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Where do distilled spirits get their flavors from?
January 31, 2007 3:35 AM   Subscribe

Does all freshly-distilled spirit, whether made from barley, corn, rye, grapes, or potatoes taste identical? If not, what makes the difference in taste? I know that whiskey gets a lot of its final taste from the sherry barrels in which it is aged. Are similar tricks used for other spirits?
posted by Joe in Australia to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you sip various vodkas at room temperature, you can taste the potatoes, barley or other stuff they are made from.

Once you start mixing vodka, the underlying flavor gets very hard to detect.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:46 AM on January 31, 2007


In distillation, you separate chemicals out according to their boiling points. First you get the chemicals that boil faster than ethanol. These are called the "heads," and consist mostly of lighter alcohols like methanol. Then you get ethanol. Finally, you get the chemicals that boil slower than ethanol. These are called the "tails," and they're where most of the flavor in liquor comes from. The tails include heavier alcohols called "fusel alcohols," which have a strong distinctive flavor of their own, but also non-alcoholic flavoring compounds.

An old-fashioned still did not give you very close control over this process, and it was hard to get pure ethanol out of one. You wound up getting some of the tails along with it, or some of the heads. Since the heads had methanol, which can blind or kill you, good distillers would err in the direction of getting the tails. So you'd get strong-tasting — but non-lethal — liquor. And since different starting ingredients produce tails with different compounds, they produced differently-flavored liquors too.

These days it's possible to get extremely close control over the process — and hence, if you want it, completely flavorless ethanol or ethanol-and-water. But generally, nobody wants it. We've gotten to like the extra flavor that came with the old-fashioned process.

(If you want an example of a spirit that obviously keeps the character of its basic ingredients, try a good rum, especially dark rum. It's generally aged in oak, but you won't just taste oak — you'll taste the molasses or cane sugar that it was made from. Or try comparing bourbon and rye whiskey, which are often aged similarly but made from two different grains.)

IANAMoonshiner. I stick to making beer. If any distillers come along, listen to them instead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:12 AM on January 31, 2007 [6 favorites]


I can't add much to that, except that 'industrial' ethanol has its place in drinks, particularly outside of the US where it's used as the base for alcopops and suchlike. But nebulawindphone's answer points to why many distillers make a fuss about their old pot stills: it's the scientific inexactness that they celebrate.
posted by holgate at 6:02 AM on January 31, 2007


After the whiskey barrels are mostly "used up", they then are purchased by scotch distillers... the peaty and smoky and vanilla tones are still in the char of the barrel.

Gin is flavored with aromatic herbs, particularly juniper.

Rum employs sugarcane/ molasses.

Those are the only ones I know offhand.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:07 AM on January 31, 2007


Ciroc is an interesting and tasty vodka made from grapes and you can certainly taste the difference between that and a conventional vodka.

Aged Tequila (añejo and also the new classification maduro) is aged in old bourbon barrels. All tequila (like many spirits) starts life as a clear liquid, it's the aging in the oak barrels that gives it the darker color. Cheap tequilas replicate this color by adding caramel, so if you're buying a tequila and it's not aged (i.e. a blanco or an oro) it should be clear. It it's not it's been adulterated.
posted by ob at 6:49 AM on January 31, 2007


Sorry last sentence should read: If not it's been adulterated.
posted by ob at 6:50 AM on January 31, 2007


Interestingly enough, I just visited the website of El Tesoro tequila (one of my favorite brands) and I see that they have a new line called Paradiso that is aged in congac barrels. As tequila is getting more of a market share as an 'upmarket' spirit it would seem that there's more of a push to age it in barrels used for other fine liqours.
posted by ob at 6:59 AM on January 31, 2007


Also: Liquor is distilled to wildly different strengths. Rum, whiskey, brandy, and the like are essentially distilled only around bottling strength (80 proof). Vodka and gin, on the other hand, are distilled to extremely high levels of alcohol (something like 180+ proof), and then cut with water to achieve the desired final strength. This is why vodka doesn't have very much of the flavour of its base ingredients.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:07 AM on January 31, 2007


If you want to taste what yucky cogngenrs taste like go to a liquor store and buy samples of the best and worst vodkas. (In my state they sell little bottles of the good stuff that is mostly pure but if you want a sample of the cheap stuff you have to buy a half pint and the clerks will think you are an alchy).

I gave up on one local restaurant - the food was acceptable but the one time I ordered a Gin & Tonic the gin was so laden with congeners that I realized that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2007


Some bourbons are distilled to a much higher alcoholic content than 80 proof. Booker's for example. Proceed with care.
posted by ob at 9:27 AM on January 31, 2007


Oh I meant to add that many(most) bourbons are distilled to higher than 80 proof and then are watered down, so that doesn't quite account for why vodka is relatively tasteless compared to bourbon for example. Although raw ingredients play a part, I would say that a lot of the taste is down to the aging. I can't imagine that vodka is aged at all...
posted by ob at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2007


Believe it or not, in blind tastings people, even experts, can have difficulty distinguishing whisky and brandy.
posted by londongeezer at 11:21 AM on January 31, 2007


I know that whiskey gets a lot of its final taste from the sherry barrels in which it is aged. Are similar tricks used for other spirits?

Yes. Several high-quality rums and tequilas get their flavors from the type of barrels they are aged in. My husband's favorite rums have the same sort of smoky, oak-y aftertaste that many whiskeys and scotches have.

Does all freshly-distilled spirit, whether made from barley, corn, rye, grapes, or potatoes taste identical?

Also, if you ever tour a brewery you will learn that beer is the same. At my favorite microbrewery in Houston, they pride themselves on brewing something like 10 "flavors" of beer out of the same four ingredients — malt, hops, yeast and water. No preservatives. Different combinations of the four create obviously different flavors, and the two grains are also cooked or roasted to certain levels to provide variations in flavors.
posted by Brittanie at 4:04 PM on January 31, 2007


This article, which I found linked from the straightbourbon.com web forum, was rather interesting to me. It explains a lot about the process of bourbon making and the results, from a chemical/food science perspective.

Freshly distilled spirit is not all identical. You throw away the head and the tail because foul-tasting and poisonous congeners are there, but the heart has enough of these non-water, non-ethanol compounds to give it some character. I had a bottle of white dog labeled "Pulaski County Corn" in gold magic marker; no one would ever have mistaken the sweet, slightly cloying smoothness of this tot for Ketel One.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:07 PM on January 31, 2007


Info here
posted by magikker at 7:35 PM on January 31, 2007


Ciroc is an interesting and tasty vodka made from grapes and you can certainly taste the difference between that and a conventional vodka.

That's because it's not really a vodka. Like Slate's taster, I'd say it's an eau de vie or possibly a Marc -- and EU nations have been fighting over this terminology recently.

So why call it a vodka? Well, yer average American liquor store doesn't devote much shelf-space to eaux de vie, but lots to super-premium vodka. Still, I think it's pushing the definition too far when it's distilled from the grape and not the grain (or the spud).
posted by holgate at 5:24 PM on February 2, 2007


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