Sip the Good Stuff
(a wee chemistry goes a long way)
The Cut is the Key!
You may have heard the expression, “making the cut”. In the world of distilling this is both the familiar figure of speech, as well as a literal task… and a critical one at that.
Any time a sugar is digested by a yeast – commonly known as “fermentation” – that yeast and its process of digestion produce quite a number of by-products. Among these byproducts are a variety of alcohols. When we speak of “alcohol” in the context of potable libations, we are generally referring to ethanol. Ethanol is not only the answer to this month’s newsletter’s pop chemistry quiz, it is one of the primary alcohols that result from the fermentation process, and when properly respected it has a plethora of delightful characteristics.
Other alcohols produced by fermentation of various materials include: acetone, ethyl acetate, propanol, butanol, amyl alcohol, furfural, and… the dreaded methanol. (Not to be confused with methamphetamine… different lesson.) While some alcohols are more toxic to the body and some simply don’t taste appropriate for different spirituous products, methanol is actually dangerous to humans, causing such nasty consequences as permanent nerve damage. (Remember those legends of moonshine making folks go blind? Any truth they may hold might be a consequence of over-consumption of methanol.)
It could be said that the primary purpose of beverage distillation is to “extract” or separate the “alcohol” from your fermented product (such as beer, wine, mead, cider). Further refinement of this description ought to include the specificity of that separation. Proper distillation for the purpose of human consumption relies on the distiller’s ability to “make the cuts”.
What is a “cut”?
Lucky for us humans, every different alcohol boils at a different temperature. This enables the distiller to control what alcohol in the mash is “boiling off”, or being separated in distillation through heat control. Raise the temperature in the still to one temperature and one type of alcohol is boiled off. Raise to another temperature, and another type is boiled off. This is a bit of an oversimplification – mostly because real life tends to be far messier than theoretical science – but the principle applies. A “cut” is the moment a distiller starts capturing a distillate in a separate vessel. So it is when a distiller “makes a cut” that they literally physically separate desired alcohols (mainly ethanol) from undesired alcohols (especially methanol!).
So you see why Making The Cut is of profound importance to the quality and safety of the final product. The perfection of the distilled product is integrally tied to how a distiller makes the cuts.
Many large distilleries use advanced rectifying stills and automation to rather scientifically separate the various alcohols and compounds in this process. Though effective, this is the antithesis of “craft”, and often result in a more “sterile” product. Here at Still Cellars we do everything the “old fashioned” way… by hand! Using a combination of tools, senses, and experience we are able to safely remove all of the undesirables for disposal, capture all of the most-desirables for savoring, and isolate the less-desirable for further refinement. Thermometers, hydrometers, and heat control are the basic tools. Smell, taste, and touch are all combined with years of distilling experience to craft our simple ingredients into our unique products. Our methods preserve the highest amount of delectable character, and honor a long history of alchemists and craftsfolk.
There’s plenty more to be said on every element of this topic, but the spirits are calling! Come for a visit and chat with us sometime to delve deeper into the wide world of craft distilling!