The Basics Of Distilling: How Spirits Are Made

The Basics Of Distilling: How Spirits Are Made

It is a common misconception that distilling alcohol and making spirits are the same process. The truth is they are not. In this article, we'll discuss the difference between how spirits are made and how spirits are distilled.


Carbonated spirits that supply the fizz in every alcoholic beverage is produced through the process collectively called fermentation. It's a sophisticated biochemical procedure that involves the sugar in the raw material getting metabolized by the cultured yeasts. This is the only known way of how spirits are made.

A plethora of raw materials that are abundant in sugar can be fermented to produce ethanol and a wide variety of foods that can be used in the making of different spirits. If you use grapes and berries, you can make wine. The Japanese saké is made from fermented rice, koji, and water. If you use potatoes or wheat, you can produce vodka. The secret ingredient in our Spirit of York Vodka, for example, is red fife wheat, which goes through the fermentation process.

The objective of the yeast fermentation is for the organism to consume all available sugars, convert it into energy, and as a byproduct, create ethanol alcohol, which is the safest type for human consumption and the one present in all alcoholic beverages. The yeast will continuously feed on the sugar and, in turn, excrete alcohol until it has reached a maximum of 15 to 17 percent alcohol by volume or ABV, at which point the yeast can no longer survive.

Fermented but Undistilled Spirits

While all alcoholic beverages are required to go through the fermentation, not all of them necessarily undergo the distillation process. Here's a list of examples.


Beer is made by fermenting malted barley using a brewer's yeast and is flavoured with hops. The method of malting involves steeping the grain in water to stimulate it to germinate and to release the enzymes to break down the starch. On average, most beers have a 4.5 percent ABV.


Wines are produced from fermenting fruits rich in naturally occurring sugars, such as grapes, berries, apples. The alcohol content of most wines differ but can go from 13 percent to 20 percent ABV.

Hard Cider

Hard ciders are created through the fermentation of fruit juice, typically apples. Its alcohol content can go anywhere between 4 to 7 percent ABV.


Mead is a spirit produced by fermenting honey with water. Its average alcohol content can go from 3 to 20 percent.


Saké is an iconic alcoholic drink made from fermented rice and hails from Japan. Koji, aka Aspergillus oryzae, is a particular species of fungus that matures as a mould, which contains the essential amylase for breaking down the starch in the rice. Saké has an alcohol concentration of approximately 16 percent ABV.

How Spirits Are Distilled

To further amplify the alcoholic content created during fermentation, spirits take the next step called distillation. To distill spirits means to purify or concentrate it. In layman's terms, the fermented spirit is heated at a low and controlled temperature using a still.

The two basic types of still are:

Column Still

Column stills are more industrial in nature and used for large-scale manufacturing of alcohol. They are said to deliver purer and lighter spirits.

Pot Still

Pot stills are more traditional and are known for producing fuller-bodied and fuller-flavoured spirits. Here at Spirit of York, the distillation of all of our craft spirits is conducted in classic copper pot stills.

Here's how spirits are distilled inside a pot still.

  1. The fermented spirit, which at this point is called the "wash" or the "mash," is transferred into the pot still.

  2. It will be heated to a low temperature, which could be anywhere from 175 degrees to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

  3. The goal of the heating is to vaporize only alcohol. When condensation happens, the alcohol-rich steam will rise above the surface of the liquid and will be caught into a tube known as the lyne arm or swan's neck, which is connected to the condenser and kept cooled by immersing it in water.

  4. The process condenses back the steam into a liquid, which now has significantly higher amounts of alcohol concentration.

  5. The distilled spirit will flow out of the still and collected.

Types of Distilled Alcoholic Drinks

Distilled alcoholic drinks naturally boast of a higher alcohol concentration. Here are some examples:


Gin is a distilled alcoholic drink and the national spirit of the British. It is mostly flavoured with juniper berries and other botanical extracts. The average alcohol content of gin is 40 percent ABV.


Brandy is essentially distilled wine fermented from grapes. Its alcohol content can go anywhere from 35 to 60 percent ABV.


Whiskey is a distilled spirit fermented from grain, including corn, barley, rye, and wheat. It has 40 to 60 percent ABV.


Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. It has an average alcohol content of 40 to 75 ABV.


Absinthe is a distilled spirit flavoured with anise and other herbaceous botanicals. It has an impressively high alcohol content at an average of 75 percent ABV.


Hailing from Russia and Poland, vodka is distilled from either fermented potato, grain, or fruit. It has 40 percent ABV.

Spirits by Spirit of York

Get Spirit of York’s spirits and other products in our Distillery located at 12 Trinity Street, Toronto Ontario and in provinces across Canada. Check out more of our blog to discover more about how spirits are made.

For detailed inquiries, please get in touch with the Spirit of York team now!

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