Distilling Contractor

What is the difference between brewing and distilling?

Distilling Grapes for Gin

Brewing is a process used to make beer, while distillation is used to create spirits like whisky and vodka. Fermentation is a process involved in both, that uses plant sugars to make ethanol – otherwise known as alcohol. Confused? Just like ethanol, all will become clear…

Most of us know that beer and lager are made in a brewery. It’s an ancient process – possibly going back as far as 10,000 BC! Brewing is the process of using fermentation to make drinks such as beer, wine and cider. It starts with extracting sugars from a base ingredient, such as grains or fruits, by mixing and brewing them in hot water. This is called mashing. The liquid is then extracted – hops are added if it’s a beer that’s being made – and then cooled, and fermented with yeast. If you have ever visited a brewery you might recognise a yeasty, malty smell and the class aroma of hops. Depending on the drink being made, other flavourings may be added and the liquid is then conditioned.

Rum Bottles

And what’s distilling, then?

Distillation is used for spirits production – think rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, whisky and brandy. They are made by separating alcohol from a fermented liquid and concentrating the levels of alcohol. This is done by heating the liquid and then collecting the condensation in a ‘still’. The condensation is highly concentrated and results in a more refined product, because the alcohol is also separated from other components of the liquid. We have a whole blog post on how distillation works right here.

Is alcohol distilled or brewed?

Both! It’s the fermentation process that produces the alcohol. If you’ve ever left your fruit bowl in full sun in August you may have experienced a similar effect! With brewing, the alcohol is produced by the fermentation of the crops in the sugars with yeast. In distilling, the alcohol is also produced by fermentation, but that alcohol then needs to be extracted and is highly concentrated. This then forms the basis of the spirit drink – and it’s why you probably wouldn’t drink a pint of rum down the pub!

Both brewing and distilling involve a base product – or ‘crop’ – and start with fermentation – just like with sourdough, chocolate or cheese. After that, the two processes are about as different as beer from yoghurt! Let’s take a closer look at how they differ. Time for a quick round of ‘Is it Brewed or Distilled?’! Let’s take a brief look at some of the drinks we know and love…

Whisky/whiskey: Distilled! Distillation is a defining process of whiskey production. Barley is the crop used for malting, which is then mashed into sugars for fermenting. Whiskey is so strong because the alcohol extracted during distillation is so highly concentrated. It’s then aged in oak barrels – and sometimes barrels that have been used to mature other spirits such as sherry or brandy – to give it a distinctive flavour profile.

Gin: Distilled! Plenty of base crops to choose from with gin – from barley to corn, wheat to grapes. Distillation gives a neutral spirit, to which botanicals are added – including the juniper that makes gin, gin – and then the liquid is re-distilled to infuse all of those beautiful essential oils and aromatics into the liquid.

Wine: Brewed! Wine is a funny one because we don’t tend to think of it as being made similarly to beer, and it’s made in a winery, not a brewery. Wine is made from grapes, which are crushed and pressed before fermentation, clarification and then ageing. Sometimes wines are aged for many years, increasing their value and lending them the term ‘vintage’.

Rum: Distilled! Rum is made by fermenting sugarcane juice or molasses. Distillation leaves behind a clear liquid, which is then left un-aged for white rum and aged in barrels for dark rum – which gives it its dark colour and smoky flavour.

Column Still

All in all, brewing is the process of fermenting sugars to create classic beverages such as beer, cider and wine, while distillation is where alcohol is concentrated and purified to create spirits. Both processes are fascinating to watch in action and many breweries and distilleries in the UK offer tours, so both are recommended if you want to see, smell and taste these processes for yourself!

Are you thinking of producing your own spirits, or want to find out more about what it involves? Get in touch here with our friendly team and we’ll be happy to talk you through the process in more detail.