The first step in producing quality spirits begins by selecting the finest raw ingredients possible. All spirits are made by combing three fundamental raw materials: a sugar source, water and yeast.
The first fundamental raw material is the sugar source. In most cases the source of sugar determines the type of spirit that will be produced. Whiskeys, for example, start with a sugar sourced from the starch in cereal grains (refer to step 3 to learn how starch becomes sugar). The style of whiskey is also largely dependent on which grains, or combination of grains, are chosen; for instance, Bourbon is a mixed-grain whiskey dominated by corn, while malt whiskeys are produced exclusively from malted barley. Other spirits such as Brandies are produced from grapes and fruit, Rum is made from sugar cane or sorghum molasses, and Tequila is made from the sweet nectar of the agave cactus. Vodka, while popular belief suggests is only made from potatoes, can actually be made from any source of sugar, including grains, fruit, or molasses. At CAS-Distillery, a variety of local sugar sources are used to create various different spirits.
The second fundamental raw material, is water. Spirits are commonly 60% by volume, water, as such a good spirit cannot be made from bad water. At CAS the water used in making our spirits is ultra-purified using a sophisticated 7 stage treatment process. This level of treatment creates nearly pure H2O, to which natural minerals are added, carefully adjusting the amount of each mineral to suit the spirit being distilled.
The third fundamental raw material, is the yeast. Yeast, not only creates the alcohol in spirits, but also contribute in large part to the flavors associated with each spirit. Proprietary yeast strains are carefully selected, to create unique flavor profiles for each spirit.
Raw materials are typically milled or crushed to make the starches in the grains, or the sugars in the fruit, readily available for the mashing process and/or fermentation.
The Mashing Process has two primary functions: first it breaks up and dissolves starches and sugars into water, secondly it converts any available starch into sugars. Starches are, simply put, long chains of sugar molecules linked together, like a string of pearls. The Mashing Process breaks the starch into individual sugars, similar to cutting up a string of pearls. The Mashing Process starts by heating water to a specified temperature, and then adding milled grains. The mixture continues to heat until, small crystals of starch in the grains begin to swell, burst and eventually dissolve into the water. Once all of the starch has been dissolved, it is converted to sugar using natural enzymes (chemicals that act like scissors) found in malted grains. The final product of mashing is a sweet liquid called called mash.
The sweet liquid from the Mashing Process is cooled and combined with yeast, specific to the type of spirit being produced. Over the course of several days, the yeast consume sugars present in the mash, converting them into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and a large number of aromatic and flavorful compounds. What is left is a low alcohol “beer” often referred to as wash, or distiller’s beer.
The wash from the Fermentation Process is pumped to the still, and heat is applied. The wash is heated until it begins to vaporize, and eventually boil. The alcohol vapors, and other aromatic flavor compounds are converted into a gas that travels through the column of the still where they are separated, and then condensed back into a liquid. The degree to which the alcohol and flavor compounds are separated is determined by how the distiller operates the still. Some of the compounds that are separated, impart good flavor to a spirit, while others impart harsh off-flavors. It is up to the distiller to separate the good flavors from the harsh off-flavors. This is done in a process called making “cuts.” Cuts are where the distiller separates the good flavors from the off-flavors. When the still is properly operated the first liquids to come off the still are called the “Heads Cut” or “Foreshots” this liquid is very harsh and must be discarded. Once the Heads are removed the liquid coming off the still takes on a sweet clean taste with good aroma; this part of the run is called the “Hearts Cut.” The Hearts Cut is collected and saved for proofing and bottling. The last part of the run is called the “Tails Cut” this part of the run tends to be heavy, and is not suitable for making top quality spirits. The distiller’s choice of when to make the cuts changes both the flavor and yield of the spirit. At Cutler’s the flavor of the spirit always takes precedence over yield, sacrificing volume for quality.
During maturation, spirits like Whiskey, Brandy, and others, undergo a transformation from a clear spirit, heavy in grain flavor, to a golden brown spirit complex in flavor. A majority of the flavor, and all of the color found in aged spirits comes from chemical compounds found in the wooden barrels used to store the spirits. The most important flavor compounds are created when the barrel is charred. These flavors include vanilla, caramel, smoke, and spices like cinnamon and cloves. Spirits are sampled regularly to monitor the maturation process. Once a spirit has been deemed to have reached it’s peak maturation it is removed from the barrel and diluted to the appropriate alcohol content for bottling.
The spirits produced by the distillation process are typically too high in alcohol to bottle directly, so the spirit is transferred to mixing tanks where it is combined with carefully crafted, ultra-pure water. The mixture is “proofed” or checked for alcohol content, and adjusted until the alcohol content is suitable for bottling, or transferring into barrels for maturation. Every batch undergoes a final quality check, based on it’s organoleptic profile (fancy term for taste and smell), before it is approved for bottling.
Once the spirits have been blended and proofed to the final alcohol content. They are ready for bottling. Each bottle is filled and labeled by hand, before being boxed, and sold to one of several retail establishments ready to be enjoyed in your favorite cocktail.