Chopped. Iron Chef. Master Chef. Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Sweet Genius. Cutthroat Kitchen.What do all of these have in common besides being cooking shows? At one point or another, during the course of the competition, the contestants are shocked and surprised with the ingredients they get or the dish they need to make. Be it competing in Kitchen Stadium, the Chopped Kitchen or Alton Brown's own pit of despair called Cutthroat Kitchen, everything comes down to what ingredients can the competitors use at the end of the day. Whether it's Chairman Kaga or his "nephew", the Chairman on Iron Chef America, pulling up the red blanket off the table of mystery ingredients, Ted Allen as he's naming all the ingredients being pulled out of the mystery basket on Chopped, or Ron Ben-Israel, with an evil glint of glee, when he introduces his mystery ingredients, when we tune in, as viewers we all wonder what will the contestants have to use in their rather short amount of time to cook.
Much like all of the great cooking shows on TV and a great deal of the cooking and dining we do in our personal lives, the ingredients we use are extremely important. The same holds true with alcohol. While you might think that Sugar is Sugar when it comes to fermenting alcohol, what you put into has a direct effect on what you end up drinking. That can of PBR was brewed with a specific flavor profile and color in mind. That Chardonnay that you may have had with brunch from Northern California has a very different flavor profile than a Chardonnay from Chablis. Those shots of Patron had to be distilled from something. That something is our Sugar source. That Sugar source is just one of many ingredients that are used to make alcohol. The ingredients we use have a profound effect on the taste, smell, flavor and color of the alcohol we drink.
Last week, Blitzed, Smashed and Drunk wrote about the cornerstone of alcohol, Fermentation. This week, we expand on it because everything starts with fermentation. As a quick recap, Fermentation is when you use yeast to help convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Although, chemically speaking, Sugar is nothing more than a simple carbohydrate, what you get your sugar from helps shape the flavor profile of what kind of alcohol you end up with... like a Sweet Baby Jesus!. Sweet Baby Jesus!, from DuClaw Brewery in Maryland, is one of those beers that encapsulates everything we're talking about. The Sweet Baby Jesus! smells like exactly how a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup tastes, but doesn't have the same taste. While it has chocolate and peanut butter flavors, it is reminiscent of a nice dry stout, without having too much bitterness to overpower it.
Ingredients fall into one of two major types of categories - Essential Ingredients and Flavoring Agents. There is a third type of ingredient, the ingredient that can't quite be described because it is far less tangible, is limited in need and is definitely hard to explain in the absence of talking about a particular type of beverage. Things like Terroir and Peat fall into the third category, as they are so specific to certain types of alcohol and are only discussed with respect to those beverages that it's worth it to devote time to explain these intangibles when we discuss to those types of alcohol.
Essential ingredients are self-explanatory. They are, at the most basic level, required to make alcohol. Although alcohol is made from nothing more than sugar and yeast, there is a lot more that goes into producing it. The list of ingredients is rather small, to be honest - you have yeast, water and sugar. That is all you really need to make alcohol. The only caveat is that there are multiple types of sugar that can be used. To better understand what goes into things, I've provided some basic information about each of the types of ingredients and got a bit more specific with the sugars, detailing the most commonly used products from which alcohol is made.
- Yeast - Without a doubt, yeast is the most essential ingredient in making alcohol. It's so important that it just so happens to be the limiting factor in making alcohol. Yeast has an alcohol tolerance, basically a max range of alcohol content that it can produce without killing the yeast. Most brewer's yeasts have a tolerance of 6%-9%. Wine yeasts have a tolerance of up to ~16%-18%. There are distiller's yeast strains that have an alcohol tolerance that go much higher. Certain yeasts also help add to the flavor profile you expect from certain beers. Belgian beers, such as the Sour Flemish style, use wild strains of yeast that produce the tart flavors that a good Sour Flemish is known for. Other times, the right strain of yeast will help produce the perfect dry Cider needed or will be better suited for fermenting a nice, high sugar content grape that has been affected by the Noble Rot. There are times when you just need to get the right alcohol content before you start distilling. Regardless, there is always a yeast to use for brewing.
