Today, learnalittle raises a glass to liquor.
All drinkable alcohols are made by fermentation, the process by which yeast – microscopic fungi – breakdown sugars such as fructose, sucrose, and glucose for energy. This process’s two major waste byproducts are carbon dioxide and ethanol – better know as good ol’ fashioned alcohol. But this can’t happen just anywhere – it’s an anaerobic process: it takes place in an oxygen-less environment. So making the alcohol we drink requires a vessel that lets carbon dioxide out without letting oxygen in.
Wine and beer are the best examples of fermented beverages, made from grape juice or grains (like barley and hops), respectively, and the appropriate yeast. But for spirits and liqueurs (know collectively as hard alcohol), the process continues with distillation.
In distillation, fermented liquid is placed in a still to boil. The vapor that first rises contains mostly volatile compounds (like the alcohols), because they boil at lower temperatures, leaving less volatile substances (like water) behind. This vapor cools in a condenser tube, dripping into a new container as liquid. The distilled product has higher Alcohol by Volume (ABV), as it contains relatively more alcohol and less water. Likewise, it has a greater proof: a measure calculated by doubling the ABV percentage.
Hard alcohol can be distilled several times, and – when distilled enough – produces pure spirit of nearly 100% ABV. Different initial fermented liquids produce different spirits. For example, Brandies is distilled wine, while pomace comes from wine production’s leftover grape seeds, stems, and skins. Eaux-de-vie is a brandy made from any non-grape fruit, excepting juniper berries – the base for gin.
Spirits are distilled from many starchy plants, not just fruit. Tequila comes from blue agave, produced only in the region surrounding Tequila, Mexico. Tequila might be aged in oak barrels, gaining darker color over time. Rum is made from molasses and other sugarcane products. Light rum is not aged, and is generally mixed in cocktails; gold rum is aged in oak; and dark rum, aged in charred barrels for a smoky flavor.
Some spirits can be distilled from various ingredients. For example, Vodka might be made from grains, potatoes, rice, sugar beets, or other starches. Whiskey can come from wheat (Wheat), rye (Rye), or corn (Bourbon); scotch is a specifically made Scottish whiskey, distilled several times and aged in oak barrels.
When making liquor, one might also add sugar with other sweeteners to the base, producing liqueur. Various sweet additives flavor liqueurs; coffee, honey, and fruit are some examples. Cream liqueurs are flavored with cream, but shouldn’t be confused with crème liqueurs. Crèmes don’t contain any dairy, and come in several flavors; crème simply refers to their creamy consistency.
Liquors have been developed across the world for hundreds of years; this is only a glimpse of a library of techniques and tastes. Whatever your favorite drink, may it taste twice as sweet with appreciation of how it was made.