The Internal Alembic Still

A closer look at a primitive process.

Home distilling in Southeast Asia

Recall that the alembic still has three basic components: the retort, the condenser, and the receiver. The alchemists of old constructed finely crafted clay and glass instruments for their distillations. But their secret processes would inevitably become known, and attempts to duplicate them with household utensils would be many.

In Asian cooking, large pots and deep woks are common. As it happens, their size and shape make them ideal for constructing what is called an “internal alembic” still. In this configuration, the mash or wine is put into the large pot, which is heated and becomes the retort. For the receiver, a small wok is placed on a pedestal, centered inside the pot. A condenser is constructed from a wok large enough to span the top opening of the pot. Cold water is circulated through the condenser wok, and vapours from the heated wine or mash condense on its cold bottom surface. As this liquid accumulates, it drips off the surface and down into the receiving lower wok.

A look through many a modern kitchen, and some not so modern, will often find the basic materials for constructing a modest internal alembic. Soup pots of four to six liters make a retort. Stainless steel bowls of various sizes are commonly available at superstores. A tall stemmed glass makes a good pedestal. The trick is to assemble the parts, charge the still, heat on a stove, and with a few tweaks and techniques, harvest the liquor. The other trick being, of course, to make sure you live in a country where home distilling is legal!

The Basics of Distillation

Introduction to an ancient art.

Distillation is a process of separating and concentrating the components of a liquid mixture. The basic procedure has been practised since the time of the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. As these were the people who also invented beer, it should be no surprise that they also figured out how to make beer even stronger!

Distillation relies for its success on the fact that different compounds in a liquid mixture experience a “phase change” (turning from solid to liquid to vapour) at different temperatures. With a mixture consisting of water and alcohol-related compounds, separating these components can be accomplished in two ways: either freezing the water, or boiling the alcohol.

Freeze distillation, sometimes called “jacking,” relies on the fact that water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol. While this seems simple enough, in practice it has two major drawbacks. First, it requires a temperature that is much lower than the freezing point of water (-20F or -28C) to get much of an alcohol concentration. This can’t be achieved with a home freezer. More importantly though, freezing and removing the water crystals serves to concentrate not only desirable ethanol, but also fermentation compounds such as methanol, acetone, fusel oils, and other bi-products of yeast fermentation. Drinking a jacked beverage practically ensures a raging hangover as a result.

Heat distillation, in contrast, relies on the fact that the various fermentation components evaporate at a lower temperature than water. It’s also a feasible process for those who live in areas where there are never sub-zero ambient temperatures! In this procedure the liquid mixture is carefully heated in a vessel known as a retort, and the vapours rising from the liquid are directed into a condenser, and from there into a receiver.

To separate the components of a fermentation, the ancients invented “alembic” or “pot-still” distillation, the type of process used to make flavourful spirits from dark sugar solutions, wine, or beer from malted grains. These precursors tend to be low in alcohol, about the same as regular beer or wine (5 to 15 percent alcohol by volume or ABV.) They are first run through the still and all the output is collected in what is called the “stripping run.” This concentrates the ABV to about 30 to 40 percent.

A second “spirit run” concentrates the alcohol further. These various components, or “cuts” are collected separately, and then blended selectively at the distiller’s discretion. As the temperature of the liquid rises, successive compounds begin to evaporate, depending on their boiling point. The first to evaporate, called “foreshots,” are compounds such as acetaldehyde, ethyl acetate, and methyl alcohol. These are not pleasant tasting, and are even poisonous. They are usually discarded.

As the temperature continues to rise, various esters begin to evaporate in a distillation component known as the “heads.” As these tend to be fruity in taste and aroma, they can enhance the flavour of the eventual product, when used judiciously. Knowing how much heads to retain is one of the arts practised by the accomplished distiller.

At about 78C (173F) ethanol, along with some flavour compounds, begins to evaporate into the condenser. This component, known as the “hearts,” becomes the major constituent of the eventual product.

Finally, the liquid begins to evaporate its “tails.” Consisting of higher alcohols such as isoaminol and isobutanol, these compounds also carry tastes and aromas we associate with brandy, whisky, and rum distillates. Again, knowing how much of the tails to retain to create complexity and interest in the final product is an art gained by the distiller through experience and sensory awareness.

