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Distilled Spirits

History of Distilling

Distilled Spirits

Because the two ingredients necessary to alcoholic fermentation are widely spread and always appear together, civilizations in almost every part of the world developed some form of alcoholic beverage very early in their history. The Chinese were distilling a beverage from rice beer by 800 bc, and arrack was distilled in the East Indies from sugarcane and rice. The Arabs developed a distillation method that was used to produce a distilled beverage from wine. Greek philosophers reported a crude distillation method. The Romans apparently produced distilled beverages, although no references concerning them are found in writings before ad 100. Production of distilled spirits was reported in Britain before the Roman conquest. Spain, France, and the rest of western Europe probably produced distilled spirits at an earlier date, but production was apparently limited until the 8th century, after contact with the Arabs.

The first distilled spirits were made from sugar-based materials, primarily grapes and honey to make grape brandy and distilled mead, respectively. The earliest use of starchy grains to produce distilled spirits is not known, but their use certainly dates from the Middle Ages. Some government control dates from the 17th century. As production methods improved and volume increased, the distilled spirits industry became an important source of revenue. Rigid controls were often imposed on both production and sale of the liquor.

The earliest stills were composed simply of a heated closed container, a condenser, and a receptacle to receive the condensate. These evolved into the pot still, which is still in use, particularly for making malt whiskeys and some gins. The next refinement was heating the alcohol-containing liquid in a column made up of a series of vaporization chambers stacked on top of one another. By the early 19th century large-scale continuous stills, very similar to those used in the industry today, were operating in France and England. In 1831 the Irishman Aeneas Coffey designed such a still, which consisted of two columns in series.

Since distillation requires that the liquid portion of a fermentation mixture be vaporized, considerable heat must be applied to the process. The fuel used in distilling spirits has always been that which has been most readily available at the particular time and place. Peat, coal, and wood were the fuels used historically, while the fuels of choice today are coal, natural gas, and oil. The high steam requirement for continuous-still operation inhibited the development of rectifying columns for production of spirits until after the Industrial Revolution.

Many of the minor components of distilled spirits, which are present only in parts per million, are detectable by the senses of taste and smell, but efforts to identify and quantify these compounds chemically have often been hampered by the lower limits of detection by analytical methods. Classes of compounds such as aldehydes, organic acids, esters, and alcohols were easily identified by conventional methods, but many of them could not be determined until after the development of chromatography. The Russian botanist Mikhail Tsvet was an early pioneer of this measurement technique, reporting his first work in 1903. Refinements in both technique and equipment, made during the first half of the 20th century, allowed numerous flavor components in distilled spirits to be identified by gas chromatography.



The term spirit refers to a distilled beverage that contains no added sugar and has at least 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Popular spirits include brandy, fruit brandy (also known as eau-de-vie or Schnapps), gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whisky.

Distilled beverages bottled with added sugar and added flavorings, such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, and American schnapps, are liqueurs. In common usage, the distinction between spirits and liqueurs is widely unknown or ignored; consequently, all alcoholic beverages other than beer and wine are generally referred to as spirits.

Beer and wine, which are not distilled beverages, are limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 20% ABV, as most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is above this level; consequently, fermentation ceases at that point.