A Lesson on Distilling (or maybe just brewing beer)

Distillation is the process of separating mixtures based on the differences in their volatilities in a boiling liquid mixture. It is a unit operation, or a physical separation process, and not a chemical reaction. Distillation has been used for a variety of purposes since at least 1st Century AD. Not surprisingly, I’ll be focusing on the production of the alcoholic beverage in this discussion.

Alcohol can be made from a variety of agricultural products using a basic three-step sequence:

1. The feed-stock (the raw material) is broken down chemically, usually through cooking or the addition of enzymes.

2. Fermentation, i.e., the action of micro-organisms (usually yeast) to produce a “beer” (The term “beer” describes the liquid traction of a fermented mixture of water and ground or crushed grain that is usually no more than 6-10% alcohol, hence the similarity of the process and the final alcohol content to that of domestic beer.) containing a small percentage of alcohol. In addition to alcohol, the mixture contains the remains of the feedstock, the yeast cells and various other substances dissolved in water.

3. Separating the alcohol from the water and other components in the beer, by distillation, to obtain the alcohol in a purer form.
Since the first two steps in the distilling process are the same as the steps for brewing beer, I will begin by describing the process for brewing a stout similar to Guinness. Then, since the initial ingredients in the two beverages are strikingly similar, I will process to describe the distillation of a whiskey similar to Bushmills. And so we begin.

First, we must break down the raw material (this is actually a fairly simple process). We begin by taking some barley and malting it. What is malting? Malting is the process of allowing a grain to germinate (or sprout) and then halting that process. This develops the enzymes required to modify the grain’s starches into sugars, including monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, etc.) and disaccharides (sucrose, maltose, etc.). It also develops other enzymes, such as proteases, which break down the proteins in the grain into forms that can be utilized by yeast.

After the grains are malted, we must grind them into a very rough flour, often called grist. An important part of the milling of the grains is the retention of the grain’s husk. This allows the mash of converted grain to create a filter bed during lautering, which we will get to in a moment.

Now that we have milled grain, we place it into a container called a Mash Tun and add water at a specified temperature. This is where science comes into play. Some brewers/distillers use a single temperature of water (usually around 152°F) and infuse the mash for 60-90 min. Then the grains are drained (or lautered) and rinsed with hotter water (170°F) to ensure that all of the sugars are rinsed out of the grains. This is called a single-infusion mash. Others take a more complex approach where water is added at around 104°F and allowed to sit for twenty minutes. This process is repeated at temperatures of 122°F, 144°F, and 162°F. This is called multi-step or decoction mashing. The more complex mashing is often utilized because at each temperature different enzymes are released and as these enzymes are released, they break down different forms of sugars, proteins, and starches. Every brewery and distillery has their own system and fine tunes the temperatures at which they mash. Once the mashing is complete, the liquid (now called wort) is drained, cooled, and sent to the next part of the process.

Fermentation is a simple, yet crucial part of the entire process. We place the wort into a container and add yeast. After a few hours, the yeast starts to feed on the sugars present in the liquid. As the yeast consumes the sugars, it releases carbon dioxide, and more importantly, alcohol. This process can take as little as 56 hours, or as long as 4 days. After fermentation is complete, the process for beer and spirits depart from one another.

Before we go on, a quick note about yeast: Distillers typically use distillers yeast, while brewers, use a host of strains, each contributing to the flavor of the individual beers. Many breweries have their own secret strands of yeast.

Following the fermentation process, beer is often aged, sometimes for months, and then carbonated in kegs, bottles or cans, either by natural carbonation using small amounts of yeast, or artificial carbonation using co2, nitrogen, or a combination of the two. From there it makes its way to distributors, then stores and finally to your home where you enjoy it.

Copper Pot Still

Spirits on the other hand, must be distilled following the fermentation process. From the fermentor, we must pump the liquid into either a pot or a column still. Once in the still, we heat the liquid. Since alcohol and water have separate boiling temperatures, the alcohol begins to vaporize before the water. Alcohol vapors travel up the neck of the still and down into a condensing tube that is usually cooled by water. There, the vapors are then turned back into a liquid and we drain the alcohol out. The crucial part of the distillation process is when the alcohol starts to flow out of the condenser, in addition to the alcohol, the first and last parts of the distillate usually contain unwanted contaminants. A good distiller knows the right points to “cut” the spirit in order to obtain only the best of the run without wasting valuable spirit. Good spirits result not from the number of distillations, but from the quality of the distillations.

