Driving to work one morning, tuned in to NPR, I heard the host announce, 'Tomorrow, we'll be talking to the head brewer at Bully Boy.' Hmm? Bully Boy is a delightful local distillery, which makes some truly excellent spirits. They do not, however, brew. That's a different process. I think Dave Willis, Bully Boy's head distiller, would be very surprised to hear himself accused of making beer.
But there's the rub: I suspect that talk radio host isn't the only one lacking experience in the nuances of fermenting (beer, wine, cider, mead) vs distilling (vodka, gin, whisk(e)y, rum, etc). Perhaps we've been so spoiled by the proliferation of great local breweries that we naturally think 'brewing/brewer/brew' when talking about alcoholic beverages.
If so, we should re-think, because close on the heels of the brewing revolution is a new wave of small, independent, hyper-local distillers. Many of them make high-quality spirits, are within an easy day trip, and offer great tours.
Just what does distilling involve? Distillers start with a mildly alcoholic beverage, fermented from corn, wheat, rye, sugarcane, or what have you, heat and then cool it, separating the water vapor from the alcohol. This concentrates the alcohol, creating a beverage that is headier and more 'spirited'. The newly-made spirit is then aged (or not), cut with water to bring it to proof (or not), and bottled. Sounds simple, but it isn't. Quality distilling requires learning what spirit to keep, what spirit to re-distill, and what spirit to discard. When you heat up a still, the initial production, dubbed the 'head', is re-distilled or discarded. The middle run, the 'heart', is usually kept intact. The last bit, the 'tails', is also frequently discarded. The job of a master distiller resembles that of a master tailor: it's all about the cut.
The most memorable description of this process I've personally encountered was courtesy of Jacopo Poli, proprietor of Poli Grappa.
Jacopo speaks fluent English-although the occasional idiom escapes him-and has the presentation skills of a true showman. His seminars were always a treat, and the staff of the importer I worked for always looked forward to them. That is, we did until the year when he gave an uncharacteristically dry seminar based on the art of the 'cut'.
He handed out a sheet covered with names of chemical compounds and the distillation temperatures at which they appear. At 292.5 degrees F, this acetate precipitates out. At 298.1, this aldehyde. At 300.3, this other chemical. And so on. We wondered where on earth he was going with this.
Some of these compounds, Jacopo said, are desirable and flavorful. Some are fine in small quantities, but unpleasant in larger amounts. Some are harmful or fatal in any amount. In conclusion, he said, 'You need a little head, but a little tail isn't bad, either.' Well.
The room erupted in laughter, except for Jacopo. He just looked perplexed. He didn't think he'd said anything comical. He couldn't figure out why everyone was bent double with laughter. When it was explained to him, he was horribly embarrassed. But nobody in that room has ever forgotten about the art of the cut.
If you'd like to learn more about distilling, we heartily recommend checking out Privateer, in Ipswich, MA, or Flag Hill Farm, in Lee, NH; both give wonderful, informative tours. If not, at least remember this: be careful where you cut.