Distilling Spirits

The intricate practice of creating fermented beverages started around 10,000 BC. Since then, the human race has distilled (pun intended) and perfected the process of how liquor is made. This tradition of fermentation and distillation has given birth to a number of different spirits throughout the years such as whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, and gin to name a few.

Even though many of us enjoy these spirits on a daily basis, lots of people don't know the simple, yet complex process of how liquor is made. Today, we'll walk through the overall process of fermentation and distillation and examine the differences between some of the most popular spirits around.

How Liquor is Made, Step 1: Making the Mash

The first step in creating any type of alcohol or spirit is creating the mash. A type of carbohydrates (simple or complex), yeast and water make up this mixture. The type of carbohydrate within the mash will differ based on which type of spirit you're making.

For example distillers use rye, corn, barley, or a mix of different oats to create whiskey. While they use a wide range of different fermented grapes to make wine. To create rum, you use a fermented mixture of cane sugar and molasses. To create vodka, the distiller uses potatoes or grains in the mash. Each of these spirits starts off with a different mixture of mash and as a result, create a range of flavors.

Fermenting The Mash

The next step is to let your mash mixture ferment to create your alcohol base. Usually the distiller will let the mash ferment for an average of one to two weeks at room temperature.

During this time the added yeast feeds on the carbohydrates and creates the byproduct alcohol. The distiller will test how far along the fermentation of the mash is throughout this period. After the fermentation is complete, you can then strain the mixture containing alcohol to remove any solid materials using a cheesecloth.

Distilling The Mash

Now that you have a fermented liquid, it's time to distill the mix and separate the pure spirits from the other toxic compounds. These consist of proteins, methanol, acetone, and other harmful substances that you would rather not have in your cocktail. For example, when consumed, methanol, a type of non-consumptive alcohol, will cause nerve damage and can make you go blind. I think we'd all pass on that drink.

The distiller will pour the mash mixture into a still. A still is a copper or steel pot, which you can use to heat up the mash to boiling temperatures. The steam that is produced as a result of boiling the mash is then funneled through a tube and passed into another container. This collected steam is called the distillate. This distillate needs to be separated as it is produced throughout the distillation process.

Stills come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on what the end goal for the spirit is. The most basic of these is a pot still. You can make moonshine, whiskey and rum with a basic pot still set up.

Another type is a column still or continuous still. Mass production setups use column stills to create more volume and a purer alcohol. By passing the steam of the fermented mash through several chambers in a column instead of just one, the vapor is purified further. Column stills create spirits such as vodka and gin.

Different Stills for Mash - Column Still and Pot Still

Separating Heads, Hearts, and Tails

The next step in the process of how liquor is made is the separation of the heads, hearts and tails. These are the different distillates created during the stages of the distillation. The first 5% of the distillate are the foreshots.   These foreshots contain toxic alcohols like methanol, so the distiller throws them out.

Next come the heads. The heads are recognized by their solvent scent, bad taste and make up around 25% of the total distillate collected. Like the foreshots, the heads also contain volatile alcohols that are known for causing horrible hangovers, so they are thrown out.

The next stage of the distillate is the hearts. The hearts make up around 40% of the total distillate and are the most desired part of your spirit. Distillers refer to the hearts as the 'sweet spot' for good reason. You can recognize the hearts by their sweet smell, flavor and smoothness.

The last stage of the distillate is the tails. The tails make up the final 30% of the distillate and contain fusel oils. These oily compounds will collect at the top of the distillate. You can tell the heads apart from the tails, by the diminished flavor and the oily feel of the distillate. Some distillers collect the tails and reuse them for future batches. These saved tails are known as 'feints.'

The more practice a distiller has, the better they will be at recognizing the different stages in the distillation process. This allows them to maximize their output of high quality spirits from their distillate run.

Separating Heads, Hearts, and Tails

A Tradition of Science and Art

The art of distilling spirits is a tradition that's been passed on for thousands of years. It's a straightforward, yet complicated process that takes a lot practice and know-how. Thankfully, there are great resources that can provide you with the knowledge and necessary equipment to create your own spirits.

Mile Hi Distilling is one of these resources. They carry all of the essential supplies, and have very detailed 'how to' guides on the distilling process for different spirits. Check out their guide on how to make vodka. Before you start however, be sure to research the local regulations and laws on distilling spirits, as they differ from state to state.

About the Author

Kyle Doran - a whiskey enthusiast and writer for Mile Hi DistillingKyle Doran is a whiskey enthusiast and writer for Mile Hi Distilling.  He loves learning about the distilling process and the different nuanced approaches to creating spirits of all types.