SPIRITS. Distillation is the process of separating a liquid from a solid by boiling the liquid and condensing the vapors in another container to reform the liquid. The solid material that did not boil off is left behind. To the alchemist, the essence—or the spirit—of the thing was in the condensed vapors.
One can observe distillation in action when the steam from a teakettle condenses on a surface, such as the side of a refrigerator. The products of the distillation are the drops of water on white enamel and the mineral sludge that is left in the bottom of the kettle. (The word "distillation" is derived from the Latin distillare, 'to drip', and modern Italian retains the sense of the word as a 'concentration of the essentials'.)
Distillation can also be used to sort out mixtures of liquids that have different boiling points. If a mixture of alcohol and water is heated to more than 174°F but less than 212°F, the alcohol will boil and the water will not. If the vapors from the boiling are condensed and the condensate is collected, the collecting vessel will contain alcohol and the original cooking pot will contain water.
Imagine that the teakettle on the stove contains some boiling wine. (Wine is essentially a mixture of alcohol and water, the alcohol being derived from fermentation, by yeast, of the sugar in the grape juice.) If the temperature is kept below 212°F, the substance that boiled off would be mostly alcohol.
The simplest kind of alcoholic distilling apparatus is not much different from a teakettle. It is called a pot still, and it consists of a kettle loaded with a mixture of alcohol and water. The alcoholic steam, however, is not released into the air. Instead, the steam leaves the boiling chamber and goes into a long, downward-spiraling tube, where it cools and condenses back into a liquid. This liquid, called the distillate, is a mixture of alcohol, water, and substances called congeners, which are by-products of fermentation. However, as the alcohol evaporates, the boiling temperature of the mixture rises, and by the end of the batch, a lot of water vapor has boiled off and been condensed along with the alcohol. Thus, the by-products of fermentation—congeners—end up in the distillate. In the twelfth century an Italian physician, Salernus, discovered that the cooling action could be facilitated by spraying the tube with cold water or building an external tube through which a stream of cold water could flow.
Historically, there has been no liquid that is at once as ordinary and as precious as wine. Arnold de Vila Nova, a thirteenth-century alchemist, wrote of distilled wine and its restorative properties, calling it aqua vitae or "water of life." Chinese sources from about the same time mention a "wine" that could be ignited.
The chronology of distilling is not settled firmly, for there is archaeological evidence that the Minoans and Egyptians practiced distillation, which may suggest a very early understanding of the process. It can be said with certainty that by the fifteenth century distillation had spread across Europe. Every region that had sufficient wood to fire a still developed a distilled version of its own wine or beer.
The simple still described by Salernus, called an "alembic" or pot still, was refined to permit redistillation and continuous loading and operation. The modern column still is capable of producing an almost pure and relatively tasteless alcohol.
All of these early alcoholic substances were taken as medicines, if they were consumed at all, or were used to dissolve medicinal ingredients. They probably tasted unbearably harsh unless moderated with a dosage of sugar (another medieval novelty). It would be a century or two before refinements in the distillation process and the introduction of aging produced spirits that could be consumed in a pure form.
When spirits age in wooden barrels, maturation results from an interaction of the original mix of alcohol and congeners with the wood and the small amount of oxygen that enters the barrel. The more intense the original flavors, the greater need there is to moderate the effects of wood and air. Once spirits are removed from the breathable casks and put into bottles, no further maturation takes place. A bottle of ten-year-old rum purchased five years ago is still ten years old on the inside.
In the United States, small, new oak barrels are the norm for aging sprits in this manner. The wood has lots of extract to contribute to the finished flavor. Scotch whiskey, cognac, and rum are typically aged in older, larger barrels that have less oak flavor. When they were new, these barrels may have been used for storing wine.
Some governments specify storage time for spirits. The United States and Canada require a two-year storage period for most whiskey. Scotland and England mandate three years and Ireland five. Aging is never required for gin and vodka: In the case of these spirits, the problem of harsh flavors is addressed through precise column distillation and charcoal filtration. Brandies are typically aged for three to five years, but some are held in cask for twenty-five years or more.
Aging in dry warehouses promotes the evaporation of water, thereby increasing the alcohol content; humid storage encourages the opposite. After aging, spirits are diluted to the strength at which they will be sold, blended to achieve their final taste profile, and colored for uniform appearance.
