Distilling 101 - The 5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Making Booze

Northside Distilling | Still
Vodka, Moonshine, Whiskey, Bourbon, Gin, and Tequila all have something in common.

As Cincy’s first downtown distillery, we get a lot of questions about how we distill our craft spirits. So to help shed some light on the the distilling process, we outlined the 5 most frequently asked questions we get about making booze.

What’s the biggest difference between a distillery and a brewery?

Simply put, a brewery makes beer, a distillery makes liquor. It’s a common misconception, especially in our city, where we have such a rich beer and brewery history. While distilleries and breweries apply the same principals to what they do, they use different equipment, ingredients, and techniques to create entirely different products.

How does the distilling process begin?

The first step to making any alcoholic beverage is the same - extracting a fermentable sugar to turn into alcohol. The majority of the fermentable sugars we use at Northside come from grain, but distilleries and breweries alike can use anything from fruit juice, whole fruit, agave, syrup, and more to extract the sugar they need.

Northside Distilling | Corn

To extract those sugars from say, a piece of corn, you need to heat it up! At Northside we use what is called a Mash Tun to cook our grains. This is a 200 gallon stainless steel pot that cooks our grain with hot water. We continuously stir and mix these grains with the water until it creates a “grits-like” consistency. After a couple hours of work and some straining we have a fermentable liquid that we call a wash.

This is what contains all of the natural sugars and starches needed to create alcohol once the mixture is cooled and mixed with yeast to ferment. The fermented wash becomes mash that we then heat to create alcohol.

What tools are commonly used by distillers?

There are all sorts of tools that we use to get the job done. The biggest and most important piece of equipment you’ll see at any distillery is, as the name suggests, the still - a large pot with a column and condenser at the top that allows distillers to heat their mash to separate water and alcohol. At Northside, we use a 200 gallon pot still to do the job.

How long does it take to produce drinkable alcohol?

If the distillate doesn't have to go into a barrel, we can have drinkable liquor in about 7 days. Day 1 is mashing and fermenting. The fermentation process takes about 5 full days. Once we have a fully fermented mash we take 2 days to distill the mixture to create a finished product.

First, we heat the mash in our large pot still to separate alcohol from water. Since alcohol evaporates at 173° Fahrenheit and water evaporates at 212° Fahrenheit we can separate the two so long as we keep the temperature in that range. As the alcohol vapor travels up the column and down the condenser, the vapor will condense and turn back into a liquid flowing out of the still. We distill the liquid produced one more time to finish off the product and to produce the best flavors possible depending on the alcohol.

How does liquor get its color?

The color of a liquor depends on how it’s aged and what it was aged in. Bourbon, for example, comes out of the still as clear as vodka - it’s the aging process that gives bourbon its signature “caramel” color that we all know and love.

In each bourbon barrel, the insides have been charred with fire to cleanse and seal the wood from leaks. Once the barrels are filled with distillate, temperature changes cause the liquor to either absorb into the barrel when its warm, or retreat from the barrel when it’s cold. This process over a prolonged period of time, 3 years here at Northside, imparts flavor and color into the distillate creating bourbon.

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