Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to distilling and distilled spirits. Many are harmless, but some could cost companies thousands. Here are six common myths and the real facts behind them.
1.) WHISKEY STONES COOL BETTER
But do they really? Supposedly you can go to your local mall, but some expensive square shaped stones, freeze them and boom! Next time you want a nice cool drink you can plop them in and taste your cooled whiskey without watering it down.
Only, they don't really work that well.
It turns out that ice cools your drink by turning from a solid state to a liquid one. Through this process, the ice takes heat from the liquid, rather than transferring its coldness. And this is a process your whiskey stones will not be able to replicate (unless your whiskey is 1,000+ degrees Farenheit!). Plus, according to chemists, adding water can help your drink taste better, too!
2.) KNOCKS AND DENTS IN YOUR STILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
There's been a lot of discussion about how every dent and knock on a still will alter the spirit quality. Although it's possible that these imperfections could slightly change things, the reality is that they don't really do much.
Distillers have a large number of variables during the distillation process, and a small change in surface area through a couple of dents here and there shouldn't make much of an impact on the overall quality.
3.) LONGER AGED WHISKEY IS ALWAYS BETTER
Older whiskey is always better and justifies higher prices, right? Well, let's think for a moment about how whiskey gets its flavor.
Technically speaking, whiskey only takes a few days to distill and could be consumed right away. However, it would be completely clear and taste a little like malted barley mixed with rubbing alcohol. Not really what we think of as whiskey.
Whiskey's classic smokey flavor and golden-brown color comes from being aged in barrels and stored in a certain type of environment. Over time, the less palatable elements of the new whiskey are drawn to the inner barrel walls. At the same time, the wood imparts flavor and color to the whiskey.
Like most things, though, more doesn't always mean better. Just because the whiskey is aged longer doesn't necessarily mean it tastes better. In fact, in some instances it could actually acquire an overpowering flavor that makes it less drinkable.
As Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller of Maker's Mark has said, "It is possible for a spirit to get too old. Sometimes older is better—but sometimes it’s just older."
4.) MOONSHINE LEADS TO BLINDNESS
This one has some truth behind it and requires a bit of unpacking. If it's made incorrectly or if it's made in old lead pipes, then moonshine can, in fact, make you go blind.
If moonshine is not distilled properly, you could end up with high levels of methanol (methyl alcohol), which is indeed quite toxic. Our liver breaks down the methyl alcohol into formaldehyde and formic acid. And it's the formic acid that can affect our eyes. So, yes, when distilled improperly, moonshine with high levels of methanol can cause blindness.
Additionally, the other way that moonshine could potentially lead to blindness is when it's made in a vessel that contains lead. Lead pipes and radiators are common culprits and, when used, can lead to high levels of lead in the finished product.
You might think, give all that we know about the dangers of lead, that this would no longer happen. However, a recent Washington Post article reported that researchers at the CDC found "moonshine remains a source of high-dose lead exposure among adults."
For individuals making moonshine in their homes, there are real health risks that come from improper techniques, and we would in no way recommend that you try. For legal moonshine from larger distillers, however, there is no more risk than with other spirits.
5.) ONLY CERTAIN VODKAS ARE GLUTEN FREE
If you have a gluten allergy, do you need to search high and low for your favorite gluten free vodka? Do you need to check with the bartender before you order that cocktail? Should you pore over that ingredient label carefully?
No, not really.
Intuitively, it makes sense for GF folks to be leery of anything made with wheat. However, during the vodka distillation process, your basic ingredients (wheat, potatoes, etc.) are heated with water until they're broken down and drained into a fermented liquid, which is then run through the still.
Once the distillation process has been completed, the finished vodka doesn't have any of the gluten that it may have started with. This is also true for gin and whiskey. Perfect for your next gluten free cocktail!
6.) MORE DISTILLATIONS GUARANTEES BETTER VODKA
It's true that better tasting vodka tends to be distilled more than once. But does distilling it more and more produce better and better tasting vodka? Not exactly.
Each time vodka is distilled, there are fewer and fewer impurities. So, you could say that it is "cleaner" and "smoother" each time it's distilled. However, like aging whiskey for too long, you can actually over-distill vodka. The end result would be akin to pure alcohol without the sought-after taste and aroma of a quality vodka.
If a brand brags that their vodka is distilled hundreds of times, they could also be trying to mask the poor-quality materials it's derived from. A similar example is that of piping hot coffee, which can be an easy way to mask the poor taste. Both are attempts to overcompensate and hide a low quality product.
So, a high-quality vodka should be distilled an appropriate number of times.
Related Distillery Posts You Might Be Interested In
- How To Start a Craft Distillery.
- How Much Does It Cost to Start a Craft Distillery?
- Why Target Market Research Is So Important for a New Craft Distillery.
- What Are the Legal Requirements For Starting a Distillery?
- What's the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon and Bourbon and Scotch?
- Fast Aging Vs Slow Aging Spirits.
- Why Breweries Might Want to Add Distilled Spirits.
About Paul Hughes, OSU Fermentation Science Instructor
Paul Hughes, Ph.D., joined Oregon State University to establish a dedicated distilled spirits program. Paul holds a Master of Business Administration with a specialism in innovation and he teaches, trains and consults internationally.
He has co-authored two textbooks (one on beer, one on whisky), more than 60 peer-reviewed and conference papers and has been granted four patents.
Paul teaches the popular Distillery Startup Workshop where attendees can learn practical tools and techniques to successfully begin and maintain their own craft distillery.
If you'd like to dive deep into the business side of starting and running a distillery, you can learn more about Paul's new Foundations of Distilled Spirits Business and Essential Training course.
Whether you want to start a distilling business with gin, whiskey/whisky, and anything else, this two-day workshop will help you avoid costly mistakes and shorten the time from idea to execution.