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Fermentation & Distillation

Fermentation involves the conversion of the sugar into alcohol through the digestive process of certain yeasts. Fermentation cannot produce a higher alcohol content than can be tolerated by the yeasts.

However higher alcohol content can be produced by heating the mixture and then condensing the resultant vapors, a process called distilling. The distillation of beer wort produces whiskey. The distillation of wine produces brandy. And so on.

Whiskey. Whiskey is a good example of a distilled beverage. American whiskey is usually distilled only once. Scottish whisky (spelled "whisky") is double-distilled and charcoal filtered, producing its characteristic "burnt" flavor. Irish whiskey is normally triple distilled, producing its "smoothness." Most whiskey today is made from combinations of grains. In the United States, bourbon is about 65% corn, 20% rye, and 15% barley, although there are also pure corn and rye whiskeys made entirely from these grains. Irish whiskey is about 90% barley.

Medicine.Distillation was discovered later than fermentation, obviously, but, once discovered, was used in concert with it. Alcohol acts as a poison in the body, cleansing wounds when used externally, or interfering with normal body functions and injuring organ systems when consumed internally. Distilled spirits, being high in alcohol content, can produce far deeper and more rapid intoxication (potentially leading to unconsciousness and death), and therefore had a significant impact on ancient and medieval medicine, since few other anesthetics were available to prevent patient pain during such surgeries as bone setting, trephination, or amputation.

Other Uses.Non-medical uses of extreme drunkenness to deaden psychic and physical pain have included suicide, executions, date rape, and human sacrifice, depending upon the society and the period. In smaller amounts, distilled liquors have long been consumed for pleasure, despite associated risks, since in many individuals they produce a mood characterized by flightiness and inattention to on-going anxieties.

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Some of the information in this note comes from touring various wine, beer, and whiskey facilities in France, Scotland, Mexico and Ireland. I have also depended in part on

H.L. Edlin
1969 Plants and man: the story of our basic food. New York: Natural History Press.



Content Revised: 2003-07-05
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