Explain booze manufacture to me.

All I know about distillery is: you make a mash out of whatever high-sugar stuff you have laying around, toss in some yeast and let it ferment. Then you heat it to 78.5 C and viola! Moonshine! aka: pure alcohol.

But clearly there’s something I’m not taking into consideration because your end product will tase of what you started with. Start with cane sugar, you get rum. Potatoes, russian vodka. Guinness, scotch (I jest).

But if the end product is alcohol, why does it matter what you start with? And how do you distil wine into brandy? (because lately I’ve been so slobbering…nevermind).

The alcohol takes flavor elements from the original grain with it. In addition, the distilled alcohol is often aged in casks that impart additional flavor and color.

Alcohol is only one ingredient in an alcoholic drink.

The other flavors are also part of the drink. It’s just not listed on the label because Vodka is considered an ingredient by itself. Ditto whiskey etc.

Flavoring ingredients are part of the original recipe, the quality of the original starch.

For scotch, the coloring and some of the flavor comes from the aging process - from the wood of the barrels it is aged in. Other sources of flavor may involve smoking the alcohol over a particular type of wood or peat fire.

Think Wine and how the flavor is a property of the grapes and addititves. The same is true of the grain/sugar/starch alcohols. The end result it not usually 100% alcohol, but a highly alcoholic solution.

And then there are the other alcoholic drinks that are just pure alcohol mixed post production with flavorings, Mad Dog etc…

But for the traditional alcoholic drinks, Gin, Scotch, Bourbon, Vodka…the color and flavor come from the original ingredients and the aging process.

Add to the above the fact that the lower proof you pull off the still, the more flavor components remain in the booze. If you pull everything off at a very high proof and filter the results, you get vodka, which is essentially flavorless. Doesn’t matter what the original source of the sugars was. But most booze isn’t pulled at such a high proof, so it does matter what the source is, flavorwise.

As for distilling wine into brandy, what’s the question? You do it just like any other distilled spirit: place the wine in the still and heat. Cool the steam and age. Viola!

[snarky hijack]
This habit of writing ‘viola’ for ‘voilà’ is both bass and viol.
[/snarky hijack]

I just went on a guided tour of Glenkinchie distillery this last weekend. There’s more things that influence the taste of whisky (to take one example) than I had thought:

The choice of grain: most whisky production in Scotland uses barley (i.e. all single malts). A small percentage uses other grains, such as wheat and maize, and is used in making blends.

The method used to stop the malting process/roast the grain. Lowland whiskys used a coal or wood fire to toast the malted grain, as this was the fuel source most readily at hand. Island and highland malts used peat, as there wasn’t a large amount of trees available on the islands, and peat was plentiful. Peat imparts a smoky flavour to the malted grain which is carried through into the whisky.

The amount of fermentation time and specific strain of yeast used. Glenkinchie has a very short fermentation time, and the specific strain of yeast is a trade secret, with the distillery floor workers kept in the dark.

The size and shape of the distillation pots. As seen in this photo from inside the distillery, Scottish stills have a collar around them that influences the taste (though the mechanism through which this happens is apparently not fully understood). I think the guide stated that Irish and American stills are typically a different shape. Incidentally, those stills are the largest in Scotland, and by law are solid copper. They’re replaced every ten years with a brand new set, exactly the same size.

I think Scottish malts are typically distilled twice. Irish are triple distilled (I think? I remember Jamieson’s making a big deal out of this?) and this will also affect taste.

The aging process. Glenkinchie uses second hand barrels imported from America which have previously held bourbon, and also import sherry barrels from the continent. These impart a lot of taste. Also, the number of years that the spirit ages affects the taste (I suspect this is where most of the taste comes from: we were showed the whisky safe with the distilled spirit coming straight out of the stills, it looked like water, and nothing like whisky).

The Russians were making vodka long before they had potatoes, weren’t they?

You don’t smoke the alcohol, but rather the grain. The smoke flavor is introduced in the drying stage of the malting process.

Ok, I hadn’t realized this.

How do you control how much flavor (and water presumably) comes off with the alcohol? I’m guessing by fluctuating the cookoff temperature? And if methyl alcohol boils at 64.7c, how is it eliminated from the mix? Do you have to boil it off first (cook between 65-78c for a while)?

I’ve never done it myself, but from my understanding, you discard the first and last part of the distillate, which is where the majority of the methyl and other undesirable alcohols are. Also, methanol is mostly a byproduct of distilling mashes with a lot of pectin in them (fermented fruit juices, mainly.)

OK, this site says the heads (beginning of the distillation) contains methanol, since it has a slightly lower boiling point than ethanol, while the tails (end of the distillation) contains proponol and other impurities.

Yes, the first and last part are discarded. They’re called the “head” and “tail”, and only the “body” is kept. (Discarded is too strong: they’re put back into the still with the next batch, only a very small amount of unusable scum from the bottom of the still is wasted.)

I’ve only skimmed this thread, so apologies if someone else has pointed out that the method of distillation affects the end product as well. Whisky, brandy and genever (would some nice American tell me what y’all do with bourbon?) are produced in pot stills, which leave more of the original flavours, but it’s more labour intensive and the proof doesn’t rise as high as in a column still. Pot distillation needs to be run two or three times in order to get the same proof.

Most of the colour comes from the barrels, and I suppose that were you to fill a whisky barrel with vodka and let it age for five years, the result would look much like whisky.

pot distillation and distillation columns can be used together. the column makes the procedure more efficient and controllable.

What is “pot distillation”? I assume “distillation columns” is when you see the big copper hat thing over a stove?

pot distillation is a boiling pot at the bottom of the still.

a distillation column is a cylinder which the vapors go into and be concentrated.

Bourbon is made with a distillation column. Stranahan’s Colorado Whisky is unique in that they attached a column to the top of their pot still.