Lovers of drink and prose love to toss around this quote. while it is possible that Mr. Faulkner might be overreaching, it remains undeniable that many of the finer things we enjoy today—including scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin, and brandy—are made possible by distillation, and that our lives would be different in hundreds of ways were it not for this most excellent and ancient process.
The word distillation comes from the Latin word destillare, meaning ‘drip or trickle,’ but the process is significantly older even than ancient Rome. Archeological evidence suggests that those crafty Mesopotamians (in the Tepe Gawra region, in what is now northern Iraq) were using very basic distilling equipment as far back as 3500 BC, and that the Chinese were distilling alcoholic beverages from rice as early as 1000 BC. Several Greek texts from the 400s BC offer descriptions of a rudimentary form of the process. But the methods and gear that most of us would recognize as the paraphernalia of modern distillation were jump-started by Arab alchemists beginning in around 600 AD.
These alchemists were, by today’s standards, a goofy lot. When they first got busy messing around with the process, they used distillation to make pretty much everything but booze. They crafted healing elixirs, anti-aging tonics, perfumes, and other scented additives for foods and wines, not to mention the ever-popular alchemical windmill-tilt aimed at turning base metals into gold.
One alchemist in particular, Jabir ibn Hayyan, is often pointed to as the first person to use the process solely to create boozy tipples. Jazzy Jabir accomplished this lovely feat by using high-potency wine, and distilling it into an early relative of brandy. While we’re on the subject of alchemists, it was the German-Swiss alchemist and occultist, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (thankfully he shortened his name to Paracelsus — how’d you like having to sign that name?), who gave alcohol its modern name, borrowing the word from the Arab tongue, in which it loosely means “finely divided.”
In the late Middle Ages, trade between the Arab world and Europe (specifically Italy) fostered a distillation emigration across the continent, where people of all classes took to it, and its liquid products known then as aqua ardens or “burning waters,” with the same commendable gusto they took to wimples and woolen pantyhose. The explosion of distilled spirits in Europe ignited a major commercial revolution, as countries began to export their
favorite local drinks and import those from other nations — British whiskey, Russian vodka, French cognacs and armagnacs, and Dutch genevers (gin).
Over the next several hundred years, distillation moved onto every continent and touched the lives of nearly every human culture on the planet. It also really improved week nights. And Sundays. And Arbor Day.
Process & Design
All things being equal, distillation is a fairly simple process. All you really need is a heat source, a container in which to boil stuff, some sort of tubing, and a second container to receive the discharge. There are a plethora of different types of stills, so the following is a very basic explanation of the very common pot still. Before distilling can be undertaken, however, three important things have to happen first: milling, mashing, and fermentation.
During the milling process, as the particular grains (wheat, barley, rye, corn, rice, and combinations thereof, depending upon the desired spirit) are ground into a meal, the hulls are removed and natural starches are released. The meal is then steeped in water, which allows the release of enzymes that break down starch into fermentable and nonfermentable sugars. When the steeping is complete, the resultant concoction is known as the mash. Once a suitable mash has been created, yeast is added, and fermentation begins. Yeast feeds on sugar molecules, converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles away, leaving behind a mixture of alcohol and congeners. Sometimes called fusil oils, congeners are made up of numerous chemicals that are responsible for a majority of the flavors in a freshly distilled spirit, before any flavoring has been added or aging in barrels occurs . Congeners also have a dastardly side. They are, lamentably, the primary cause of hangovers.
The fermented mash is placed in a container called a pot. Originally, the pot was made of clay or some very sturdy wood such as oak. Later distillers turned to copper, but then to stainless steel since it is easy to clean, widely available, and more affordable than copper. Water is added, and the mixture is heated, or washed. In the old days washing was done over wood or peat or dung, and today it’s usually via electrical heating units of varying sizes and strengths, though some smaller-scale distillers (and moonshiners) continue to swear by natural fire.
The pot is topped with a column called the neck. Also usually made of copper, the column is where the vapors (primarily ethyl alcohol and water) from the wash are temporarily collected. As with so many other aspects of life, both the length and the diameter of the neck are of vital importance. Larger diameters move more vapor through the system, but can lessen the overall quality, while longer columns increase the purity of the spirit, especially in a copper column, because copper leeches impurities, such as sulfur, from the vapor. Necks with rounded tops capture more flavors (great for whiskeys) and necks with flat tops seem to provide more neutral tastes for vodka and gin.
Connected to the neck is, arguably, the single most significant piece of equipment in the distilling process: the condenser. The device does exactly as its name indicates; it condenses, or knocks down, the vapor from the column, returning it to liquid form by means of a hollow coil filled with cool water. Without condensation, liquor cannot be produced, and it must happen speedily, or too much vapor will escape into the air. Copper is, again, the most popular material from which to fashion condensers. Need, however, can lead to innovation. When certain Eskimo tribes were taught distillation in the 1800s by Russian fur trappers and had no copper tubing, they used the stalks from bull kelp to knock down their hooch.
As condensation continues, alcohol drips from the condenser and must be captured. This is done with what is called, simply enough, a containment vessel. These vessels are usually on the smallish side and traditionally have long, narrow necks. Sizes are kept small to allow easy access to the liquid for testing purposes, and the long, narrow neck greatly reduces exposure to the air and all of its unwanted contaminants. Entire batches can be ruined by airborne pollutants, and drinking adulterated liquor can cause blindness and even death. Another reason to keep the containment vessels small is because the newborn alcohol is high octane and can easily catch fire or explode.
All distilled spirits begin life clear, and come from the still packing a serious alcoholic wallop. Whiskeys, rums, bourbons, brandies, and any other non-colorless spirits get their color from the barrels in which they are aged, although some lower echelon producers add artificial colorings. Similar to the grains used to make the mash, aging barrels also contribute to a spirit’s distinctive flavor and scent.
What has been described above is distillation at its most basic. Modern, high-volume distilleries have added quite a lot to the process, including vacuum chambers, gas inlets, and more. It is important, when discussing distillation among experts, to know which type they are using, whether it’s vacuum distillation, air-sensitive distillation, zone distillation, or something else. If you’re interested in these other distillation methods, a quick internet search will bring you what you’re looking for.
So, then. Distillation. Some call it a science, and others, an art. How about we accept both, and simply call it good?