Fermented and distilled beverages are created through a form of alchemy, a process in which inexpensive, ordinary grains are transformed into precious liquids that seems more magical than scientific. Distilled spirits such as vodka and whisky are both fermented and distilled, while fermented beverages such as beer are simply fermented. Despite this difference, the fermentation process for beer is actually more complicated than the sequence for fermenting and distilling spirits.
Both fermentation and distillation start with encouraging microorganisms to transform grain into alcohol, but distillation uses an additional process to concentrate the alcohol content.
Steps in the Fermentation and Distillation of Alcohol
- Malting. To prepare grain for the fermentation process, it must first be activated. The seeds must germinate to prepare them for the bacteria that will transform them. This process involves steeping, or soaking the grain in water, so it’s ready to sprout. Once it germinates and the enzymes start to break down the starch, the grain is dried.
- Milling. To increase the surface area for fermentation to occur, the malted grain must be ground. Professional brewers perform this step at their facilities, and some home brewers even attempt it at home. However, you can have your grain milled for you at a home brewing store.
- Mashing. The next step in coaxing alcohol from grain is to steep it in warm water to encourage it to convert into the right sugars. The warmth of the water activates the enzymes, which in turn break the starches into sugars. If you want to skip this step, simply buy malt extract that’s already mashed.
Where Fermentation and Distillation Diverge
- Sparging. Also known as lautering, this is the process of rinsing the mashed grain to soften the flavor and lessen the alcohol content. This separates the mashed grain from the liquid that will become the fermented beverage and also dilutes the brew to about 5% alcohol. Because the alcohol content for beer is dramatically lower than that for distilled spirits such as whiskey, this step is used for fermented beverages, but not for distilled ones.
- Boiling. Like sparging, this step is used in fermentation but not in distillation. By boiling the wort, or the fermented liquid that has been separated from the mash, you can sterilize your beverage and also temper the acidity of the hops, which has been added to round out the flavor of the fermented grain. This step isn’t necessary when making spirits because these distilled beverages don’t rely on added ingredients such as hops for their flavor.
- Bottling. Fermented beverages like beer make use of the bottling process to complete the fermentation process. Distilled spirits are eventually bottled as well, but only after their flavor has been fully developed. Beer should sit in its bottles for up to a week after it’s bottled, allowing time for its characteristic fizz to develop.
Distillation. Spirits are distilled, while fermented beverages like
beer are not. When you distill an alcoholic beverage you boil it, sometimes multiple times, to make it more concentrated and increase the percentage of alcohol. Beer is typically made up of 5% alcohol, but it’s not uncommon for a distilled spirit like
whiskey to have an alcohol content as high as 45%.
Fermented vs. Distilled Flavor
In addition to the taste of the fermented grain, fermented beverages like beer derive much of their flavor from added ingredients, such as hops. These additives bring their own characteristic notes to the brew, and they also help mellow some of the bitterness that can be present in fermented grain. Once it’s fully fermented, beer can be flavored with other ingredients as well, ranging from wheat to coffee to apricot to pumpkin.
The flavor of distilled beverages comes largely from the aging process. A whiskey or brandy that has been aged for 12 years has had more time for its flavor to develop than one that has aged for only five years. In addition, distilled beverages can be aged in casks and barrels that have their own distinctive flavors. Oak is a preferred wood for adding flavor to distilled beverages. You can add other flavor concentrates from fruit or herbs directly to distilled beverages, or you can infuse these flavors by soaking them in the alcohol for days or weeks and then straining them out.
In addition to the type of wood, barrels can also impart flavor to spirits, depending on what other fermented beverages have been aged in the same barrels previously. A barrel that has been used to age sherry will impart a different flavor than one that has been used to age port, and a rum barrel will add its own type of sweetness. To make Scotch whisky, distilled alcohol is flavored a special way. Unlike alcohols in which the flavoring is added after the fermentation has already occurred, Scotch whisky derives its flavor from the peat that’s used to heat and dry the grain during the malting process.
Distiller’s Beer and Beer Spirits
Although the processes of fermentation and distillation of alcohol start with the same steps, malting, milling and mashing, these different types of beverages are generally manufactured separately. Once these initial three steps are complete, brewers start the sparging process to wash and dilute the grain, and distillers move on to the distillation step, which makes their alcohol more concentrated. However, some contemporary craft brewers and craft distillers have begun to innovate by blurring the traditional distinctions between the two processes.
Generally, the two processes diverge before the flavoring process, in which hops are added to the malted grain for beer. Without hops or other flavoring ingredients, beer would taste awful, and it was never meant to be consumed in that state. This mash is known as “distiller’s beer.” It has a 7% to 10% alcohol content because it hasn’t been washed and diluted, and it hasn’t been flavored with ingredients that soften the harsh taste of the malted grain.