To make a very pure alcohol such as vodka, a process known as “fractional distillation” is employed. Also called “rectification,” it is used when the liquid components have boiling points that are very close together, such as those in a white sugar wash. The vapours are directed into a tall column where they successively condense, descend, and evaporate again as they rise multiple times, until only a very pure ethanol emerges to be directed into the condenser. In alembic distillation, the distillate must be processed several times to concentrate and purify the product. With fractional distillation the product is purified with only one run through the still.

Alemic stills for making Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico. Look for "Destillado en Ollas" on the label.
Clay alembic stills for making Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico. Look for “Destilado en Ollas” on the label. Source: “Mezcal El Cortador”

A Timely Translation Teaches Us Again How to Drink

The story is told of a student of philosopher and spiritualist George Gurdjieff, who approached him one day with wonderful news. “I’ve stopped smoking!” he exclaimed. “Great,” it’s said Gurdjieff replied, offering him one of his own long, thin, Russian cigarettes. “But, have you stopped NOT smoking too?”

This philosophy, moderation in all things–even moderation, is wonderfully and humorously espoused in the 16th Century book How to Drink by Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498-1539). In a new release, Michael Fontaine, Professor of Classics at Cornell University makes the original Latin text accessible to 21st Century readers with an up-to-date translation that includes clever neologisms and familiar terms. As a bonus, the original Latin is included on the facing pages for those who wish to practice their classic language skills!

Obsopoeus was German humanist, Latin poet, and translator active in the Reformation. In Germany at the time, the climate had become uncharacteristically hot, and German grapes, usually low in sugar and hence capable of making only weak wine, were instead turning out fearsomely strong drink. As a result, it seemed to Obsopoeus, the entire nation had become a citizenry of drunks.

Now, according to Obsopoeus, taking a bit–and sometimes quite a bit–of wine is a perfectly fine passtime. But “if you drink in an uneducated manner, wine will hurt you.” On the other hand, “if you are educated about your drinking…wine is enjoyable and good.” Obsopoeus endeavors to educate his readers in good drinking practices.

Falarnian was the type of wine he most favored. This was an ancient Roman vintage, something akin to Sherry, with the grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus in southern Italy. With a cult following at the time, it was a white wine, though produced from black grapes. Like Sherry, it was strong, as much as 15% alcohol. Harvested after late frosts, it was allowed to mature in amphorae for as long as 20 years, turning it amber to dark brown in color. Also like Sherry, it could vary from dry to sweet in flavor.

So enamored was he of this gift of the harvest that he writes a litany of praise to the god of wine, Bacchus and His power. “You make men rich, handsome and genteel! You alone, my lord, can gladden the gods of heaven.”

Vincent Opsopoeus

Vincent Obsopoeus

Obsopoeus offers hints and tips about how the gentleman should approach the indulgence of wine. Drink at home with your wife he recommends. Or drink moderately with friends and family, always being reserved and discreet. Honor the god Bacchus, and always be appropriately thankful and mindful of his gift of alcohol.

On the contrary, getting smashed and vulgar every day is a terrible sin, and an insult to the divine gift offered to humankind by Bacchus. Obsopoeus spends an entire section of the book describing in lurid detail the degradation and debauchery exhibited by his fellow citizens while under the terrible influence of their own self-poisoning.

But at this point Obsopoeus introduces a plot twist to his book. How to win drinking games: a skill he studiously practiced in his younger years! Evidently there was only one kind of 16th Century drinking game: take turns downing glasses of wine until all but one player passed out.

Obsopoeus offers his tried-and-true strategies for winning these drinking contests, including several methods of cheating. You’ll have to read the book to discover his secrets, but there is one worth mentioning up front: don’t try to compete with women! “The reason, you’ll find, is that women who indulge are equipped with a breathtaking ability to hold their liquor. They put Bacchus Himself to shame when they drink wine.”

And one more hint: to relieve a hangover, get yourself an amethyst crystal. The name of this sure-fire cure comes from the Greek a- (against) metfhyo (drunkenness.) Bet you didn’t know that!

