By: Russ Chapman
The ingredients list for this drink review is less straightforward than most drinks reviewed here.
Rather than simply teaching you how to mix a tasty beverage, these instructions will instead be on how to make brandy from scratch, describing the base of the spirit and the process of distilling.
First off, let’s talk about what brandy is. Brandy is a distilled spirit (yes, that means alcoholic) made from a wine base, and sometimes flavored with other fruits.
Brandy was first made in the early 15th century to compactly store stronger wine for shipping.
It would then be watered down to somewhat restore its original flavor at its destination.
It was eventually realized that the distilled beverage itself was quite pleasant, especially after having been aged in wooden barrels during shipping.
The wood imparted a warm smoothness to the spirit, while its fruity base ensured it was sweet and flavorful.
Now let’s take a step back in the description. Most have probably heard the term “distilling” before, but what does that mean?
First and foremost, I would strongly recommend against trying this process here on campus.
Distilling is heavily regulated for safety as not only is the process possibly dangerous (you are working with compressed chambers and flammable vapors), but if mistakes are made then the product itself may not be safe for consumption.
Overall, this is likely better left to professionals or undertaken with extreme caution and awareness of rules and regulations.
Distilling is a process that involves boiling fermented, sugary liquid for a period. The alcohol in the mixture boils at a much lower temperature than the water.
So, the mix or “mash,” depending on what is being made, is held at the alcohol’s boiling point. The alcohol vapor rises in the boiling chamber into a series of pipes that will channel the vapor along to a coil.
The coil is bathed in cool water to lower the temperature enough for the alcohol to return to liquid. In doing so, the alcohol comes out both much stronger than the original mixture as well as purer. The vapor retains the flavors of its original mixture into the final product.
Sometimes a still will have an extra chamber between the main boiler and the condensing coil. This chamber is called a “Doubler” or colloquially a “Thumper.”
The doubler collects the vapor in a mid-temperature chamber that allows it to partially return to liquid.
This is particularly for any excess water which may have boiled off in the initial chamber.
As more mixed vapor is pushed into this small chamber, the pressure will increase, and bubbles of alcohol will rise to the top before being sent to the cooling coil.
These bubbles can move rather violently and cause the chamber to shake or bounce, thumping against its base, hence the given name “Thumper.”
The pictured still assembly features all three of the above-mentioned stages.
After distillation, the mixture is aged. Depending on what alcohol is being produced or what flavor intensity is desired, the specifics of the aging process may differ.
At its core, the process involves pouring the distilled alcohol into barrels of a variety of woods (or occasionally steel) which are then sealed and left for an extended period, commonly a few months or more in higher quality spirits.