Distillation

by The Bon Vivants

Distillation.  Definition: a : the process of purifying a liquid by successive evaporation and condensation b : a process like distillation <gradual distillation of the truth>; also : an instance of such distilling (Source: Merriam-Webster)

As bartenders, we should know this inside and out, as both definitions apply to what we are.  We sell distilled spirits, and we distill down bullsh!t until we get to the truth.  If your job was to sell bread, and you have never been to a bakery or baked bread, how can you do your job to any standard of excellence?  When we have done consulting jobs with bars and restaurants in the past, the subject of distillation is where we always start when it comes to training the staff - the egg comes before the chicken.  Our favorite response to the question, “What is distillation?” is “It's what you do to Vodka five times.”  Other responses we have heard are, “It is filtering.” Sorta. “It is purifying.” Sorta. “It is magic.” Definitely. Distilled spirits have magic in them.  Whether or not it’s dark and dirty or pure and light is another conversation.  There are many stories about why spirits are called spirits.  One of our favorites has its roots in distillation.  When you get to the point that alcohol starts to boil off leaving the water behind, (if you have a still with a porthole into this magic chamber), the vapors that rise are silvery white, and look like spirits or ghosts, shimmering and dancing up and out of the still ending up eventually in our glasses.

The crib notes - Something, grain, fruit, cactus, beech wood, bodily fluid, whatever you want, is fermented.  It becomes what we call a beer or a wine, to keep it simple. Fermentation requires there to be sugar.  In any of the aforementioned things, there is some sugar.  Now yeasts go in; yeasts are alive and hungry. The yeasts eat the sugar and they poop alcohol.  Once the sugar is eaten and the yeasts are in their death throes, you have something in a loose range of 7 to 16 percent alcohol by volume - a wine or a beer.  You take this, put it in an enclosed vessel with a heat source below it, and once the temperature hits 173 degrees F, ethyl alcohol vapor is released.  This vapor travels upward to a point, and then is routed back down via the “swan neck” (called that because it is what it looks like), then it hits the pigtail looking coil, the condenser or the serpentine (called that because that is what it looks like).  In the coil, the vapor becomes liquid, and it drips from the end. Now you have alcohol.  Putting it like that, it sounds simple.  If you simply wanted to make some booze in a backwoods cabin, wearing overalls with no shirt, shoes or teeth while brandishing a shotgun and far away from the lurking eyes of the ATF, you can make something that gets you good and stinko.  But, do not expect anything that is going to get five stars in any Spirit Journal.  Distillation is an art, pure and simple.

As cocktologists, we are required to know a little something about this.  If possible, we all should try distilling something, just for the experience.  We recently spent some time at a beautiful, sleepy, remote rancho in the highlands of Jalisco.  On this rancho, there is a beautiful distillery called “El Pandillo,” named after the owner’s grandfather’s favorite bull, Pandillo.  In this state of the art distillery, we had the incredibly good fortune of being able to make/distill Tequila ourselves. Two very important truths resulted from this experience:

  1. We don't know anything.
  2. We want to do it again. 

We had the opportunity to see the agaves from the oven to the end - Blanco Tequila that we put into glasses and drank.  As our dear friend Lyons would say, we were a part of the process from “soup to nuts.”  It is inspired work, both scientific and intuitive and at this particular distillery, is incredibly environmentally conscious.

The major villain in any distillation is how we have seen distilleries handle their waste and their water.  Ethical behavior and large-scale business rarely go together, but we know it is possible. Making booze makes waste.  Tossing that waste into the local water table or down the drain into the ocean is not the only option.  Having seen first-hand the environmentally ethical practices at El Pandillo, we would love to see bartenders rally around a cry to “green” the production of booze.  It is a place where we could make an impact. 

The small, copper alembic-type production houses are often and easily poeticized in this soulful manner described above. The massive, factory style, column-still houses are just as easily vilified.  To make enough vodka to satisfy the massive thirst of the world, it would be impossible to make that much flavor-free spirit the “old way.”  To slake this unquenchable thirst, technical advancements have given us distillation factories that produce massive quantities of alcohol.  These factories are seen as antithetical to “artisanal,” pot still-type distilleries - an attitude akin to “screw the one percent.”  These massive distillation factories are necessary, and they serve a very succinct purpose.  Further, we still believe these massive distillation factories require a great deal of “know-how,” technical and scientific expertise, to operate.   

Point is, if you go on a vacation and find yourself anywhere near a place where booze is made, we suggest you go there.  Someone you know knows someone, who knows someone at any distillery, so there is no excuse.  Go and meet them. See what they do and taste.  Offer to work.  Touch, feel, and listen to everything.  See all of it that you can.  If nothing else, this experience will make for great bar banter when you get back behind the stick.  Our experience on that sleepy rancho at the distillery El Pandillo was a defining moment, and a reinforcement of the axiom, “Practical knowledge will always trump theoretical knowledge.” There is soul in making booze, or at least there can be, or should be.  

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