The Basics: Distillation

September 29, 2011

It’s about to get a little nerdy at The Nobler…

Liquor drinking is made possible by two of the most fascinating processes known to man. The first, we have very little to do with. The second, is pure genius. Fermentation is the natural process whereby yeast produce CO2 and alcohol. And while you may immediately think of beer and wine, fermentation has surprising number of applications for some of the most popular foods: yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and even some cured meats are made possible by the creation of lactic acid via fermentation. But I’m not here to tout the ability of microorganisms. I’m here to tout the brilliance that is distillation.

Liquor is for the most part a mixture of ethanol and water. The higher the ratio, the harder it is to get up in the morning. But it is how that mixture is created that fascinates me. As I mentioned, the fermentation process implies the conversion of carbohydrates (sugars) to ethanol and CO2. Take a sugary/starchy liquid, add yeast, and you’ve got yourself some alcohol (see: hard apple cider, wine, etc). But these same yeast can only produce so much ethanol before they themselves succumb to the party they’ve created. In the case of liquor, concentrating that alcohol while maintaining a clear flavor profile is the goal; and where the magic begins.

Believe it or not, flavor comes from molecules. Molecules that are more often than not, “alcohols”. Yes, it is true, alcohols are more than just a beverage we enjoy, it is a class of molecules altogether. And these “alcohols” along with ethanol share one very important trait in common, making distillation possible. Alcohols “boil” at a lower temperature than water. Therefore it seems reasonable that the ethanol and the flavor molecules from a fermented beverage could be removed and separated from the water, right? But wait, isn’t the point to keep the ethanol and flavor, not to remove it altogether?

Enter condensation: In an enclosed system, those molecules that have boiled away, don’t simply disappear. Now in the gaseous state they have been liberated from the batch in which they came. With a blast of cold water surrounding the condenser, those same gaseous components can now re-liquify and be captured in their purest form! Friggin unbelievable!

So what makes a vodka a vodka and a bourbon a bourbon and me a lover of them all? These are the questions that have shaped the Nobler Experiment. Anyone else feel like they need a drink?


One comment

  1. […] mash” part of the label got me thinking this weekend. Think back to last week’s post on distillation. I passed over fermentation rather quickly and failed to mention one of the more interesting […]

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