Obsopoeus published this, his most famous work, in 1536. He was about 38 when he wrote the book, aimed in part at hard-drinking 19 to 25-year-old college students. He addresses bro/frat culture with the admonitions of experience. By 41 he was dead, having wished he had taken his own advice in his youth. Hopefully, very many medieval bros heeded his message; here we are today, with the benefit of hearing it anew. Enjoy your drink, but respect its power. To Bacchus he exclaims “For crying out loud, I’ll be damned if You can’t resurrect dead bodies with the juices that flow from Your vine!”

Robert Rivelle George is the author of “The Umami Factor: Full-spectrum Fermentation for the 21st Century”

HOW TO DRINK
A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing
By Vincent Obsopoeus
Translated and Introduced by Michael Fontaine
320 pages Princeton University Press $16.95

Buccoleon Strong Ale

belgian-strongpcThis is a classic Belgian dark tripel. If you have tried Brouwerij Van Steenberge’s Gulden Draak, you know what I mean. Buccoleon Strong Ale is a tribute to that world-class beer.

Brewed with Belgian Strong Ale yeast, it offers flavors of raisins, plums and pears, together with spicy hints of cloves, rum, and nutmeg. Starting with a Pilsner malt base; wheat malt, cara-wheat, crystal malt, biscuit/aroma malts and caramely golden syrup provide a flaky crust for this virtual fruit tart. The yeast leaves its distinctiver mark.

As it is not a Gulden Draak clone, it is a bit drier and a little more bitter. Its original gravity of 24.5 Plato (1105) still leaves a lot of residual sweetness, so it is refermented in the bottle with Champagne yeast and no added bottling sugar. Age this one at least a year.

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Gulden Draak is named after the golden dragon at the top of the belfry of Ghent. The story of how he got there is fascinating. Buccoleon was the dragon’s name. He lived in the swampy ground around Aleppo, one of the chief cities of the Saracens in northern Syria. He was such a tender-hearted old dragon that he was called The Weeping Dragon. He wept bucketfuls of tears when Belgian crusaders and the Saracens fell to fighting. Where his tears fell, beautiful flowers began to grow.

A crusader took their bulbs back to Belgium, where they became famous for being the most beautiful tulips of all. Hearing about their fame, Buccoleon, whose scales had turned to gold because the crusaders had left, flew to Belgium to see for himself. He decided to stay!

Corny Comet Cream Breakfast Ale

Corny CometCPC
A cream ale for breakfast. Not meant to replace your double espresso, but rather to stand beside it, bracing you for the day to come.

Cream ale emerged in the late 19th Century United States when ale breweries, faced with immigrant competition from Bavarian brewers bringing lager to the market, devised a light and refreshing, yet bold concoction that combined the crisp, dry flavor of a lager with the rapid fermentation characteristics of an ale. In many of these renditions, a substantial ABV approaching 5.5% was a feature.

This cream ale uses 22 IBU of Comet hops, a variety that tastes and smells remarkably like pink grapefruit. Breakfast cereal included: organic corn grits, and steel-cut oats, along with some nice caramel notes from a variety of crystal malts. Starting gravity is 15 Plato, boosted by a late addition of rice syrup solids. White Labs WLP080 Cream Ale yeast blend provides crisp yet round fermentation notes. Dry hopping with Comet offers grapefruit aroma.

This is a fruity breakfast drink; cream of corn grits with fruit and oats, delivered with the full mouthfeel of an ultimate smoothie.

Kola\Coca Soda

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In the years after the Civil War in the United States, nostrums and remedies began to appear for sale in the cities and towns throughout the South. One of these was invented by a war veteran who had been injured in battle, and subsequently found himself addicted to morphine, which he had been using to relieve his pain. Marketed as Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, it was touted as a cure for the blues, as well as for morphine addiction. The alcoholic version of the drink was reformulated in response to temperance legislation enacted in the area, and eventually became the world’s top-selling soft drink.

