When it comes to the chemistry around distilling our favorite beverages, many of us don’t give thought to how our favored spirits came to be. In reality, there are several critical steps to the distillation process that must take place for that delicious cocktail to appear in our hands, and one of the essential elements in this process is mash.
What is mash?
The term “mash” refers to the mixture of pulverized grain particles and water that is heated to high temperatures to eventually create a sugar alcohol byproduct. This alcohol is then collected and distilled several times to produce the drink you hold in your hand. A mash can be made from any combination of grains---wheat, rye, barley, corn, oats--the combination used produces the unique taste and flavor of the spirit that is gleaned from distillation.
For instance, a corn mash is typically used to produce moonshine, or clear whiskey. Moonshine is whiskey in its unaged, raw form. While it doesn’t take on a distinctive flavor during its brief distillation process, other flavorings and spices can be added to produce distinctive flavors.
Whiskey is typically made from a blend of rye, corn, and wheat, although other non-traditional grains can be used for distinctive flavor. Other factors affect the taste of a spirit as well, including the length of time that a mash mixture boils and the temperature of the water that is used to break down sugars in the grain.
What happens during the mashing process?
Mashing is the process during which starches are extracted from grain and converted to fermentable sugars. Grains are composed of starch, protein, and fiber; for fermentation to take place, starches must be converted to sugar with high heat in order for the yeast to be able to consume them.
Starch is comprised of very long chains of glucose molecules. These extracted molecules can contain anywhere from 4 to over 400 different sugar molecules. Let’s get scientific here for a moment--there are two stages of the fermentation process, including:
Liquefaction--an enzyme converts long-chain starches into short-chain starches
Saccharification--a specific enzyme converts short-chain starches into sugar molecules
Does water really make a difference?
While each distillery is pretty lip-locked about the type of water that they use to boil their mash, some aspects of the pH balance of water composition are watched closely to make the perfect mash cocktail. A slightly acidic blend of natural elements and chemical additives can lend a certain bitterness to a spirit, while something that is highly basic can result in an overly sweet concoction that is too much for discriminating tongues and taste buds. Water content will also play a key role in pulling flavors from the wood as a spirit ages; attention must be paid to this critical element of the production process.
How hot is too hot?
For a mash to prepare effectively, it must be heated to an exact temperature range to allow for the chemical conversions of sugars and fermentation to take place. The optimal temperature for mash eating is around 145-160 degrees Fahrenheit; any deviation outside of that window of perfection, and you run the risk of not setting up your mixture correctly, or you could kill the process altogether. Keeping a close eye on your mash as you approach optimal temperatures will be an important part of creating a quality product.
Palmetto: We’ve got it all covered!
At Palmetto Distillery, we have the knowledge, the tools, and the expertise to craft perfect spirits--every time. Award-winning whiskey and moonshine blends, craft distillery processes handed down for generations, and a passion for the process make us one of the best in the biz. Don’t hesitate, place your holiday order for perfect spirits today! Visit www.palmettodistillery.com for more information.