Real Food

Savor the flavors of everyday real food, fresh from the garden or stored on your pantry shelves.

Add to My MSN

The 3 Steps of Distilling Alcohol

2/28/2014 11:10:00 AM

Tags: distilling, fermentation, alcohol, Colorado, Josh Bayne

A commercial still from BJ Hookers in Houston TX

Many people mistake the distilling process as the “alcohol creation” process. Rather is it the process in which a chemical, in this case ethanol alcohol, is removed from another chemical. The process is centuries old, and is used in a myriad of applications from alcohol distillation to essential oil extraction.

Luckily, our blog is primarily focused on alcohol distillation. Why luckily? Because who doesn’t like a stiff drink every now and again?

The overall process of alcohol distillation can be summed up into 3 parts: Fermentation, Distillation, and Finishing. The next 3 installments of this blog will hit each of these topics in some depth. However, this episode will give us a brief overview of each segment.


Any of you who have ever made beer or wine will see this process as old hat, but in the effort for maximum clarity we will cover it for everyone. The basics of the fermentation process are thus:

  1.        Introduce sugar to liquid and yeast
  2.        Over time the yeast process the sugar into alcohol
  3.        After a certain time the yeast stop producing alcohol as the sugar has been fully consumed.

What most people don’t understand is, alcohol is really just the excrement of yeast. Yes, alcohol is yeast pee. (Makes you look at your gin and tonic a bit differently doesn’t it?!?!?)

In the case of most, not all, alcohols, grains are used as the sugar source. In their raw form they are offered as starches, but after a boiling process, and the addition of malt or certain enzymes, the starches are converted into sugar, which are then processed by the yeast, resulting in a number of chemicals including ethanol alcohol.


Once a liquid fermentation is finished, the liquid is then heated in a still.

The still has seen many forms and adaptions. For our current example, we will stick with the basics. All stills consist of 3 things; a boiler, a column, and a condenser. As the liquid is increased slowly from room temperature to approximately 190 degrees (F), the liquid vaporizes and rises through the column. Once it reaches the condenser it comes in contact with a cold surface and condenses back into a liquid state. It then exits the still in the form of a number of different chemicals.

During the fermentation process a few very specific chemicals are excreted by the yeast. Acetone, Methanol, Ethanol, and Isopropyl are just a few of the major ones. Each of these chemicals have different boiling points. As we know from high school chemistry water boils at 212 degrees (F). These other chemicals have distinct boiling points as well.

As we increase the temperature of the liquid in the still these chemicals vaporize and go through the distillation process. However, all the alcohol distiller wants is the ethanol. (What do I do with the other chemicals you ask? Keep an eye out for a future post on distillation waste, and their uses.) Through the process known as “cutting” the distiller is able to segregate the different chemicals leaving the ethanol in a pure state.


The finishing process is the final process before bottling. This process has a few different steps, and depending on the alcohol type desired will depend on which of these steps you would use.

Filtering – Filtering alcohol primarily does 2 things. It removes off flavors and it smoothes out the overall taste and flavor.
Flavoring – Whether you make the decision to add a commercial type of flavor such as an essence (a cross between an essential oil and a extract), or if you soak fruit in the spirit, or use some type of spice to influence the taste, flavor options are almost endless. 
Oaking/Aging – Whiskey doesn’t get its color from the grains used in the fermentation process. Instead it gets its color from the oak in which it is stored. Although it gets much of its flavor from the grains, another layer of flavor is also added through the oak, or other hardwood, used in the aging process. Same goes with bourbon, scotch, tequila, and other brown spirits.

The finishing process is a step that is kept in mind from the beginning of fermentation. Often you will choose certain grains based on the type of finishing you plan. If you plan on making bourbon, then grain selection is of upmost importance, as bourbon is made of at least 51% corn.

Obviously, the alcohol distillation process is in depth, but this process helps break it down into a few steps that are rather easy to manage. With just a little practice each of these steps get easier. I mean c’mon, if Tickle can do it….

Our next blog will go into depth on the fermentation process specifically. CHEERS!!!

Related Content

Step-by-Step Chicken Processing (Video)

Learn the essential stages of chicken processing in this video guide that covers equipment, humane k...

Introduction to Fermentation With 'SandorKraut'

Fermentation expert Sandor Katz (aka SandorKraut) gives a cultural and historical introduction to fe...

Introduction to Home Distilling

The spirits industry is changing dramatically. However, owning and knowing how to use a still could ...

Mother's Mash Barrel Fermentation Kit

To make alcohol fuel you need a fermentation kit that includes a mash barrel. Here is a simple unit ...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


2/28/2014 4:20:06 PM
I routinely check the comments section of my blog posts. If you have any questions,whatsoever, please drop me a line here!!! -Josh-

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.