Purity and Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The best indication of how strongly flavored a distilled alcohol will be is the percentage of alcohol in the liquid immediately after distillation, before it’s further treated by aging and/or dilution with water to its final strength (see box). The higher the alcohol content to which it’s distilled, the purer a mixture of alcohol and water it is, the lower the proportion of fusel oils and other aromatics, and so the more neutral the flavor. Vodkas are usually distilled to 90% alcohol or more; brandies and flavorful malt and corn whiskies to 60–80%. Crudely distilled moonshine is only 20–30% alcohol, and therefore harsh and even hazardous.