Making Alcohol can definitely be a labor of love. It is definitely labor intensive. It’s a time consuming process. It can be financially intensive and the economies of scale don’t always favor the small producers. It takes a long time to perfect and if you make one mistake, it can ruin everything. Just like all tradecraft, mastering the art and science behind making alcohol is time consuming. It’s not something we think of when we think about what we drink. We consider where it’s from, what it’s made of, what it tastes of and whether we like it or not. We don’t often think about how it’s made.
Whether it is an individual spirit, a style of beer or a particular vintage of wine, the process across the board to make a finished product is similar no matter what we are making. Certain spirits, like Schnapps, Amaro, Spiced Rum and Gin have added steps at the end. Making Sake, for example, requires multiple steps be taken before the fermentation process to ensure that the rice can handle the lengthy brewing process. The process, however, will still be the same to make alcohol across the board. We will eventually tackle all three topics in due time, but today we just want to discuss this as an overview of the process.
Looking back at our ingredients, we start the process of making alcohol with sugar, yeast and, if need be, water. It’s a pretty simple to follow process.
- Prepare the Sugar
- Add Water
- Add Yeast
- Undergo Primary Fermentation
- Optional Step: Distill
- Secondary Fermentation/Conditioning/Maturation
Obviously, there is much more to it than just that, as different beverages have different preparations associated with them, however, the process is still the same. We start with the sugar, add the water, yeast and then ferment. While it seems very straight forward, it is very intensive.
So, first we start with our sugar. We can’t make anything without breaking down the sugar into something usable. Starting with grain seeds won’t help us make beer unless we can start to extract the sugar. Sugarcane isn’t usable until it’s been broken and the cane juice seeps out. Forget about starting with a whole grape; it needs to be pressed before you can even make wine. Depending on what we are making, we begin the process of converting to usable sugars. Wine gets the easy way out here, since wine grapes naturally is comprised of sugar (between 15% and 25% is sugar) and water, in addition to all the other compounds, like phenols and tannins, found in grapes. In order to get to the sugars, the grapes are pressed; technically, they are crushed and destemmed in order to open up the grape and let the juice flow in lieu of a formal first press – it’s all just semantics for our purposes. Whatever juice is released is considered to be “Free Run Juice”, and is the base for which wine is made. The grapes can be then pressed further using an actual winepress to extract the remaining juice, which can be used to for making wine, brandy or other spirits.
Grains require a few steps in order to get to the sugar. First, the grains need to be malted. Basically, they are steeped in hot water, allowed to germinate for a few days and then dried out. This is done in order to produce an enzyme called Amylase that helps break down starch into sugar during the brewing process. Next, the grains are milled; they need to be ground up so that the sugars and starches found inside the grain can be extracted easier. Our milled grains, also called the mash, are now transferred into a separate container in which hot water is added to it in order to help extract the sugars from the grain. The water is slowly heated, but not brought to a boil because different enzymes and chemicals activate at different temperatures. After the Amylase has done its job at a temperature between 62 and 72 degrees Celsius, the water is slowly heated to 78 degrees Celsius, which deactivates all of the enzymes that had previously been working. The sugar liquid we are left with is called Wort. In beer making, there is an additional step, which involves boiling the wort and adding hops, spices and other additives to our beer before fermenting. In distilling, we just stop with the Wort and ferment that.
Sugarcane is converted to sugar in one of three ways. The first is that the sugarcane is drained of the cane juice and then fermented. This is used in the French West Indies, and makes a fantastic Rhum Agricole. Second, the sugarcane juice is cooked down and concentrated into syrup that is then mixed with water and fermented. Finally, the sugarcane juice can be processed to make molasses, which is then added to water and fermented. For agave, instead of just draining the nectar outright, it needs to be broken into smaller pieces and then baked. Baking the agave heart allows for the nectar to both form a sap and be loosened up from the tenuous fibers of the heart. The agave is then crushed, and the sap and liquids are added to water and heated before being fermented.
At this point, we have our sugar, and it’s already the water added to it. I’ve combined the first two steps, despite it happening in sequential order. As has been discussed already, water is an ingredient in its own right, but there is another purpose for using water. Chemical reactions need to happen in something. Add a block of Sodium to a room filled with Chlorine gas and it won’t all of a sudden make salt. In order to get salt, you need the Sodium and the Chlorine to both be gasses and have a little bit of energy for a reaction to happen. When making alcohol, it’s the same way – yeast cannot act on solid sugar alone. Yeast needs something to propagate in. The sugar needs to be dissolved into something for it to react. That something happens to be water. There are various properties about water, such as its miscibility, high boiling point, high polarity and inert nature, which make it the perfect solution for making alcohol in. Now that we have our sugar and our water, we combine them.
