What is Distillation?

Distillation is the process of heating a liquid to produce vapor and then condensing that vapor back into a liquid. Because different elements within a liquid evaporate at different temperatures, distillation makes it possible to capture component substances within the liquid. Think of it simply as selective evaporation .

Distilled Spirits are alcoholic beverages created by coaxing both aromatic and alcohol vapors out of a fermented liquid through heat and then capturing the vapors back into liquid form. For example, water boils at 212 degrees F, and alcohol boils at a lower temperature of 173 degrees F. To separate alcohol from a fermented liquid then, a distiller will heat the liquid to at least 173 degrees F and the vapors that form will have a higher concentration of alcohol. The condensed liquid is called the distillate and is often full of pleasant aromas in addition to the alcohol.

The distillate can be either bottled immediately, put into wood casks for aging (maturation), or modified by adding macerating fruits or herbs.

In addition to sampling beautifully crafted New York spirits along your journey, you’ll also witness firsthand how spirits such as whiskey or gin are created. Each distiller tweaks the spirit-making process to create something unique and full of character, taking great pride in the creativity expressed along the various stages of production:

The Distilling Process

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The Distilling Process

Step 1

Choosing The Sugar Source

Grains, fruits, and even molasses provide the sugars needed to create many of the New York spirits listed below. In other parts of the world, rice, agave, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are used. The plant source both contributes to the overall flavor and defines the type of spirit bottled. New York’s farm-distillers must source 75% of their raw materials in-state:

  • Whiskey
  • Brandy
  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • Rum
  • SUGAR (Starch) SOURCE
  • Grain
  • Fruit
  • Grain, Fruit, Potatoes Honey
  • Grain, Fruit, Potatoes, Honey Maple
  • Sugar Cane, Molasses
Mash Tun: mash_tun_extracting_sugar.svg

Step 2

Extracting the Sugar

To extract sugars from a starchy grain like corn or barley, the grains are mixed with warm water, creating what’s called a mash. A chemical reaction happens in the mash: carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars that the yeast can then consume. When fruits are pressed or crushed into juice, it’s called a must.

Fermenter: fermenter_fermentation.svg

Step 3


Sugars are then converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide when yeast is added to the mash or fruit juices. The carbon dioxide bubbles away, and the yeast multiplies until most of the sugar has been converted. When grain is used, The resulting fermented liquid is essentially a rudimentary beer – more often called the wort. In the case of fermented fruit-based liquid, this is called the wine.

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Step 4


Craft distillers commonly distill the mash or wine in either batches using a pot still or continuously using a continuous still . The concentration of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is increased through the process of distillation – the distillate created is much higher than that of the mash or wine. Different sizes, shapes and temperature of stills contribute to both the overall flavor and alcohol content of the spirit.

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Step 5


The spirit may be placed in wood casks to encourage a layer of complexity -- wood interacts with spirit to add flavor, color, and texture. Whiskey, brandy and rum are good examples of spirits that are often aged in wood.

What’s the difference between gin and vodka?

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Both are distilled spirits that can be made from a variety of starch sources such as grain or fruit. The resulting distillate is often called a “neutral spirit.” What separates gin from vodka is the inclusion of juniper and other botanicals. Distillers will closely guard the cornucopia of botanicals used in the production of their gin.

Juniper Berries: juniper_difference_gin_vodka.svg

How should I drink distilled spirit?

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There are no rules on how you should enjoy your spirit, whether that’s in a cocktail, on ice, or poured neat into a glass. Each distillery will guide you on how to best enjoy their spirit. Savor the smells, the flavor and feel of the spirit, which distillers might describe as a mouthfeel. The finish refers to the lingering flavors that remain after sipping. Sometimes a long finish is nice, as in the case of an aged whiskey or rum, and sometimes a nice clean finish is desirable – think vodka.

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What is the difference between brandy and whiskey?

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Whiskey is a grain-based spirit: Corn, wheat, rye and barley are the most popular grains used to create whiskey in New York, but look out for distillers who also experiment with grains like buckwheat, too. Brandy is a fruit-based spirit, and in New York they are made with many varietals such apples, plums, and grapes.

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Can bourbon be made outside of Kentucky?

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Absolutely. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. However, the distiller must adhere to the following federal regulations in order to call the spirit bourbon:

  • The Mash must contain at least 51% corn
  • It must be aged in charred new oak containers
  • It must not be distilled beyond 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof)
Kentucky: kentucky_bourbon_outside.svg