffeine in coffee, the desired congeners must be present in just the right proportion and combination to achieve the desired flavors and aromas. At this point, the fermented mash is 7-10% alcohol; it is called the 'wash' in Scotland and Ireland or 'beer' in Kentucky and Tennessee.
As previously stated, distillation is based on the differing boiling points of water and alcohol. The fermented mash is heated to just below water's boiling point. Alcohol vapors rise, are captured and then condensed. The condensate is a distilled spirit and has higher alcohol strength that the liquid it came from. The term 'proof' is used to measure the absolute alcohol content of the distillate by measuring the specific gravity of theliquor. In the United States a 100 proof spirit contains 50% alcohol.
The basic distillation process is simple but becomes more difficult and delicate when producing a fine alcoholic beverage. A number of methods of distillation have evolved over time. They have to do with the type of still that's used. There are many types: Coffey stills, beer stills, pot stills, continuous stills and batch stills. However, they are all broken down into two categories: the conventional pot still or the more industrial continuous still.
The most commonly used continuous still is the patent still, sometimes called a Coffey, after Aeneas Coffey its inventor. This consists of two vertical columns, called the analyzer and the rectifier. Steam enters the bottom of the analyzer, rises towards the top where it meets the wash, which has been heated in the rectifier. The alcohol in the wash is vaporized and is passed to the bottom of the rectifier. As it rises it cools and condenses and the spirit is drawn off. The distillate has a high degree of purity and high alcohol content. The continuous still tends to give more neutral a spirit than a pot still.
The simple pot still (or batch still) consists of a large enclosed vessel, which typically looks like a large copper pot, that is heated either directly by fire or by steam coils within the vessel; a cylindrical bulb that encloses the top of the still and a vapor line from the top of the bulb. A batch of mash is pumped into the pot still and heated. The heated mash vaporizes, passes through the bulb at the top of the still and condenses into liquid as it passes out through the vapor line.
The pot still is less efficient than the continuous still because each batch has to be heated, thereby using much more fuel. Also, the raw material has to be distilled twice to produce a properly concentrated spirit. But the ability to control the process and retain congeners, the substances that give spirits their flavor and character, means that the pot still is an essential element for making the world's best brandies. Nearly all pot stills are made of copper because the metal is virtually neutral. For grape-based spirits, the stills are heated from the outside usually with gas. The size of pot stills varies and so do the mechanisms used to trap the fumes. In Cognac, the stills used for the second distillation are strictly limited to 660 gallons so as to retain qualities of the base wine. Control of the distillation process is largely exercised in the decision as to when to start to use the spirit. The heads, the high-strength first drops to flow, and the tails, which contain impurities, are regularly discarded. Most brandies are distilled to about 70% alcohol and then broken down by the addition of water to a more palatable strength of about 40%, which would be 80 proof.
Not all spirits are aged. Vodka and most rum need not be aged. Other spirits, like Cognac and whiskey will always be aged. Most often oak barrels are used. Depending on the spirit, they may be new or used. New oak always imparts more flavors into the spirit (as it does with wine). Spirits may be aged for a few months or for several decades.