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What is distillation

How is alcohol made?


First things first.

So far in our spirits and wine 101 series we have answered the questions: “what is fermentation?” “what is malt?” and when and why mashing is used. Today we are finally going to learn what distillation is. Whew. Finally!

We know that every alcohol on the planet has been through the fermentation process. Fermentation is the process in which yeast converts the sugar in plants into alcohol. Problem is, fermentation can only take the alcohol percentage to about 16% before the yeast die. What’s a whiskey lover to do?!?!?

Don’t worry, we can raise the alcohol percentage up hella amount by distilling the alcohol. Let’s look at how distillation does its magic.


Dummying down distillation.


Have you ever put a lid on a liquid that you were cooking on the stove? Have you noticed that when you lift the lid up, there is a bunch of water attached to its underside? Or, when you make tea and a bunch of steam spouts out, warning you that the water is boiling?

Sample Image

Sample Image


You can use these visuals to understand the happenings around distillation because the same principals are used. Basically, alcohol is brought up in temperature until it turns into steam and rises.

Alcohol and water are both capable of boiling, which means they are  both capable of producing steam. Alcohol and water are both capable of boiling and producing steam, but alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does. We use that nifty fact to our advantage.

Think about the pot of liquid cooking on your stove with the water that clings to the lid after it comes to a boil. What if you had water and fermented mash in that pot?

  If alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water how could you bring the alcohol to a boil, while leaving the water uncooked?


distillation process


Temperature matters


  You simply need to find the lowest temperature in which alcohol cooks (173°). Because that temperature is lower than the one needed to steam water (212°), it will only effect the alcohol in the mash.

During distillation, alcohol will cook, steam, and rise, which leaves the water behind.

The more times the fermented liquid is distilled, the higher the alcohol content will become. Also, the more neutral the product will become.

As you can see from the image above, the mash is cooked at 173°. The alcohol’s steam rises leaving water behind. The alcohol rises and is cooled back down, which results in it turning back to a liquid state. The result is a product higher in alcohol.

The alcohol is colorless and odorless. It has a neutral-ish flavor (the more times it is distilled, the more neutral the flavor).

Again, the more times a mash is distilled, the higher the alcohol content will become. Or, the higher the proof. In the United States, alcoholic proof is defined as twice the number of  the ABV: Alcohol By Volume.

For example: If the ABV is 35%, then 35 x 2 = 70 Proof.

 So if the ABV is 40%, what is the Proof?

   40 x 2 = 80 Proof.

Because alcohol cooks at a lower temperature than water, alcohol steam rises first, leaving behind water. That is how distillation separates alcohol from water. The more times a fermented product goes through distillation, the higher its alcohol content becomes.


And there you have it. The workings of distillation. Ready to move on to Vodka? Go to “What is Vodka made from?” Or, check out the other articles in this series.

Spirits and Wine Series

  1. How is alcohol made?
  2. What is malt?
  3. What is mash?
  4. What is distillation?
  5. What is Vodka made from?
  6. What is gin made from?

Or quench your knowledge about Popular Bar Drinks

  Learn everything about production, alcohol and wine in small, bite size nuggets through the Spirits and Wine Class. It uses fill in the blanks, multiple choice and matching to teach you in a fun, engaging way. Learn more >>

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