Silver whiskey is usually scoffed at in the spirits world. Many white whiskeys are hot and solventy with the most interesting character being the burning sensation it leaves in your throat. These views are changing though due to the efforts of microdistillers like our own Ian Cutler and his Cutler’s Artisan Spirits. Silver, or white, whiskey is basically distilled beer and Ian’s new Brewer’s Series is a line of whiskeys produced from locally made beers that allow the drinker to taste the close relationship between these two.
What is distillation?
First, a little background on distillation. This physical process separates the mixture of compounds in a liquid based off of their volatility. You can roughly gauge the volatility of a compound from its boiling point. Liquids with lower boiling points are more volatile and liquids with higher boiling points are less volatile.
Distillation takes place in a still. A liquid consisting of a mixture of compounds is put into the still and heated. The compounds in this liquid mixture all have different boiling points (volatility). As energy (heat) is put in, the liquid vaporizes (aka boils) into a gas that rises up the still. The gas exits the top of the still where it is condensed back down into a liquid (the distillate) that is collected in a separate vessel. The chemical makeup of the gas changes as the still is heated. During the beginning of the run, the gas consists of the most volatile compounds. The heaviest, least volatile compounds make up the majority of the gas near the end of the run. This is a gross oversimplification of distillation but it gives you the gist of what is happening.
Making heads and tails of it all
During alcohol distillation, a low alcohol liquid is put in and distilled into a high alcohol liquid. Ethanol (drinking alcohol) boils before water does so the distillate begins with a high ethanol content and ends with a high water content. The first liquid to leave the still as it is run is called the heads and is composed of the lighter, more volatile, molecules. The heads consist of both desirable and undesirable compounds so the distiller will allow the heads to collect in a separate vessel. The distiller will taste the distillate throughout the entire run of the still. They monitor the flavor of the distillate, determining when it is at its optimum point. At this moment the distiller will change vessels and begin to collect the hearts, the most enticing part of the distillate. The switch between the heads and hearts is called a cut and there is still one more cut to be made.
The chemical makeup of the hearts changes as the liquid is collected. The distiller will continue to monitor the flavor of the liquid distillate. Once they determine that the distillate is no longer at its optimum flavor set they will switch to a new vessel and begin to collect the tails. This part of the distillate consists of the heaviest, least volatile compounds. The heads and tails still contain some desirable compounds and this liquid will be added to the next distillation run to further separate out some of these components. It is often said that the distiller’s art is where they make these cuts but I think that is selling the distiller’s role short. Still operations are far too complicated to discuss here but there are countless factors that go into operating a still and each one helps determine the overall character of the spirit.
The silver lining
The low alcohol liquid that is put into the still determines what spirit is being produced. In the case of whiskey the low alcohol liquid is basically an un-hopped beer. In brandy, the base liquid is wine and so forth. The condensed liquid that comes out of the still is always clear. The barrel aging process is what gives spirits their color and many of their flavors (especially in whiskey). Silver spirits, whether it be whiskey, rum, tequila, etc., are the pure distillate, usually blended with water to bring the alcohol content into a more palatable range. There are some exceptions but for the most part white spirits are not aged and never touch a barrel. The barrel aging process mellows out the alcohol notes (among other things) so silver spirits tend to have a more raw, unrefined fragrance to them.
A while back Ian Cutler decided that he wanted to show people the relationship between the “beer” that goes into the still and the whiskey that is produced from it. So why not use actual beer? Enter the Brewer’s Series.
A home run
The Brewer’s Series will exhibit distilled forms of popular beers from around our area. The first whiskey in this series is Baseball Saison from The Brewhouse. A while back brewmaster Pete Johnson brought a batch of the beer over to Ian’s shop and they began doing test runs of the whiskey. Since then Ian has been exploring the beer through different runs, figuring out what compounds it contains and deciding which characters he would like to frame. The beer, Baseball Saison, is a golden ale with a fruity aroma of sweet apples, touch of pepper in the finish and a honey-malt sweetness. Its distilled counterpart takes on a different guise. The most remarkable difference between the beer and the whiskey is the change in the esters profile.
Many aromatic molecules are low weight esters and this family of compounds are often used in fragrances and essential oils. Two of the main esters found in beer are ethyl acetate and isoamyl acetate. Ethyl acetate has a sweet, fruity aroma that is fairly non-descript, tasting the most similar to a sweet, red apple. Isoamyl acetate is one of the definitive flavors in bananas and can also have a pear-like, Juicy Fruit quality to it. German hefeweizen yeast overproduce isoamyl acetate during fermentation which is what gives hefeweizens their characteristic banana flavor. The boiling point of ethyl acetate is around 171 deg F as compared to 288 deg F for isoamyl acetate (that is at STP conditions for you chemists out there). The lower boiling point of ethyl acetate means that bulk mass of this compound ends up in the heads, leaving more isoamyl acetate in the hearts.
In the whiskey version of Baseball Saison, the banana character (isoamyl acetate) becomes much more prominent in the nose with the other fruit flavors taking on a tropical theme of green mango and papaya. The whiskey finishes with a burn that is much gentler than other white whiskeys I’ve tasted. This smooth elegant finish is characteristic of Ian’s house style and can be tasted throughout his entire lineup. His Vodka and 33 Straight Bourbon Whiskey are the best example of this trait. His vodka is distilled seven times and is so refined you can taste the soft, warm sweetness from the natural flavor of ethanol. The bourbon is a seamless blend of brown sugar, vanilla and oak with undertones of mulled oranges.
The Brewer’s Series offers a unique comparison between a beer and its distilled side. The Baseball Saison is first however Ian has already begun test runs with other breweries and beers with some very good (and tasty) results. It is incredible to see the difference between the beer and the whiskey and luckily you can taste this for yourself. The whiskey will first be offered at The Brewhouse and will slowly be making its way into select stores. There were only ten cases produced from this run so seek it out quickly as it will not be around for too long. Fortunately there are plenty more beers to be explored in this fascinating series.