What Goes into Alcohol

27 May

I was one of those people who, at 17 decided that I was never going to get drunk. I grew up in a small town where there were only three things to do – get drunk, get high, or get pregnant – so I fled from alcohol as some sort of personal test.

Now, though, my standards have relaxed a bit. I still tend to reach for a coffee over a beer, but I’ve learned to appreciate the occasional drink. Alcohol is the third most popular drink in the world after all, falling only behind tea and water itself, so it’s nearly impossible to totally avoid it. If you don’t like beer, maybe you’re partial to whiskey, or wine. The huge range of drinks isn’t surprising. Unlike coffee or tea, alcohol isn’t tied to one specific plant – humans have fermented and distilled alcohol from nearly ever conceivable sugar we can find.

I plan to go into more detail about specific drinks in the near future. Some have really contentious and interesting histories (see absinthe, or gin) or are as old as human civilization itself (see beer and wine). But for today, I thought I’d take a more holistic point of view and showcase the huge range of alcohol.

This table on Wikipedia is a good place to start. A universal truth of alcohol production is that you have to start with a sugar. Grains are a very popular base, as are fruit juices and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. They’re packed with different kinds of natural sugars such as fructose and sucrose that will go towards feeding the fermentation. Animal products usually don’t work, although honey and milk are interesting exceptions.

Fermentation is carried out by microorganisms that are purposefully introduced to the drink. Yeast is one of the most popular, but certain bacteria or fungi can also work. They eat the sugars, pooping out ethanol and certain gases as waste. It’s this ethanol that gives alcohol it’s kick and what gets you drunk. Some drinks, like beer, let the fermentation continue throughout the process. Others, like gin, interrupt the process and distill the alcohol further.

As for the additives and flavors, I had the pleasure of picking up The Drunken Botanist after hearing about it on NPR. It’s a deeper examination of each plant that goes into alcohols. I’m not going to go into the details here (simply because so many different plants go into drinks), but if you get a chance, pick it up, you might like it. A huge number of herbs, fruits, and even woods are used to give alcohol distinct flavors.

Personally, my favorite drink comes from malt barley, distilled, and flavored with oak wood. See if you can figure  out which one it is.


Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Modernity, Natural History


Tags: , ,

2 responses to “What Goes into Alcohol

  1. girlseule

    May 29, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I love alcohol, probably a little bit too much. That Drunken Botanist sounds like an interesting read too.

    • theglyptodon

      May 29, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      It’s pretty cool. It’s set up like an encyclopedia, so you can kind of leaf through it.


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