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How spirits are distilled

By Bryan Karrick

When you visit a distillery with its shiny copper still, it looks like a very complicated process. That is not entirely true. Basically, when we distill, we are controlling evaporation.

Distilling is the process of separating substances from one another by evaporating and capturing the evaporated components separately from the liquid that it started in. Once the vapor has traveled up and away from its origin liquid, we cool it to turn it into the distillate. This distilled vapor is then turned into liquid again. By separating a component of the original mix in this way, it has a higher concentration than it had originally.

Distilling can be used for many things: to separate and concentrate petroleum products, clean water, alcohols for uses including solvents, cleaning supplies, and mixed in with your gasoline. But our favorite distillate is the ethanol type of alcohol that is used to make spirits.

Let's go a step further in talking about evaporating alcohol. In the case of distilling spirits, if we start with a mash (like a beer, used for distilling) of 10% alcohol, and distill the alcohol only from the original mixture, leaving the other beer components behind, then we have a much higher concentration of alcohol only.

When distilling, all alcohols can come through the distillation process, but the process can be controlled to collect only the ethanol, or the ethanol along with other parts of the family of alcohol molecules. You have heard of some of these names: Butanol, Methanol, Propanol, and so on. Around 30 are common to distilling spirits.

Think of it this way. You can distill less thoroughly to make a whiskey which means that there are other alcohol types, albeit small amounts, that are collected along with the ethanol. These other alcohols combine with one another over the course of years in a cask to make delicious spirits products that taste much different (better!) than they would on the day they were distilled. You distill more thoroughly to make a vodka. Vodka requires that the spirit be concentrated to 95% or higher concentration of ethanol. But, contrary to what one might think, you cannot distill ethanol to more than 95.57% purity. And the 4.43% other is not any of the different alcohols listed above. It is an odd water and ethanol complex that gets in the way of 100% ethanol. Without causing you to nod off, I will share that the reason is the azeotrope. Enough said on that one.

So, if we create a vodka-clarity spirit with a still, how do we separate the other alcohol types from the ethanol? The coolest thing about all of these alcohol types is they have different boiling points! The way we manipulate this depends upon the type of still used. At Scratch Distillery, we use the column still. We are making small batches, using 1,200 pounds of grain and mixing with 670 gallons of water which provides about 300 bottles on the other end. When you make batches of products with a column still, you put the mash in a pot on the front of the still, then heat that enclosed pot. The vapor travels through the columns, then gets cooled and comes out a single location at "the end" of the still.

If we heat the pot slowly, the different types of alcohol will evaporate at different times and line up single file within the still and come out the exit in sequence. We call the group of alcohols that have boiling points that are lower than that of the ethanol molecule, the heads because they come out of the still first. They have a high evaporation rate and are cooling to the touch like nail polish remover, due to the rapid evaporation. They smell like a solvent. This group is small, about 7% of all of the alcohol that comes through in a day of distilling.

Next, the ethanol comes out, in the middle of the run. It is called the hearts because it is the favorite part. Because we use a yeast that tries to create mostly ethanol, we get about 70% of the day's run collected into a container, separately from the heads. Even at 95% ethanol, we can taste (just a little on your finger!) a sweetness; there's no aroma.

The tails are the alcohol types that have a higher boiling point than that of the ethanol. About 23% of the day's collection accounts for the alcohol that comes out of the still last. They include a group of molecules called fusel oils. These heavy compounds taste like a damp basement, unless you really love whiskey. Then you sense that it tastes alright. It feels oily on your fingers. These molecules are also kept separately from the hearts when we are making clear spirits. If we are making brandy or whiskey, we include an amount of the tails in with the hearts collection, as these molecules create the magic for those products on a long enough timeline in a barrel.

When you make small batch spirits, using the least processed, and freshest ingredients, and control the process from beginning to end, using a column still that allows you to best separate the ethanol from the rest of the family of alcohols, you will have a superior product.

Bryan Karrick is the co-owner of Scratch Distillery ™ in Edmonds. Their spirits are Made From Scratch: local, organic, non-GMO wheat, batch by batch, by hand.


July 2019

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