Wausau Pilot & Review

Spirits 101 is a weekly feature from Wausau Pilot & Review and Timekeeper Distillery. Each Friday afternoon, Dan Weber joins us for a journey through spirits and cocktails, and a deeper dive into the craft industry as a whole. If you have questions or ideas for future topics, be sure to leave them in the comments below the YouTube video. Watch the video and read Dan’s explanation for a better understanding of the craft spirits you enjoy. Cheers!

From Grain to Glass, by Dan Weber

Many of us have a favorite spirit or at the very least a spirit of choice when we are ordering a libation at our favorite watering hole. However, most don’t know what goes into the process of making that spirit or what separates one product from another even if they are the same spirit. Throughout the year, I’m looking to dive into specific spirits to help readers learn more about each one and what it makes it unique. Before we can do that, I think we need to start with the ingredients and process.

The first step in the Distilling process is creating a mash or wash. This will be the fermentable sugar source for our yeast to create alcohol during fermentation. 

For your grain alcohols such as Moonshine, Vodka, and my personal favorite Whiskey; the distiller needs to grind up the corn, wheat, rye, or barley into a meal -like substance. We then add our recipe of the crushed grains to a large tank, where it mixes with treated water. The distiller will then start heating up and mixing this mash, with “oatmeal” like consistency, to a boil and begin adding enzymes at varying points that will start the complex starch conversion into simpler sugars for the yeast to consume. We boil the mash to make sure there is no growth opportunity for foreign yeast or bacteria that could have been on the grains from the field. The distiller will then chill the mash down to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and add yeast. The yeast will consume the sugars made in the fermentation process and convert them into alcohol. Post fermentation alcohol percentages typically can range from 9-25% alcohol by volume, or abv.

When making products that are not grain-based such as Tequila, Schnapps, Rum, and the Wisconsin favorite, Brandy, the process of making the wash can be simpler, as these products are raw sources of sugar such as fruit, cane sugar, molasses, or plant juice. A ‘wash’ is a slurry of the sugar source in a tank ready for fermentation. Some products may be heated and watered down if their sugar content is too high. Or, if there is concern over competing bacteria or yeast, they may boil the product before fermentation. Similar to the mashing process, once the wash is prepped the distiller will add yeast and begin the fermentation process where the yeast consumes the sugars and produces alcohol, which takes about a week.

After fermentation is complete the distillation can begin. Distillation is “the action of purifying a liquid by heating and cooling.” Many things in our everyday life are distilled, such as water, fuel, essential oils, and alcohol are just a few. There are also many different types of stills that serve different purposes.

In the next chapter we will go over the different still types and why they are used to produce certain spirits. Thanks for reading, and be sure to leave your questions in the comment section of the video!