Spirits, hard stuff, moonshine, liquor. All are names used to identify distilled alcoholic beverages. Spirits are very versatile and can be enjoyed responsibly in a variety of ways. Whether you are drinking a single malt scotch ‘neat’ or enjoying a refreshing gin and tonic cocktail, all spirits start off as a fermented beverage and are transformed through the distillation process.
There are many ways to produce different spirits. Many factors influence the style and flavour produced via distillation, everything from the raw material, method of distillation, barrel aging just to name a few; even the height and shape of the still being used will impact the finished spirit.
Distillation can be defined as the partial removal and concentration of alcohol from a fermented liquid. Alcohol is taken from a fermented liquid by vapourizing alcohol with the application of heat, and then condensing the liquid. This process is made possible by the fact that water and alcohol have two different boiling points. Water vapourizes at approximately 100 degrees Celsius while ethanol (beverage alcohol) vapourizes at a lower temperature of 78.3 degrees Celsius. Distillation is the controlled heating and condensing of a fermented liquid to produce spirits.
There are many defined spirit classifications. Whisky, rum, tequila, vodka, gin, brandy and liqueur just to name a few more common styles. Classifying and differentiating spirits is dictated by the raw materials used in production, the distillation methods, origin of production and established laws and guidelines of specific styles. For example; whisky is always made from grain. Brandy is always made from grapes. Where a spirit is being produced globally there will be different laws and regulations surrounding spirit production. One great comparison is Canadian whisky to single malt Scotch. Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada and can be made using various grains (commonly corn, rye and barley) either in combination with each other or individually. Single malt Scotch must be produced in Scotland, using exclusively malted barley, distilled from a pot still, and come from one single distillery. Both products are whisky but both are very different in terms of their style and flavour profile.
The alcoholic strength achieved from distillation also has an impact on the classification of different spirit styles. Regardless of what raw material is used to create a spirit, when the distillate produced is above a certain alcoholic strength during production, you are in essence creating vodka. Vodka can be made from any raw material that contains fermentable sugars since its classification is linked to the alcoholic strength of the distillate and not any given raw material. This is why there are many types of vodka produced all across the world. There is an inverse relationship between flavour and alcoholic strength. The higher the alcoholic strength produced via distillation (approximately 90-94% ABV) the lighter the flavours will be in the distillate produced (common in continuous distillation). This is why vodka is known to be a clean, almost tasteless and odorless beverage. The reverse is true; when the alcoholic strength produced is lower (50-80%) the resulting distillate will have a more flavourful profile. When more flavourful spirits such as whisky and brandy are produced, they are distilled to lower alcoholic strengths and have more flavour by comparison to spirits such as vodka or white rum.
There are two types of distillation used to produce spirits; batch and continuous distillation. Often one or the other method is employed but in some instances a combination of the two methods is utilized in production.
Batch distillation often occurs using a pot still and the distillates are produced in small batches. This method is very labour intensive. Batch distillation is a great method to cultivate a lot of flavour. The batch distillation method creates lower alcoholic strengths and as a result produces a spirit that has complexity and lots of flavour. The batch distillation method can be used to create many different types of spirits but is most commonly used to produce styles like Scotch, whisky, cognac (brandy) and many other full flavoured spirits.
Continuous distillation often takes place in what is known as a column still. The continuous method can be operated continuously with the liquid to be distilled being fed into the lower part of the still and the alcoholic vapour being condensed near the top of the still at a constant pace. Column stills are much taller than pot stills and because of their height, along with other attributes, higher alcoholic strengths can be achieved and the resulting spirit is very clean and pure. Column stills are commonly used to produce spirits like vodka, rum and Canadian whisky. There are some instances where column stills can be used to produce batch distillation but the resulting spirit will still be lighter in flavour than the pot still method.
Once a spirit has been produced the new distillate can either be bottled right away as a young, clear spirit (i.e. vodka, gin and rum) or can be transferred to an aging vessel. Spirits that are bottled immediately after distillation are known as white spirits or clear spirits, as they are usually water white in colour. Alternatively a spirit can be aged in a wooden vessel (commonly oak) to develop further complexity and mellow for a period of time. Some spirits are mandated to be aged in wood for a period of time. Before you can call a spirit whisky it must be aged for a minimum period in wood before it can be sold under the name whisky. The minimum length of aging is different for each of the sub categories of whisky dependent on the country of origin. Some other spirit styles that are commonly aged in oak, also known as brown spirits are rum, tequila, brandy and others.
There are many opportunities for innovation among certain styles, especially when it comes to craft distillation and styles such as gin in particular. Aside from the production regulations of certain styles of spirit, many small craft distilleries are producing spirits using local off-beat ingredients such as hops, berries, herbs etc. The fact that mixology and cocktail culture are enjoying a recent boom is but one of the factors that help to drive the demand for unique, flavoursome artisanal spirits.
Whether created using traditional ingredients and methods or crafted through innovation, distillation is a complex art.