What’s a spirit and why are they called that? How does distillation works?
On my post about Gin, reader Vanessa has posed the question “Why are they called spirits?” And even though I have already posted the answer in the comments section, her suggestion to write about it resonated with me.
Since so much of what I want to talk about here involves them I thought it would be a good idea to write about the whole process of distillation, since it is the base of many of the worlds favorite drinks.
From the beautiful simplicity of vodka, the happiness of tequila, the complexity of whiskeys, the lightness of rum and the boldness of moonshine, the distillation process is their unifying common point.
What is distillation?
1a: the process of purifying a liquid by successive evaporation and condensation.
The favorite process used by the alchemists is simply the art/technique of separating two or more liquids.
Assuming that the mixed liquids have different evaporation temperatures, the process consists of heating up the original substance in stages (or steps) in order to vaporize the most volatile components one at a time. And then compel their condensation by forced cooling them as they travel through the distilling equipment.
At the end of the process, the isolated liquid is collected. In the case of alcohol, a concentration averaging 90%ABV (or 180 proof, if you’re from the U.S.A.).
There are two overlapping reasons as to why they are called spirits:
- The first, and more accepted, one is because the process of distilling the alcohol of a fermented beverage was referred to as capturing its essence or “spirit”.
- The second one references the part of the process when the evaporation begins. As the alcohol evaporates, leaving the surface of the liquid and rising through the system, it creates a transparent shifting in the air that looks ghostlike. The moment when the ”spirit” was leaving the liquid.
Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? And in theory, it is.
In the production of alcoholic beverages, this process is used to isolate the alcohol from the rest of the ingredients. Therefore to get distilled alcohol first we must create the alcohol itself.
All distilled drinks originate from a fermented beverage. The fermentation creates the alcohol, the distillation then concentrates (or isolates) it transforming, for example, a 7% ABV beer into a 50% ABV whiskey.
Types of distillation
Most spirits are created by one of two techniques. The more old-fashioned and artistic Pot Still or Alembic and the more “modern” and scientific column distiller.
Alembic or Pot Still
Is the most traditional style. The Pot Still as it is known today is the evolution of the old Alembic, the difference between them being that the former is built as a one piece equipment and the latter has a detachable top (or head).
Although alembics have mostly been substituted for pot stills all over the world, they can still be found in moonshiner’s backyards and even on some artisanal small-batch producers. In Brazil, we have a national spirit called Cachaça (reads cuh-chuh-ssuh) and a number of producers prefer alembics.
This distillation technique is not as effective, in the sense that in order to achieve a higher ABV it might be necessary to repeat the process a few. Another detail is that the master distiller must be able to “cut” the “head” and “tail” with precision in order to collect the potable alcohol and not contaminate it with the harmful ones. This process is done by eye and it takes years of experience in order to achieve mastery, making it an artistic process as well as a scientific one.
Many producers prefer this technique because the resulting product tends to be more flavorful and more structured than what’s obtained in column distillation.
Also known as continuous distillation, this technique involves a distiller that is built in two columns and has a constant flow of liquid running through it. The raw fermented product is added at the beginning and continuously refilled to remain in a constant boil. As the vapors rise to the top of the column the components will condense at different heights and then be collected by a pipe that leads them to the second stage.
In the second column this process will be repeated and at the end of the run a much cleaner liquid, with a higher concentration of potable alcohols will be collected.
This process yields a lighter, clearer, brighter product, and fainter aromas. Its preferred use is for whites like vodka, rum, tequila and mass-produced brands.
Obviously, there are other steps in reaching the final products. But hopefully, now you’ll have a better idea when someone tells you a brand of vodka is triple-distilled, or it’s handcrafted in small batch pot stills, and whatnot.
Now go make yourself a drink.