Traditional distillers break from the fermentation process before this flavoring step and produce alcohols with different types of flavors from aging and lovingly selected barrels. But craft brewers such as California’s artisan Charbay Distillery and Winery actually incorporate the additional hops' flavoring step into their final product, adding an unusual and appealing layer that also justifies a price tag significantly higher than the average whiskey. These whiskies are often marketed as limited editions that are riffs on beloved beers such as Dead Guy Whiskey, which is made from Dead Guy Ale.
Other Fermented Beverages
Although beer naturally comes to mind in any discussion about fermentation and alcohol and the process of brewing beer is most often linked to the process of distilling spirits, plenty of other fermented beverages have been enjoyed throughout history and across the globe.
- Wine. By definition, wine is made from fermented grapes, which can be white, red or pink, depending on the grape that’s used. Wine relies on artistry in both the agricultural process (choosing the right grape varieties, tending the vines over years or even generations, and choosing the ideal moment to harvest) and also in the fermentation process. Brandy is a distilled beverage made from wine.
- Hard cider. Typically made with apples, hard cider is produced through a process of crushing and fermenting fruit. Pears are also often used, and you can make nonalcoholic cider by crushing fruit without fermenting it. During Colonial days, hard cider was the most commonly enjoyed alcoholic beverage in the United States. Calvados and applejack are distilled beverages made from apples and hard cider.
- Kombucha. This beverage is made through a fermentation process that brings together sweet tea and beneficial bacteria. Kombucha is a fizzy brew often touted for its health benefits, which include nurturing the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Although it isn’t typically enjoyed for its alcoholic properties, the fermentation process does lend kombucha some alcohol content, which can vary considerably from one producer to another. Kombucha makers often try to limit the alcohol content of their beverages to avoid restrictive regulations addressing where and how it can be sold.
- Kvass. A staple in Eastern Europe, kvass can be made with a variety of starters including rye bread and beets. Like kombucha, kvass isn’t generally fermented for its alcoholic properties, although it does have some alcohol content, which is usually as low as .5% to 1%. When it’s brewed with a higher alcohol content, it’s sometimes referred to as “kvass beer.”
- Mead. Fermented honey is one of the oldest alcoholic brews in the world, and it was made in prehistory from China to India to the British Isles. As with so many other fermented beverages, contemporary artisan industries have sprung up that combine ancient and modern techniques to coax new levels of flavor from different varieties of honey.
Other Types of Distillation
Distillation is a process that can be used for much more than alcohol. At its core, it involves simply heating and cooling a liquid to purify it. Because different elements in a liquid can have different boiling points, the process of adding heat is a way to separate out components such as water and alcohol.
- Vinegar. Known as “spirit vinegar” outside the United States, distilling is a quick way to develop the acidity that’s useful for pickling, flavoring and cleaning. The process of distilling vinegar uses the cheapest spirits available and makes a brew with an acidity so brutal that it’s unsuitable for many culinary purposes unless it’s used extremely judiciously. Distilled vinegar is an inexpensive alternative to lovingly fermented vinegars made from wine, fruits and grains, which can take considerable time to mature.
- Extracts. Flavor concentrates used in baking and beverages are typically reduced to their concentrated form through a distillation process that removes components such as water that dilute the key ingredient. This process is most commonly used with essential oils, which have cosmetic and health uses, but they are also sometimes used for cooking.
History of Fermentation and Distillation
Nobody knows exactly when humans began fermenting grains and fruit to make intoxicating beverages, but this process probably predates bread production and was likely a vital element in the cohesiveness of early societies, as relationships grew lubricated through relaxation and good will. Virtually every society since ancient times has enjoyed some kind of fermented beverage, with the variety a testament to human creativity and ingenuity, as well as to the practically universal appeal of a well-made drink. The Chinese made a wine from honey, rice and fruit more than 9,000 years ago, and Babylonian and Egyptian beer brewing has been extensively documented.
Distillation is a considerably more recent enterprise, which makes sense because it is much more complicated and uses technologies more sophisticated than simply dropping food in water and waiting for the bacteria to do their work. Early distillation occurred among Greek Dionysian cults, and the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians distilled alcoholic beverages as well.
- Brewhaus: Let's Compare Brewing Beer vs Distilling Spirits
- Food Vinebrations: What is: Fermentation VS Distillation
- Quincy Compressor: Chapter 3: The Art of Brewing and Distillation
- Eater: From Brews to Booze: Turning Craft Beer Into Whiskey
- Distiller Blog: Turning Beer Into Whiskey
- National Geographic: Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.