- Water - This should be a no brainer. It gets listed anyways because Water is one of those ingredients that gets overlooked constantly. Water has the biggest impact on taste and is different depending on where you are. Water from the Chateau Elizabeth, July 2014 vintage, (read: The Elizabeth, NJ Aquifer which provides water to the Anhauser-Busch factory located right down the road, I might add) will have a different taste of that from London, Germany or East L.A. Without getting into the chemistry (we all know how that one turned out), the reason why water is so important is because it can have different pH levels (how acidic, neutral or basic a liquid is) depending on where you are and a different concentrations of elements (such as Calcium, Magnesium, Nitrate, Chloride and Sulphates) which affect the taste of the alcohol and the byproducts produced. Beer, in particular, is greatly affected by the quality of water. This is why certain cities are known for certain styles of beer. The water from Pilsen is entirely different than the water from Munich or London. Even though similar styles of beer are made in Dublin and London, certain variations in elements produce certain flavors we expect from certain beers. Just imagine making a Highland Scotch in a distillery from Islay. Distill it the same way, just using the water from Islay instead of the Highlands and you have a different tasting product. Sake too, is affected by the quality of water used in production. Hard water is used to help produce a drier style Sake, while softer water is used for a sweeter flavor. Even though water can be adjusted, the subtleties of water should not go unnoticed for any type of distilling and brewing.
- Sugar - The proverbial starter for creating alcohol. This is the third key ingredient in producing alcohol. There's not more to it. The only catch is sugar comes from different sources. There are 5 predominant sources for sugar used in the production of alcohol. They are cereal grains, grapes, potatoes, sugar cane and agave. These form the basis for most of what we drink. Although there are other sugar sources that can be used either on their own or in conjunction with other sugars, such as apples and honey, unless looking for something specific, almost everything we drink is made from one of these sources.
- Grain - Cereal Grains are the largest group of sugar producing ingredients we talk about when making beer and spirits. Cereal grains such as Barley, Wheat, Corn, Rice, Oats and Rye are used for both flavor and sugar content. As a sugar, grain has one common theme. It is filled to the brim with Glucose and sugars that break down to Glucose. When it comes to flavor, it should be rather obvious; every grain imparts a rather specific flavor to what is being made. For example, malted barley imparts a sweetness while rye has a bit of a spicy taste to it. Other grains, such as rice and corn, are sometimes used as adjuncts to help created a balanced beverage and are, at other times, used to impart flavor in their own right. In making Sake, the Japanese have 60 different strains of rice that can be used for brewing just to ensure that the right flavor and balance is being met. Grains are also used as the starting block for neutral spirits, which serve as the base for other spirits like vodka and gin being made. Neutral spirits are exactly what they sound like, spirits that are "flavorless" and neutral in taste. Botanicals, Schnapps and Liqueurs that are not brewed with another sugar source all start out with a Neutral Spirit and are then flavored after the distillation has been finished.
- Grapes - Grapes are fantastic. As a fruit, they make a great snack. As a spread, they pair well with peanut butter. As a sugar for making alcohol, they really shine. Grapes have an advantage compared to most other sugars. On their own, grapes impart the bulk of the flavor into the wine they making. Different grapes produce such noticeably different wines; the same grape grown in two different parts of the world will worlds apart in taste to a sophisticated palate. Even wines made a year apart at the same winery may have completely different profiles. Even so, grapes are filled to the brim with natural flavors to impart into wine and brandy. Grapes are used to make brandy, cognac and Armagnac, which are all made from distilled wine. The pressings, stems, seeds and leftovers from making wine are then used to make pomace brandy, like Grappa. And then there's Ciroc Vodka. For the love of me, I don't understand how there is Ciroc or why a company would take grapes and remove every essence of what makes them unique, both as an ingredient and as a sugar, and turn it into Vodka. Eaux du vie be damned, this is the one spirit made from grapes I will never understand.