From the still, we place the spirit into wooden barrels for aging, and after a predetermined amount of time, smooth whiskey is brought forth from the cask, bottled, and enjoyed by people around the world. Cheers!

With Great Risk Comes Great Reward (The Angostura Royale)

Hidden with the pages of Charles H. Baker’s, The Gentleman’s Companion; Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask (1946), you can find a most peculiar cocktail. The Angostura Fizz, and intriguing drink that uses bitters as its base. And not just a few bitters either, but a staggering ounce of bitters! I had been curious about this particular drink for a while and so last night I took the plunge. The decision to make this cocktail is not without financial concern either. At my local grocers, a 4oz bottle of Angostura is around $5.99. This doesn’t really seem like much, however when scaled up to a 750ml bottle it comes to a little over $38. That’s not to say I don’t have plenty of other bottles in that price bracket, because I do, but I never really thought about bitters being costly. Anyways, so I mixed up the drink, and was pleasantly surprised. Citrus notes on the front, followed by some burnt cherry, clove, and allspice on the finish. And although the first sip had a bitter aftertaste of epic proportions, it smoothed out after that and was very pleasant. Pleasant enough to encourage some experimenting at least. The fruits of my labor is a modified fizz, using champagne instead of soda water, and loosing the dairy ingredient, which to my taste, didn’t really add that much to the drink.

The Angostura Fizz
1 oz Angostura Bitters
2 Barspoons Sugar or Grenadine
Juice of 1/2 lemon or 1 lime
1 Egg White
1/2 oz Cream
Soda Water

The Angostura Royale
1 oz Angostura Bitters
3/4 oz Lemon Juice
1/2 oz Simple Syrup
1 Egg White

MxMo: Lime

It’s that time again. Mixology Monday, the day of the month that always creeps up on me and leaves me racking my brain at the last minute to come up with a good idea. Not that I don’t usually have a good excuse, I really do. I just returned last Thursday from a two week trip to Ireland, and have several things to post up about that soon. However, back to the business at hand. This month is being hosted by Doug over at the Pegu Blog, and his chosen theme is: Lime. You can check out his announcement post here.

Limes are a small citrus fruit, Citrus aurantifolia, whose skin and flesh are green in color and which have an oval or round shape with a diameter between one to two inches. Limes can either be sour or sweet, with the latter not readily available in the United States. Sour limes possess a greater sugar and citric acid content than lemons and feature an acidic and tart taste, while sweet limes lack citric acid content and are sweet in flavor. I really wish that Doug had given a little tighter of a topic, because as he noted, Limes can be used as an ingredient and a garnish, and they are included as one or the other in so many cocktails that it is difficult to choose. However, I choice must be made, so I am going to go with a combination of rum and lime. Lime has been paired with rum from the very beginning, and when a little sugar is added to the mix, a magnificent cocktail appears. The daiquiri, not to be confused with those overly sugary slushies, is such a simple yet complex cocktail. Technically a rum sour, the basic formula for the daiquiri can be adapted and used with any other base spirits to create great cocktails.

The Daiquiri
2 oz Rum
1 oz Lime Juice
1/2 oz Simple Syrup

These three simple ingredients mix together and create something that is altogether greater than the sum of its ingredients. The Daiquiri is traditionally made with a light cuban style rum, but I enjoy using a well crafted dark rum as well. Whatever you use, make sure it is a quality rum, fresh limes, and adjust the sugar to taste, and you have the foundation for a whole family of drinks.

apologies for the stock pic, it is late and I am too lazy to get a picture.

Vintage Cocktails #33: The Brooklyn Cocktail

The Brooklyn Cocktail, unlike the Bronx and Manhattan, has somewhat faded into obscurity. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Amer Picon and it’s alternative, Torani Amer, are not easily found in the states, or maybe that maraschino liqueur is still a rarity in many a bar’s stock, but whatever the case, it really is a tragedy. The Brooklyn cocktail is like a fancy version of the Manhattan, substituting the Amer Picon for the bitters, and adding the maraschino to balance it out. The rye whiskey provides a strong spicy backbone, rather than using the sweeter bourbon that is often found in the Manhattans of today.

The Brooklyn Cocktail
1 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
1/4 oz Amer Picon or Torani Amer
1/4 oz Maraschino Liqueur

You can watch bartender Eric Alperin from LA’s The Varnish make a fantastic Brooklyn here.