So we have our sugar/water mixture and we’re ready to ferment. The mixture is brought to a balmy ~30 Degrees Celsius. This is done so that the do what it’s supposed to do. Think of it as making sure the sugar/water gets to a little warmer than room temperature. The sugar/water mixture gets transferred to a fermenter so primary fermentation can occur and yeast is pitched, or added. Depending on what is being made, the appropriate type of yeast gets pitched so that it can withstand up to a certain percentage of alcohol being produced without killing it. This is when the waiting game occurs. This process can take a few days and you wait. And you wait. And you wait. See a trend here? During this time, all that chemistry we talked about weeks ago happens. The yeast converts the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide as well as phenols, esters, aldehydes, ketones, etc. and produces a very bubbly reaction. After a few days of primary fermentation, we are left with a liquid that is called the wash. There are two things we can do at this point – secondary fermentation or distillation. Distillation is the big optional step here, as the wash can either be used, in the case of beer and wine, for secondary fermentation, or it can be used, as is the case with spirits, for distillation.
Distillation adds a very interesting wrinkle in our process. Most of the time, we concern ourselves with making spirits, but distillation can be used for making beer as well. When distillation used for making beer, it’s used for making high alcohol content beer after secondary fermentation has happened. When distillation is used in making spirits, we start distilling right from the wash. The wash is a nice alcoholic liquid, rife with everything, good and bad, that can be drank. It also, depending on the yeast used, can have an alcohol range between 4% and 18%. This is not enough to even come close to having enough alcohol to drink. In order to increase the alcohol content, we need to get rid of the water that we used so we are left with a higher concentration of alcohol. Seeing as water is needed to help make alcohol, we can use that fact to our advantage. We have alcohol in water. Water boils at 100 Degrees Celsius (212 Degrees Fahrenheit). Alcohol starts to boil at 78.4 Degrees Celsius (173.1 Degrees Fahrenheit). In order to separate the alcohol out, we need to boil our wash. The issue is that we can’t lose any alcohol vapor and if we don’t collect it, we can’t save it and distill it further. To fix this, the wash is boiled directly in a still. A still is a boil kettle with catch at the top for the alcohol vapor to pass through and condense into. The condensation, also called low wine because of its 18%-25% alcohol content, passes through the catch ends up in one of two places, another boiler, or a pot for collection before getting transferred into another still. The low wine gets distilled further in order to increase the alcohol content. The second and third distillations are generally the starting point for distillations that will be aged and bottled. Distillation can happen multiple times and caps out at an alcohol content of ~95% ABV. As the alcohol concentration increases, the alcohol becomes azeotropic, meaning that its alcohol and water content cannot be further changed through basic distillation. That’s science for you.
All of the alcohol we get from distillation can be considered Neutral Spirits at the start. They are spirits without flavor, color, or anything that gives them the umph we expect other than alcohol content. Even Whiskey can be a neutral spirit when it first starts out. Tequila Blanco, Vodka, certain brands of White Rum and Unaged Whiskey all are neutral spirits. What creates one of the biggest elements of distinction between spirits is the process of conditioning. Sometimes conditioning can also be referred to as secondary fermentation when discussing beer and wine. This is not fermentation, but a means of letting any residual fermentation happen in another vessel. What happens is that our beer and wine are both transferred into brand new containers after the completion of their first fermentation. These new containers are used, among other things, to help age the alcohol and let any residual yeast either get converted into alcohol or die off. Occasionally, a little bit of fresh sugar is added so that there is additional fermentation when alcohol is bottled, creating a beverage that has been bottle conditioned. When it comes from distillation, since there is no yeast left, the conditioning is meant to let the distillate age. This means that our 18 year old scotch gets thrown in a barrel and left there. Anejo tequila undergoes its aging process in the barrel. After the alcohol is conditioned, it gets bottled and sent for sale.
That is, in a nutshell, what happens from start to finish. Start with sugar and then add water and yeast. Throw in an airtight container to ferment and then distill if needed. And voila – alcohol! The particulars for specifically making beer, wine and spirits will be talked about more in depth soon enough, but it still follows the same basic outline no matter what you make.