- Potato - Well, we start with Ciroc and we end with potatoes. Potatoes are used predominantly in the production of neutral spirits. Those neutral spirits made with potatoes then go on to be distilled into Vodka, for the most part. Potatoes are used because, despite being rather starchy, they break down into the same basic sugar as everything else and are a viable alternative when grains are not available to produce a neutral spirit. In certain parts of the country they are relatively easy to grow and are used in lieu of grains while getting the same results. Vodkas, such as Finlandia, Grand Tetons, Ketel One, Reyka and Chopin, are all well-known brands that use potatoes as their sugar of choice.
- Sugar Cane - I suppose @"EdmundoBraverman" could talk an earful on Rum. Sugar Cane is really a "no shit" sugar. It's one of those things that can just be checked off the list because it's pretty obvious what it is, but, just like the final product, how Sugar Cane is prepared before distilling it is very important to the rum we drink. Although it all breaks down into the same thing - sugar - distilling with a raw cane juice produces a much different product than distilling with molasses would. While sugar cane can be used to make rum right off the bat, processing the juice and pulp of the sugar cane plant makes molasses which has a different flavor profile than its unprocessed brother. Compare a Black Rum made from molasses like Cruzan Black Strap to a Dark Rum, also made with molasses, like Cruzan Estate Dark to its lightest brethren, pure Sugar Cane Rum, like Cruzan Estate Light and you will notice how each type of rum has a unique sweetness that is tempered by the flavor imparted by flavors of the sugar used. It's a question of how much of a caramel, burnt sugar note you taste in the darker rum compared to the straight up sweetness used of the sugar cane juice used to make the light rum.
- Agave - I think we save the best for last, when it comes to talking sugar. The agave plant has been the scourge of drinkers for years. Its heart, the Pina, has been used to make the drink associated with wild nights, partying to hard and a few too many rappers sipping on it. Some people don't want to get near that worm either. Still, everyone has an experience with it at least once in their drinking life. Similar to using molasses, the sugars that come from agave need to be processed in order to get something that is usable. Once the pina has been cooked and then cut open, the agave nectar is distilled to create Mezcal. While not that many people know Mezcal, they know the most famous type of Mezcal - Tequila! The only way to make mescal and tequila is by using Agave. No other sugar would work to create the same flavor.
Because there are so many, I'm just going to stick with some of the most well-known flavoring agents. It would just take too damned long to discuss the finer point of every single major ingredient that affects the flavor of what we drink. Also, just because an ingredient can be essential to make alcohol, doesn't mean it can't also be a flavoring agent when it's not the essential ingredient. Fruit takes center stage in this regards as most fruits can be used both to flavor alcohol and as its source of sugar. When not used in Cider or Brandy, for example, Apples can be used in making Schnapps. Honey is used as a primary sugar to make Mead and Bragot but is also a flavoring agent when making Drambuie.
- Hops - I suppose it's only right to start with the celebrity flavoring agent. This world class cousin of Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica has been helping people enjoy their beer for a very long time. Hops are the one of the most well-known flavoring agents in the world because of their presence in beer. Since the Middle Ages, hops have been used for a variety of purposes, from being an antimicrobial to adding the bitterness, balance and aroma to what we drink today. Hops are known for 3 things - their essential oils, acids and their beta acids. The essential oils are what impart the aroma of beer. Floral notes, the smells of citrus and pine and that occasional herbal flavor associated with Beer all from these essential oils. Alpha acids are what create the bitterness in beer. Depending on the hops used, how long they are in the boil for and the amount of hops used, beer can have a very wide bitterness profile. Beta acids don't have much of an effect on the immediate production of beer. Beta acids don't immediately add bitterness to beer because they oxidize slowly and change their bitterness profile over time. Side note, that "Skunk Beer" smell and flavor from day old opened beer is created because of beta acids. Hops also contain phenols that do affect the flavor profile and help stabilize what is being brewed, but that's more chemistry for another day.
