Distilled Spirits

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Distilled spirits are the concentrated essence of wine and beer. They’re the product of a basic chemical fact: different substances boil at different temperatures. The boiling point of alcohol is about 173°F/78°C, well below water’s 212°F/100°C. This means that if a mixture of water and alcohol is heated, more of the alcohol than the water will end up in the vapor. That vapor can then be cooled and condensed back into a liquid that has a higher alcoholic content than the original beer or wine.
Distilled spirits were first valued, and still are, for their high alcohol content. But there’s much more to them than their intoxicating power. Like alcohol, the substances that give wine and beer their aroma are also volatile: so the same process that concentrates alcohol also concentrates aroma. Distilled alcohols are some of the most intensely flavorful foods we have.