Ethyl alcohol is the natural by-product of yeast acting on sugar in a water solution. This process is called fermentation, and it proceeds until either the yeast runs out of sugar, the alcohol concentration rises to the point where the yeast can no longer work, or the fermentation is artificially halted. The alcohol that most people drink is an organic chemical, C2H5OH. In 1536 the German alchemist Paracelcus first used the word "alcohol" in its modern sense.
Of great concern to alcohol producers and consumers is "how much alcohol is in this drink?" In the United States, containers of spirits are required to display the alcohol concentration of the drink as a percentage by volume. Alternatively, the strength of alcohol can be expressed as "proof," which is twice the percentage by volume: for example, 100-proof spirits are 50 percent alcohol by volume.
Alcohol and the brain. There are two reasons that alcohol has been so popular for so long. The first is that aside from wine or beer, alcohol was one of the few drinks upon which early civilized humankind could rely. A large sedentary population pollutes its own streams and ground water; deadly typhoid and cholera bacteria thrived in drinking water. Milk was unreliable and, for many adults, not digestible. Fruit juice, in the days before preservatives, was either turned into vinegar through bacterial activity or turned into wine by fermenting through its own yeasts. Only wine, which does not support any bacteria harmful to man, was consistently safe for consumption.
In places where grapevines did not grow, a hot-water extract of sprouted barley grains was used to make alcoholic beverages. The heating process activated enzymes that converted starch to sugar and sanitized the water from which it was made. This solution of barley sugar would also ferment in the presence of airborne yeast. When it did ferment, it was called beer. This beer probably did not resemble the modern beverage of the same name, but it was certainly safer to drink than water.
Of course, ancient cultures did know of other technologies that could have possibly sanitized the beverage supply. For example, the Chinese boiled water and infused it with herbs as both a culinary and sanitary device. However, the manufacture of alcoholic beverages triumphed over all of them for reasons that had nothing to do with sanitation. Alcohol's ability to demolish inhibitions, inspire enthusiasm, and encourage sociability lies at the heart of and accounts for the transcendence of the beverage business. People drink in company because both the drink and the company become more pleasant in the process.
Prohibition. Like other milestone inventions, alcohol is not entirely a blessing. In addition to the lightened spirits and occasional hilarity of moderate drinking are the recklessness of excessive drinking and drunkenness.
Some people deny some of alcohol's manifest virtues. Many people find the altered state of consciousness that alcohol induces to be threatening. Such a state brings out things in themselves and other people that they would rather not have called forth. People consuming alcohol are more likely to be sexual and boisterous. They are also more likely to be aggressive or otherwise obnoxious.
It is a short step from being repelled by one's own impulses to wishing to eradicate or at least camouflage them in others. In the United States that impulse, coupled with a prejudice against wine-and beer-drinking immigrants, led to the adoption of the Volstead Act in 1919, which made the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages illegal.
Prohibition was the thirteen-year period during which there was no legal beer, wine, (apart from that used in religious services), or spirits consumed in the United States. This movement had profound and lasting effects on the U.S. beverage industry. It changed U.S. tastes and created a nation of whiskey drinkers. Since it is easier to traffic in small volumes of a highly concentrated illegal substance, distilled spirits became more available and more desired.
Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine. The source of the wine is usually grapes but it can be derived from any fruit. Dutch and English merchants in the seventeenth century promoted the production of brandy in the areas around the little towns of Cognac and Armagnac. Cognac produced an almost flavorless wine that yielded a relatively clean distilled product. Armagnac had no wine-growing tradition, but it did have large forests to fuel the alembics (used for distillation), as well as local farmers who saw the value of commerce.
Cognac at one time was a fiery, intensely flavored drink that combined complexity and power. It has since been tamed to compete with the smooth whiskeys in the American market, and brandy drinkers looking for intensity increasingly order Armagnac.
Whiskey (Whisky) is distilled from beer, which is itself a fermented drink made by converting the starch of grains into sugar and then introducing yeast. If the conversion process involves sprouting the grain and then toasting it, it is called "malting," and the result can be labeled "malt whisky." If the whisky is bottled unblended as the product of a single malt house, it can legally be called "single malt."
The word "whiskey" or "whisky" is derived from a direct translation into Gaelic (uisge beatha ) of Vila Nova's aqua vitae. It is fitting that a Gaelic word is used here, since the spiritual home of whisky is Scotland and Ireland. The characteristic smoke and iodine flavors that are introduced during the making of the malt have created a peculiar and distinctive spirit that was at the height of fashion at the end of the twentieth century.
