When The Spirit Moves: The Science Behind Distillation



A distilled spirit is, by definition, a solution that has been derived from a combination of water, plant juice, or grain. The alcohol content of distilled liquids is typically higher than that of beer and wine, and fans of distilled beverages everywhere are incredibly grateful for its inception and its concentration.


Production of distilled spirits like whiskey and moonshine depends on a process called fermentation. Fermentation is the process of decomposition of any organic matter containing carbohydrates. It occurs throughout nature when carbohydrates and yeast are present, and this chemical reaction can be found far and wide across the globe.


Where the alcohol comes from

A byproduct of the fermentation process is ethyl alcohol; the process of distillation is based on the principle of different boiling points of both water and alcohol. Condensation that results from boiling the two liquids eventually becomes the distilled alcohol that we know and enjoy.


Fermentation is such a naturally occurring process in nature that throughout history, civilizations have discovered how to use this process to their advantage when brewing alcoholic beverages. China was brewing alcoholic rice beer as early as 800 B.C., while Arrack emerged from the East Indies, a delicious blend of sugarcane and rice. Arabs can be credited with developing the first wines, and Romans experimented with all sorts of distillation methods and ingredients to produce beverages according to taste and social status.


Primitive distillers used ingredients like grapes and honey to craft brandy and mead. While the first known incidents of incorporating grains into the distillation process are not known, it is theorized that much of this innovation began in the Middle Ages, when farming became more prevalent.


Early stills

Early versions of the copper giants we see today consisted of a heated, enclosed container, a condenser, and a receiver to catch the “elixir.” These crude versions of distillers evolved into the pot still, which is still used today for making whiskey and gin. More sophisticated versions of stills involving multiple vaporization chambers grew from early contraptions, further refining the taste and quality of our distilled spirits.


A critical element in the distillation process involves heat----- different sources of heat have been used through the ages to jumpstart the process of fermentation, such as peat, wood, and coal. Fuels of choice today include coal, natural gas, and oil; with the potential for more extreme temperatures comes the potential for disaster, if still operators don’t recognize the dangers of the job.


Today’s still is a highly sophisticated, mostly computerized piece of machinery that consistently cranks out quality rum, whiskey, and gin, depending on the manufacturer. Craft distilling is an art form that remains alive for those tried and true distillers who still prefer doing things the old-fashioned way. Passionate distillers are continually looking for ways to improve distillation efficiency and refine the taste of their quality brews, making them irresistible to potential customers.


It’s all about the mash

Mash is produced with materials containing natural sugars, or those that contain carbohydrates that can easily be converted to sugars as they break down. Yeast is a complex enzyme system that acts as a catalyst to start the fermentation process.

  • Sugary materials commonly used to make mash include grapes, apples, peaches, sugarcane, and beets.

  • Starchy materials used in making mash include wheat, barley, corn, rice, and even potatoes.

Milling the grain and pressing fruit are actions that are needed to extract the elements that are needed to produce alcohol. After these initial breakdowns have occurred, it’s time to heat and agitate the mash, mixing it with water and yeast to begin that magical process of fermentation.


Fermentation and distillation

Once fermentation is complete, the mash is then heated to a point where the condensation temperature of alcohol and water are differentiated. Harmful byproducts and water are extracted from the alcohol, leaving us with a crude form of the beverages we know and love. As the cycles of distillation and refinement continue, we are left with the beautiful and tasty blends that we seek out from our favorite distilleries.


Palmetto Distillery: The best of the best!

Palmetto Distillery has the market cornered on distilling quality beverages. Their award-winning whiskey and moonshine are the result of time-tested recipes, detailed distillation processes, and a passion for our bootlegging heritage. Our geeked-out commitment to distilling the best beverages around is evident in every glass. Come, let us wet your whistle; visit www.palmettodistillery.com to place an order.