If movies have taught me anything (and they have), it’s that every villain (and hero) worth the salt needs a great origin story. Darth Vader was just an asthmatic sociopath with a black cape until we found about the events leading up to unfortunate incident with the younglings. Batman was just a rich guy with a black cape until we learned about his parents’ fateful stroll home from the movies. Severus Snape was just a snarky tyrant in, um, a black cape until we found about a high school experience that would make Carrie seem like one of the popular kids. Dracula was….well, you get the idea.
Your evening cocktail isn’t likely to come in a cape – black or otherwise – but it does have an origin story worth knowing. You don’t have to have a degree in oenology to enjoy your favorite pinot noir, but understanding a little bit about how a drink gets in your glass (and I don’t just mean tilting a bottle to pour) can help you navigate the wine-dark seas of bibulousity.
Before we dive in, I have a couple of important disclaimers. First, not every drink goes through all these stages. If you distill wine, for example, you no longer have wine; you have brandy. Second (and this is a big one): this is my own model and terminology; it lines up reasonably well, I think, with more detailed explanations, but I wouldn’t suggest using it as the basis of starting your own micro-distillery. It’s perfectly serviceable for people interested in what comes out of the bottle, but of limited use to the people who put it in.
So without further ado, let’s look at the 5 (or so) –ations of alcohol:
- Cultivation: We have to make alcohol from something, generally something agricultural. Be it grape or grain (or Granny Smith or….), the raw material that is used to make alcohol can have a huge impact on the final drink. Wine folks can (and do) exposit endlessly (seriously, on and on and on) about a wine’s terroir – the impact of the microenvironment where the grapes are grown – but they’re not the only ones that care about raw materials. Rum comes from sugar cane – you can’t make it from corn. On the other hand, if you don’t have corn, you don’t have bourbon.
- Fermentation: This is the magic step where yeast – your new favorite microorganism – converts sugar into alcohol (along with some by-products like carbon dioxide). Where once there was apple juice, now there is cider. Without this reaction, we don’t get bourbon, Bordeaux or beer, and the world is a dreary, grey place where (quite possibly) humanity never really manages to get past hunting and gathering and (quite probably) I never really get out of bed.
- Distillation: Distillation is our first optional step. I think it’s a pretty great option, but the fact of the matter is that you can have wine and beer and make a whole lot of people happy without ever resorting to distillation. This process allows the distiller to concentrate the alcohol and control what else makes it into the beverage. Where cultivation and fermentation were biology in action, distillation is the prime example of better living through chemistry (and physics). Since different substances turn to vapor at different temperatures, distillers are able, by carefully applying heat, to separate the ethanol and water and whatever else may be lurking about in the fermented product.
- Alteration: Another (sort of) optional step, this covers a broad set of practices that drinks makers use to change the flavors of the final drink. It includes barrel-aging whiskeys, wines and the like; adding botanical flavors like juniper or orange during the distillation process; filtering a distilled product and much else. I’ll even suggest that mixing a drink (say mingling a little lime and sugar with your rum) is a form of alteration.
- Presentation: This step isn’t about the stuff in the bottle so much as the bottle itself. Producers can spend a lot of time and effort finding the right packaging for their product. The world of vodka is prime territory for seeing this at work. There are bottles that look like skulls, bottles that look like high heel shoes and, of course, bottles of Absolut whose shape defined one of the most iconic marketing campaigns in history. Beyond just the physical bottle, presentation involves all the implied meanings that are inextricably part of the drinking process. What do you think of when someone mentions champagne? I’m guessing the images you summon up are a bit different than those that come up when someone mentions beer – another bubbly, low alcohol drink. What we’re drinking carries a lot of freight about our mood, the occasion, and even how we view ourselves as people. Inevitably, that influences the way we experience what we’re drinking.
These steps aren’t entirely separate (as noted, gin is often altered during the distillation process rather than after), nor are they a one-way trip. The gin in that sexy little blue bottle has gone through all 5 steps, but when you let it consort with some vermouth and an olive in an austere conical glass, you’re back through steps 4 and 5 all over again. The background of the drink in the picture above (a bourbon peach smash) is a couple of containers of spirits I’m putting through another round of alteration – bourbon is being infused with peaches and tequila with strawberries (which goes by the romantic moniker tequila por mi amante).
So, mix a pitcher of martinis (or a bourbon peach smash – recipe below) and spend some time contemplating the happiest origin story in showbiz.
Bourbon Peach Smash
- 3 – 4 slices fresh peach
- ¼ oz lemon juice
- ½ oz simple syrup (adjust to taste) or use equal parts sugar and water
- 2 oz bourbon (again, adjust to taste – I like it a little stronger, quelle surprise)
- Sprig of mint
Muddle everything except the bourbon in a cocktail shaker. Pour in the bourbon and shake with ice. Pour into an old-fashioned glass with cracked ice and garnish with peach and mint. (Adapted mildly from Dale DeGroff’s original as presented in his groundbreaking The Craft of the Cocktail. My signed edition is a somewhat worn treasure.)
Photo: Bourbon Gin Smash with Infusions
Photo Credit: Steve Morgan