In the Beginning…
Much ado is made by distillers and winemakers, sommeliers, and alcohol sales professionals about the products they make and the products they want to sell you.
There are all sorts of stories about why a particular spirit or wine is so much better than the same spirit or wine on the shelf just a few feet away. Or why this wine is better with that dish. Or why five distillations are better than three.
It’s all reminiscent of whether a shaving blade that contains eight edges is exponentially better than the one that only contains four blades. Back in my youth, which seems long ago, one of the books that caused a buzz was Vance Packard’s, “Hidden Persuaders.” Looking at the volume now, it seems we were all so naïve but back then, the exposition about how marketers positioned products and services, or just downright lied, was a shocking revelation.
The reality when it comes to adult beverages is that at the very core of every manufacturing process is one of two chemical interactions. No matter where you want to end up, you are going to have to ferment or distill.
The winemaker or the distiller can perform interesting functions in the vineyard or in the field with the raw materials, either fruit or grain, but in the end, every product shares the same experience, passing through a fermentation tank or a distilling apparatus.
All the stories you hear about special treatments, selected yeasts, oak vats, temperatures in the cellars, corks, old athletic socks, or that fruitcake you received as a gift before you went through puberty, are all just ancillary to the main events: distillation or fermentation.
To be clear, those last two items in the list in the previous paragraph were just made-up and neither one has a place in what we are talking about here. Or at least they should not.
It would seem from historic artifacts that distillation and fermentation came at about the same time to our ancestors, around 7,000-6,000 years Before the Common Era, BCE, or about 9,000 years ago. While the dating to the first instance of either process is an ongoing archeological pursuit, with the dates continually moving to older time periods with the discovery and unearthing of clay piece from pots, it does seem clear that the location of either first-use process centers in China, today’s India and Pakistan, Greece, Iran and even Russia.
Think of the ancient world’s taming of agriculture and establishing permanent settlements, rejecting the life of a wandering nomad, and you have defined an area where these two pursuits were very soon present. It appears ancient civilizations valued their liquid rewards at the end of a workday as much as you do.
In digest form:
** Distillation uses especially-designed apparatus which heats up the liquid to a point of condensation when the liquid becomes vapor. As the vapor cools, specific high-quality components of the now-changed liquid are extracted, the vapor returns to liquid, but with more intensity of flavor and aroma.
** Fermentation is the active actions of yeasts going about their work to attack the soft meat of the fruit, and in the process, the yeasts consume the sugars present, changing their chemistry to alcohol.
Over the centuries, the overseers of either process began to understand the role of temperature in controlling the outcome for higher quality, smoother, more agreeable beverages.
Everything else about your beer, wine or whiskey evolves from these first steps to production. You may enjoy, and I am certain you do, the addition of herbs, flavorings, biological materials, honey, other fruits, other grains, pure water, sugars, wood storage and aging, but it all begins and proceeds to the final result in the same fashion for all distillation or fermentation products.
Think about that the next time some salesperson begins to wax eloquently (?) about specific product advantages. The devil may not be in the details. You instead may be looking at the emperor’s new clothes.
Read Happy Hour here on myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.