The History of Spirits
The ancient practice of alchemy was half science, half mysticism. Alchemists believed that through the practical application of scientific knowledge, they could fundamentally alter the nature of earthly elements.
They thought that they could turn lead into gold, or failing that, at least unlock the secret to eternal life. What they actually discovered was even better: how to distill liquor.
These first-century alchemists weren’t particularly interested in alcohol, and neither were the Persian alchemists who took up the mantle after the fall of the Roman empire. But they mastered distilling techniques and designed the alembic, the cucurbit, the retort, and the ambix; the crude glass-and-copper predecessors of the recognizable pot still. The first legitimate use of distillation, i.e. the creation of spirited beverages for recreational consumption, didn’t occur for another thousand years.
In the 12th century, with the black plague right around the corner, medical scholars at the School of Salerno in Italy began distilling wine in order to use the alcohol as medicine. They called it aqua vitae, or the water of life, and it quickly became as popular then as alcohol is today. By the 13th century, Christian monasteries were mass producing aqua vitae, and by the 15th century enterprising citizens were discovering that private stills could be set up in their own homes. Over time, the generic aqua vitae serum gave rise to spirits of more particular distinction. New ingredients and means of fermentation were incorporated, and the distillation technology grew more refined. Brandy, whiskey, and vodka all emerged as regional specialties in the 1400s, and provided the necessary lubrication for the next few hundred years of social and technological progress.
Surprisingly little has changed since the early days of spirits. They are now made and sold on a much larger scale - spirits are a ~50 billion dollar global industry - but many of the styles, the flavors, and even some of the name brands all harken back hundreds of years. And with the modern craft movement, a renewed focus on traditional methods and old-school recipes has helped turn back the clock even further.
There are two things required to make alcohol: sugar and yeast. Introduce yeast to a sugary environment, and the tiny microorganisms devour the glucose/fructose/maltose/sucrose and release it as carbon dioxide and ethanol, which is the drinkable form of alcohol.
This metabolic reaction - aka fermentation - is the key to all liquor, beer, wine, liqueur, prison hooch, bathtub moonshine, and all other intoxicating beverages. Fermentation also requires a container that allows the carbon dioxide to escape and prevents outside air from entering; exposure to oxygen disrupts the process, and not releasing the CO2 leads to explosions.
Some spirits, particularly grain-based spirits such as whiskey or scotch, require extra preparation before fermentation can occur. Grains are soaked in water until they begin to germinate, then quickly dried before they actually begin to grow. These germinated grains are called malt, which are again dunked in water and boiled in a process called mashing. Mashing releases enzymes in the grains that convert starch to sugar, which can then be fermented.
Distillation is a process by which liquids are vaporized and condensed in order to separate their component substances.
There are countless industrial and scientific applications for distillation, but in liquor terms, distilling means removing excess water from a fermented mixture to harness the flavors and alcohol in a more concentrated form. There are two types of stills used to make spirits: pot stills and column stills.
Pot stills are simple, consisting of a large copper chamber with a pipe branching off from the top. The fermented ingredients are put into the chamber, which is heated until they evaporate. The vapors, containing the flavor and alcohol, rise up and out through the pipe, which leads to a coil, which is cooled with water until the vapors condense back into liquid. The use of pot stills is called batch distillation, as it can only be done one batch at a time and the still must be cleaned between uses.
Column stills, aka continuous stills, aka Coffey stills (after Aeneas Coffey, one of several progenitors), are more complex and much more efficient. They consist of two columns, each filled with superheated steam, each comprised of many different chambers separated by perforated plates. The fermented ingredients enter one column, where they evaporate and rise from chamber to chamber through the holes in the plates, with each chamber acting in-effect as a miniature pot still. The vapors then travel to the bottom of the other column where the process is repeated until they reach a condenser. Because of this multiple-chamber approach, spirits made in column stills are essentially distilled many times over before they are finished. Unlike the pot still, column stills can be run continuously and the alcohol content adjusted to whatever level the distiller chooses.
Most types of spirits are aged after distillation, often for several years. This aging almost always occurs inside of wooden barrels, which are just porous enough to allow trace oxygen to enter and mingle with the spirit contained inside.
This oxygen enrichment subtly alters the chemistry, imparting flavors and textural compounds called tannins from the wood, and allowing the spirit’s natural flavors to develop in desirable ways. Aging a spirit in wooden barrels generally has the effect of smoothing out some of the inherent roughness of a substance with high alcohol content while removing none of its potency. Typically, the longer a spirit is aged the smoother it becomes, although there are diminishing returns; most of the effects of aging occur in the first year.
Almost all barrels used for aging are made from white oak, sourced from either France or America for slightly different tastes; French oak allegedly leads to a more subtle, reserved taste, while the American wood tastes bolder. Barrels are typically used many times before being retired, and high-quality used barrels fetching high prices on the resale market. When a barrel is first used it absorbs flavors from its contents, and reusing the barrel can impart those flavors - very good flavors, mind you - into whatever spirits the barrel holds next. For some types of whiskey, the inside of the barrel is carefully charred with flame before the spirit is added to give it varying degrees of smokiness.