It is easy to account for the rise of Scotch whisky in general and single malts in particular: They are both expensive and exotic. Both types of whisky are produced almost by hand, in very small amounts, in two countries to which many Americans have a romantic attachment. Single malts are also expensive and the very epitome of an acquired taste. It is also easy to see the cause of their eventual downfall in the popular mind: They do not taste very good. Often they are described as having a taste between seaweed and peat smoke.
In colonial America, West Indian molasses was abundant, and the coastal drink was rum. Westward expansion after U.S. independence allowed for the cultivation of corn well in advance of a transport system that could carry it cheaply to market. Farmers on the frontier (then in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania) saw rye and corn-based whisky as a condensed and easily transportable cash crop. Their iron-free water supply helped to make that whisky appealing, and tax disputes with the new federal government in 1794 only entrenched the drink as part of an ongoing culture of rebellion.
Bourbon whisky is the product of Kentucky refugees from federal taxation. Their rye crops failed, but their corn whisky, called bourbon after the county where it originated, triumphed. Its cult is threatened only by the generalized decline in the spirits market.
Gin was the first industrially produced spirit. The same Dutch traders who created cognac developed this continuously produced neutral spirit (one without a flavor characteristic). Gin was distilled from grain through a matrix of crushed juniper berries, called genever in Dutch. In England, a government that did not tax grain or distillation encouraged the availability of cheap gin. In the mid-eighteenth century, gin's availability not only undermined local brewing, but it encouraged a wave of drunkenness among the newly urbanized poor that upset the gentry.
Gin remains the spirit of choice in England, where it is mixed with tonic or served "on the rocks" (over ice). In the United States, the martini dominates the gin market. Officially, it is a mixture of gin and vermouth shaken over ice and decanted to a dedicated, triangular martini glass. In practice, the vermouth is vestigial and save for differences in serving temperature and glassware, the martini is not much different from the plain gin that scandalized Georgian London.
The key to vodka-making is the charcoal filtering of the distillate to remove any traces of flavor. The original starch that supplies the sugar for fermentation can come from grain, potatoes, or even directly from sugar itself.
Vodka is defined in U.S. law as a flavorless beverage, but that has not stopped the marketing of more and more expensive "flavorless" vodkas or the development of an army of flavored variations. One brand, Absolut of Sweden, has recognized that in the absence of any real difference, it is important to make distinctions among brands; to this end, the manufacturer has created a long-running ad campaign that presents its distinctively shaped bottles as interpreted by various artists.
Young Americans have enthusiastically embraced tequila, an icon of Mexican culture, as a "bad-boy" drink. Cheap tequilas, distilled from pulque, the fermented sap of the blue agave plant, are allowed to contain up to 49 percent alcohol. More expensive versions are wood-aged and based entirely on agave starch. In Mexico there is a delimited tequila district. Any distilled pulque made outside of this area is simply called "mescal."
Sugar cane was being planted in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hispaniola a few years after Columbus arrived. The Spanish had learned about cane when they were an Arab colony, and they brought cuttings from the few small cane gardens to these areas from the homeland.
Sugarcane becomes sugar when it is crushed and its juice is extracted. The juice is reduced through boiling, and the sugar then crystallizes. The liquid left behind is called molasses, which contains about 5 percent sugar. Along with the fermentable sugar, this molasses contains the concentrated flavor of the cane itself and the flavor of sugar caramelized during the reduction of the original juice.
Fermented molasses is, with a few exceptions, the raw material of rum. Traditionally, molasses was fermented by wild yeasts in a slow fermentation process that introduced its own complex flavors. This is still the practice for most premium rums. Most modern-day rum is produced by distilling molasses in large column stills that operate continuously. These stills turn out a high-proof, highly refined, and neutral-tasting product that can be as much as 190 proof (95% alcohol). This is the rum that is mixed with three different kinds of fruit juices and served with a little paper umbrella on the edge of the glass. It is sometimes wood aged and sometimes very good. It is certainly an excellent foil for juices and sodas.
A small amount of the world's total rum production is made in pot stills. These stills are loaded with a batch of fermented molasses, which is then distilled at a fairly low 140 to 160 proof (70–80 percent alcohol). The rum is then aged in old wooden barrels. The results are said to rival cognac in complexity.
