The more you know about something, chances are the more you appreciate it.
For me, I’ve never been much for distilled liquors, generally preferring a glass of wine. However, after watching Phil of Mammoth Distilling and Lisa of TeaHaus concoct incredible tea cocktails (see Part 1 for intro) and then having a tour of Mammoth Distilling, I’ve learned a lot and now have a new appreciation for cocktails!
Producing liquor requires multiple steps. First, the alcohol itself must be made and distilled, and then there’s the aging process. Every step requires an understanding of the science behind what you’re doing, along with a dose of creativity and vision. It’s both a science and an art.
It reminds me of making oolong teas—you can manipulate the process in many different ways to come up with a very specific end product, and that product will be a result of the quality of the ingredients used as well as the expertise of the producer. Again, it’s that melding of science and art.
To make alcohol, you begin with grain, agave, fruit, or sugarcane. And in another similarity to tea, some liquors can be produced only in specific areas of the world (e.g., Darjeeling tea can be produced only in Darjeeling, tequila can be made only in specific regions of Mexico).
Located in northern Michigan, Mammoth is a “grain to glass” distillery, and because they are committed to being part of, and to supporting, the local economy, they primarily buy wheat, corn, and rye that has been grown in the state. Many of the botanicals they use (e.g., for gin) are sourced from their own property.
Buying in this way makes them vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, the quality of that year’s crop, and so on. When large companies buy in bulk, the corn, for instance, will come from many different areas so the distiller is more assured of a specific grain quality and a consistent outcome (something I looked at in my last post).
When a small distillery uses crops from local farmers, they have to calculate how to optimize their own products because every crop will be different. This also means that every batch the distillery produces will reflect these differences, making each batch truly one of a kind.
The grain must first be prepared in a way that allows enzymatic activity, so it’s milled, or reduced to a meal. (Milling is not done on site at Mammoth due to the combustibility hazards.)
The grain is then put into a mash tun. Mashing breaks down the cell walls of the starch, and when enzymes, found in malted barley, are added to the liquified mass, the starches convert to fermentable sugar. The target is an 18–25% conversion rate of total volume of grain into fermentable sugar.
Yeast is then added, which breaks down that sugar into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol, i.e., the fermentation process. At this step, about 70% converts to alcohol.
Here, the mash tun is on the left-hand side and the fermenting vats on the right:
Now that you have alcohol, it needs to be distilled, or purified. Mammoth’s custom-designed, custom-made, steam-powered, Christian Carl still is a piece of art, made of hammered copper.
Although stills were initially made of copper because it’s so malleable, it turns out that copper’s reactivity also filters out impurities (e.g., sulphur). While many distillers make vodka in stainless steel stills, they need to later filter out the impurities. Mammoth makes their vodka in their copper still so it’s “unfiltered vodka,” having been naturally filtered by the copper.
On the right-hand side is the still, or pot, which works as a sort of double boiler, with steam filling the bottom (silver-colored) jacket. As the liquid heats, the vapors rise through the condenser and the liquid collected. Solids stay behind in the pot. The collected alcohol—colorless and clear—is returned to the still for a finishing run.
The columns, called rectification columns, separate the alcohol and water vapors so that the water can be removed. There is a distillation plate at each window, with a total of eleven plates per column.
The still can be adjusted to make whatever end product you want:
- botanicals can be put into the column on the pot of the still, which will flavor the alcohol (e.g., gin)
- low proof (contains more water) = high character/greater flavor (more of the grain character is retained)
- high proof (contains less water) = low character/less flavor
Thus, pure alcohol has no taste, which is why vodka has little flavor. When you get to the lower-proof brandies, they are full of fruit flavor.
Also, Mammoth does each botanical run separately, adjusting for the properties of that specific plant. They then blend them for the final taste they want.
At the end of distillation, some products are immediately bottled whereas others need to be aged. I’ll take a look at that in my next post, and will have more on those tea cocktails in the post after that!