We spend a lot of time talking to people who want to start their own spirits business. Many asked if we had a brief guide to what distilling is and how the various spirits are made on our website, so we thought we would oblige. This is by no means a manual, but just gives a brief flavour of what it is all about. So, today we are giving a very brief overview of what distillation is, and what some of the spirits we see every day are derived from.
Distillation is a process where compounds are separated due to their different boiling points. This happens when a liquid containing a mixture of compounds is boiled. The compounds with a lower boiling point vapourise more quickly than a compound with a higher boiling point, so the vapour rising off has more of the low boiling point compounds than the higher boiling point ones. This vapour is collected and condensed back into liquid, which now contains a higher proportion of the low boiling point compounds to the high ones.
Distillation is used to produce spirits. It is where an initial liquid containing alcohol, known as a wash, is heated, and alcohol, amongst other things, vapourises and is collected and condensed by cooling. Different washes can make different spirits, but the distillation method can also change the character of a spirit. Some methods carry over a lot of the flavour of the wash, which is desirable in spirits such as whisky and brandy, and others produce a much purer spirit, which is needed if making vodka.
Whisky is distilled from fermented grains. These may include barley, corn, wheat, rye and others. The grains used determine the type of whisky made (malt whisky, rye whisky, bourbon, etc.) and the distillation technique determines the alcoholic strength. When distilled, whisky is clear, and the characteristic colour comes from barrel aging, where the wood gives colour. In the UK, malt whiskies need to be barrel aged for three years and a day to be able to be called malt whiskies. Whiskies can range from 40 to even 80% ABV.
Rum is distilled from fermented molasses. The ABV can range again from 40% ABV to 80%. Rum can be aged in barrels, and flavours such as vanilla, spices or honey can be added. All of these factors can determine if a rum is light or dark.
Vodka can be derived from many materials, such as potatoes, corn, barley, rice, sugar beet and more. The original materials, distillation method, flavourings and filtration can all affect the flavour and strength of vodka. Vodka can be bottled immediately, without the need to age.
Brandy is distilled from wine. Typically barrel aged, the flavour can be determined by distillation method, length of aging and the original wines used. Cider brandy, or Calvados if made in the region, is distilled from cider, and flavours can be determined in the same ways.
Gin is a fermented spirit primarily flavoured with juniper and other botanicals. Some infuse their spirit with these flavours and then distill, and others distill their wash and the vapours pass through a gin basket, loaded with all the botanicals. Other botanicals can include citrus peel, coriander, liquorice, and countless others.