How to make and drink whiskey

How to make whiskey

Recently I read Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell. On the back of the book is written the following description:

The Moonshiner of the American imagination, hidden in the rural South, may be an endangered species, but a new generation of whiskey lovers is discovering the art of making moonshine, the small act of civil disobedience that has characterized the home distiller since 1862. This book is a guide to America's indigenous spirit—from the whisky made by the earliest colonists to the sprawling distillleries of Kentucky to the adventurous craft distillers working today in almost every state. It answers questions that have mystified amateurs and enthusiasts alike, including what, precisely, makes whiskey whiskey. And it is also a manual for how to make homemade whiskey, otherwise known as moonshine, safely and deliciously (if not quite legally). Offering clear instruction and advice, along with recipes for whiskey drinks and dishes and recommendations for outfitting the perfect home bar, this is an indispensalbe companion for both distiller and drinker, written by the founders of Kings County Distillery, the first in New York City since Prohibition.

It was a fascinating and enjoyable read. It was interesting to learn that prior to the advent of rum in the early colonies, the only spirits made were whiskey distilled from beer, and brandy distilled from wine. Beer has a long and lustrious past, not only as a beverage of choice, but also as a feedstock for other fine beverages.

Another thing that stood out is just how easy it is to make whiskey from beer; the book covers the basics in just 10 pages (including pictures). In a nutshell, an ethanol rich media (e.g. beer) is warmed up slowly from around 70C/158F to 97C/205F. How to make whiskeyAs the ethanol distills over it carries water, flavor molecules and other compounds with it (ethanol is the primary alcohol but there are other alcohols as well as other molecules that contribute to whiskey's flavor; together these other impurities are called 'congeners'). The vapor passes out of the still and into the condensing chamber which has cold water running through the jacket. The cold water removes the heat from the vapor which condenses and runs out of the condensor and into a receptacle. 

Often two (or more) distillations are completed, with the first distillation (called the 'stripping run') to remove the alcohol from beer and produce what is called 'low wines' (about 25-40% alcohol), and the second (called the 'spirit run') to produce higher proof alcohol. Some distillers online discuss drinking the low wines (with the foreshots/heads/tails removed) as their preferred 'spirit' but most frequently distillers collect the 'low wines' from multiple batches of beer and combine them (along with the 'heads' and 'tails' from previously distillations) into a spirit run as it is considered to be of higher quality. 

The distillation period is divided into four phases. The first phase to come over through the condensor as the still heats up is called the 'foreshots' and is discarded as it has undesirable compounds (it is approximately the first 5% of total alcohol in the beer; distills over around 168F/76C). The second phase to come over through condenser (approximately from 5-15%; distills over around 170F/77C) is called 'heads' and this is set aside to add to the next batch of beer for distilling. It contains some valuable compounds but tastes harsh. The third phase contains the 'hearts' (approximately from 15%-75%; distills over around 172-190F/78-88C) which is the desirable portion for consumption.  The fourth and final phase is called 'tails' (approximately from 75-100%; distills over around 192-205F/89-96C) and is combined with the heads to be saved for the next distillation run. It is of low purity, but contains some ethanol that is valuable to recover later as well as providing more batch to batch consistency in flavor. 

The book provides a good introduction into the craft of distillation and I would recommend it.