Course 3

How Is Alcohol Made?

The three key ingredients in alcohol production are:

  1. Sugar
  2. Yeast
  3. Water

All three can be manipulated to make different types of spirits and flavor profiles. Read on to learn about the main steps in the process of producing alcohol.



Fermentation is the one common process in the making of all alcohol. Fermentation is a natural process and so much is out of the control of the producer. However, there are certain principles that can be controlled, such as temperature. Up to a point, the hotter the temperature, the faster fermentation occurs. 

How the grain, fruit or sugar is treated before fermentation begins can also have large effects on the spirit produced. For example, roasted grains can change the color of the beer. Fermentation can also be done in oak barrels instead of stainless-steel tanks. This adds toasty notes to the spirit. The choice of yeast and any other bacterial aid also affects the end result and the time it takes to achieve the desired fermentation for the alcohol being produced.



During distillation, alcohol is heated until it turns to vapor. The distillers collect the vapor and it settles into a condenser where it is cooled down to liquid form. Alcohol turns to vapor at a lower temperature than water, so distilling is simply taking the alcohol out of the water within the original liquid. 

Different spirits undergo different numbers of distillations. Some producers choose additional distillations for a purer, cleaner spirit. Others try to strike a balance between purity and flavor and choose fewer distillations to achieve the flavor profile they desire. 



Once a spirit is distilled, it can be bottled unaged, rested, or moved into the aging process. Sometimes, the same spirit can have unaged and aged varieties. Unaged spirits include vodka, gin, rum and tequila. Aged spirits include whiskeys, rum, tequila, brandy and cognac. 

Aging is not just a source of complex flavor but of character and color of each type of spirit. The main reason for aging is to produce smoother spirit with added complexity of many dimensions. While each country has specific rules for how long certain classifications of a spirit should be aged or even the type of barrel in which it must be aged, many spirit categories remain open to the choice of the master distiller.


Sources of Flavor

Each spirit, even a colorless one, has a unique flavor profile. The first source of flavor of any alcoholic beverage is the main ingredient. Even if a spirit is distilled, the main ingredient imparts a flavor that adjusts taste and aroma profiles. 

The final spirit gains its unique flavor profiles from five elements of production:

  • Ingredients – The terroir (soil, elevation, climate and water content) affects the spice/floral profile of the sugar obtained.
  • Water – Water can be gathered from natural or treated sources. This affects the final flavor.
  • Fermentation – The yeast used (natural or generic) and the process followed in fermentation (natural or lab environment) make a difference.
  • Distillation – Different stills produce different spirit qualities, as does the level of distillation and number of distillations. 
  • Aging or maturation – From no maturation to length of time aged, types and conditions of barrels used and how large the barrels are – these all determine the coloration of the final product as well as the aromas, flavors and the intensity of the flavors the process imparts.



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