- Wood - This is one of the stranger choice ingredients used in the production of alcohol. Whiskey. Wine. Barrel Aged Beer. The one thing they have in common? They were all thrown into a wooden barrel and aged for a length of time. While it's not something you'd expect, it plays a huge part in creating the flavor profile of what we drink. As with picking choice ingredients, the choice of what kind of wood that is used affects the flavor profile greatly. Generally speaking, most barrels used in the process of making alcohol are Oak. Oak adds flavor through a number of ways. First, it has a high concentration of phenols, which add flavor in their own right. Second, whatever is being aged is affected by how much charring has been done to the barrels; depending on how charred the barrel is, you can get a far more or less aggressive flavor. Third, the type of Oak matters. Certain types of Oak have higher or lower concentrations of phenols, tannins, flavonoids and other compounds, leading to their particular choice for first use distilling. After being used for distilling alcohol, the barrels can be reused to lesser effect or they can be sold off to be used by other distillers. These sold off barrels have notes of the product originally distilled in them, adding to the complexity of whatever new beverage might be made in these used barrels. Although the rules are generally straight forward for what kind of barrels can be used for making certain types of hooch, such as aging a Chardonnay in French Oak casks or aging Bourbon in new charred, American White Oak barrels, things are a little looser for beer. The easiest way to the effects of wood in drinking is to just compare a bottle of beer that has been barrel aged with its non-aged counterpart. Great Divide makes a great beer to do this with - Try their Yeti Imperial Stout and then compare it with the Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout or, if you can find it, their straight Barrel Aged Yeti. Better yet, if you want to go really balls out and compare how barrel aging affects the taste of beer, get yourself a few bottles of FiftyFifty Brewing Co.'s Eclipse Imperial Stout in at least 2 different wax tops. Each wax top represents what type of barrel was used to age the Eclipse in. The flavor of each "wax top" differs markedly in taste even though all of the beer comes from the same recipe. If you don't believe me, go ahead and find a few and try to taste the differences yourself.
- Fruit - This one should be fairly obvious, but it still gets the nod. Fruit is used to help flavor beer, liquor and fruit wines as it has been for centuries. Everything from Apples, which can be used to make Cider and Calvados in their own right, to Citrus, Raspberries, and Peaches, can be used to help shape the flavor profile of a liquor or beer. Limoncello, for example, is made from a grain neutral spirit, lemon zest and sugar. Raspberries have been used to make Lambic and Lambic-style beer, schnapps and liquors like Chambord. Oranges have been used in more types of alcohol than I can think of; Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Campari and Curacao all use different varieties of Orange to help develop their flavors. You can even find orange being used to make spiced rum. Beers have been using fruits to help create unusual flavor profiles for a very long time as well. Dogfish Head Brewery comes to mind when I think of fruit as an ingredient in beer, as many of their large bottle beers, particularly their Ancient Ales and specialty beers, are brewed with and impart such a pronounced fruity flavor.
- Herbs/Spices/Botanicals - This is a nebulous category that has everything from Anise to Wormwood grouped together. Plants like Anise, Cassia, Gentian, Spearmint, Cascarilla, Sarsaparilla, Thyme, Clove, Vanilla, and Juniper can be used to help shape flavor profiles, either on their own merits or in combination. Since there are way too many one off spices or spices used in combination to impart flavors, it's easier to group them into a larger category called Botanicals as it encapsulates everything. Some of the most common and well-known liquors made with botanicals include Gin - made of Juniper, Sambuca - made from Anise, Jagermeister - which is a mix of more than 50 different botanicals, St. Germaine - made of Elderflowers, and Rumpleminze - made from Peppermint. Bitters, which are added to enhance the flavor, can be made from botanicals. Even Tonic, the accompaniment for a good Gin and Tonic, is made from a botanical, Quinine. Botanicals are everywhere in booze.
I know, it's a lot of information, but there's not much left on the essentials of alcohol before diving into the fun stuff, of making cocktails, talking beer, discussing liquor and discussing all the fun things about drinking.