See also Beer ; Cocktail Party ; Cocktails ; Fermentation ; Fermented Beverages Other than Wine or Beer ; Whiskey (Whisky) ; Wine .
Brown, Gordon. The Whisky Trails: A Traveler's Guide to Scotch Whisky. London: Trafalgar, 2000.
McCusker, John J., and Russel Menard. "Rum." In The Economy of British America 1607–1789. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
McGee, Harold. "Distilled Liquors." In On Food and Cooking. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
Noorrman, Ola. Home Distillation Handbook. Malmoe: Bokforlaget Exakt, 2001.
Root, Waverly, and Richard de Rochemont. "Bourbon." In Eating in America. New York: Norton, 1981.
Serjeant, Richard. A Man May Drink: Aspects of a Pleasure. London: Putnam, 1964.
Lynn F. Hoffman
Ancestor of anise-based pastis, absinthe was the most popular and most notorious liquor in the nineteenth century, and possibly this combination of traits served to establish its reputation as the most notorious in history. Finally banned by the French government in 1915 because it was considered so harmful to one's health—it was 72 percent alcohol, or 144 proof—absinthe is inextricably linked to the artistic and literary life of Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century.
A favorite drink of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine, absinthe was popularized by French soldiers returning from Algeria in the 1830s. While stationed there, they had been prescribed the plant-based alcohol as an antiviral, antifever remedy, which they mixed in their drinking water. Upon returning to France, their taste for "la fée verte " (the green fairy), so named because of the drink's yellowish-green hue, soon spread throughout France to the general public, who sipped it sweetened with a lump of sugar in cafés. Crossing socioeconomic as well as gender lines, absinthe was enjoyed by all, from the top-hatted, well-fed factory owner to the penniless, tubercular laundress.
Absinthe was generally sipped as an aperitif between 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock in the evening. But those who were addicted drank it at any hour of the day, often consuming up to a dozen glasses in a single day. Part of the appeal of absinthe surely stemmed from the ritual surrounding its consumption. Unlike cognac, whiskey, gin, or eau-de-vie, which were imbibed in ordinary, shot-type glasses, absinthe was enjoyed in stemware designed expressly for the liquor. With an elongated cup measuring about four inches in height, the narrow, footed glass had a small depression at the bottom used to measure a dose of absinthe.
The liquor itself was clear, but when mixed with water, which was the customary way of drinking it, it turned cloudy and opalescent. First the absinthe was poured into a glass, and a perforated spoon was laid across the rim of the glass. Onto this spoon a lump of sugar was placed. Water was poured slowly over the sugar, which would melt into the glass and sweeten the drink. The long-handled spoon would then be used to stir the contents of the glass, at which point the drink turned cloudy.
With the increasing industrialization of alcohol as the century wore on and the subsequent lowering of prices, alcohol consumption of all kinds rose rapidly in France, making it the most "alcoholic" of all nations in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. Absinthe came under attack by the French Temperance Society and was the only alcoholic beverage officially banned in France. But the ban referred only to consumption and not to production, and in the late twentieth century some distilleries resumed production, but for export purposes only.
By the early twenty-first century about thirty brands of so-called absinthe were produced in countries where production was still legal. In addition to France, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Spain distilled it. The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, with its great, ornate water fountain in the center of the room, is a vestige of America's absinthe culture, which was introduced by the Louisiana French. After enjoying a certain degree of popularity at the turn of the century, the drink was banned in the United States in 1914, around the time most European countries also made it illegal.
The world's only absinthe museum (Le Musée de l'Absinthe), owned and operated by Marie-Claude Delahaye, is in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, an hour from Paris in the village where Van Gogh died and is buried. The tiny museum displays authentic glasses, spoons, absinthe fountains, and bottles with period posters advertising various brands of this unique liquor.
See also Barnaby Conrad III, Absinthe: History in a Bottle (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988); and Wilfred Niels Arnold, Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1992).
Anything as rare and fine as cognac is bound to be surrounded by some paraphernalia. One of the nicest accessories in the liquor business is the lead crystal decanter filled with amber-gold liquid. Set on a white tablecloth, the crystal catches and refracts the room light and turns the cognac ritual into a ballet of sparkles. The colors and the magnificent weight of the decanter make the drink (and by extension, the host) seem very important.
Alas, researchers have discovered that the lead that makes the decanter weighty and sparkly dissolves in the cognac over a period of time and ends up inside the consumer. Unfortunately, this lead is also poisonous.