Pemberton's French Wine Coca

Pemberton’s French Wine Coca

This recipe for a drink that contains both coca leaf and kola nut extracts looks particularly pale when compared to commercial cola products. That is because the coloring agent in those versions is caramel. Commercial caramel color is created by heat-treating sugars such as glucose in the presence of acids, alkalies, or salts. It’s there pretty much only for the color. Leave it out and you get a pale golden drink colored, in this case, by the kola nut, coca leaf, and raw cane ingredients. Lime juice and six essential oils complete the formula.

Kola\Coca Soda tastes amazingly like a fresh version of the familiar cola practically everyone knows. It is very aromatic, thanks to the fresh lime juice and combination of fruit and spice oils. If you add a shot or two of dark rum to this beverage you will undoubtedly find yourself soon shouting “¡Cuba Libre!”

Robert Rivelle George Reveals Secret to Creating Full-Flavored Beverages

Umami-filled Nut Brown Ale

Umami-filled Nut Brown Ale

Have you noticed the proliferation of enticing labels in the craft beverage section of your grocery store or liquor outlet? Perhaps you’ve also noticed the breathtaking prices commanded by these handcrafted drinks. Fermentation master and author Robert Rivelle George certainly did, and decided to share his knowledge with those who enjoy craft drinks but balk at their cost.

His new book The Umami Factor: Full-spectrum Fermentation for the 21st Century, takes on the task of instructing the aspiring or seasoned craftsperson in the secret to creating full-flavored, satisfying beverages at home, the way it was done for centuries.

Umami is the fifth taste, existing alongside the better-known sensations of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is the savory taste of amino acids ubiquitous in foods such as yeast, grains, fruit, and roasted meat and vegetables. By exploiting the taste sensation of Umami, a craft-beverage enthusiast can create savory, mouth-watering drinks of all types, hard or soft.

Released this May by Schiffer Publishing, Robert’s book The Umami Factor features a foreword by brew master Norm Chapman of Spencer Hill Cottage Brewery in Grand Forks, and more than 100 color illustrations. These accompany 75 original recipes for beverages spanning the gamut of soft drinks, beer, wine, sake, cider, mead, and even hard liquor. Mr. George explores ancient to modern techniques for producing these beverages, while offering a philosophical perspective to their creation and enjoyment.

“Robert’s philosophic approach to brewing in The Umami Factor is more of a lifestyle than a hobby,” says Maarten Lammers, owner of Nelson’s Art of Brewing. “He has a sense of humor that leaves you laughing out loud. I read with the eyes of a novice, and the eyes of a scientist, and I’ll certainly use the recipes, which are delicious.” Harry Davidson of HD Ventures adds “Like any good book there is drama, intrigue, inebriation, and sex. A complete reference guide to brewing, rich with recipes, menus, instructions and photographs, it leaves no stone unturned.”

The Umami Factor available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble

The Umami Factor available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble

History includes a long tradition of brewing, vintning and craft pursuits of all types. The Umami Factor presents a unique way to follow those crafty impulses, and amaze and impress your friends. Robert’s recipes are complex, for you can’t create a complex flavor sensation without a complex recipe. But the book also suggests easy ways to improve even the most prosaic of concoctions. Beginner and expert alike can find very many ways to challenge themselves.

“These are the creations of a man who is a master of his craft. Read this book carefully and keep it by you. You will be a better brewer as a result.” — Norm Chapman, Brew Master, Spencer Hill Cottage Brewery

FAQ: AKA The Umami Factor Elevator Pitch

Umami Factor_front1w

WHAT IS THE UMAMI FACTOR?

It’s two things. It’s the title of my new book, and it is the principle for making fermented beverages that provide a complex, mouth-filling, satisfying flavor sensation by balancing multiple aromas with the five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.

WHAT IS UMAMI?

Umami is the taste sensation of savory foods. The word is Japanese for “delicious” taste. It’s provided by receptors in your mouth, throat, esophagus, and even stomach that detect the presence of glutamates, which are derived from amino acids. The umami sensation is pleasant for the same reason that “sweet” is pleasant.

The body is cued to detect vital, high-engergy nutrients: carbohydrates with sweet taste, and proteins with umami taste. Natural, unfiltered fermented beverages are packed with umami-producing compounds from the fruits, grains, and yeast they are made of.

WHAT IS FULL SPECTRUM FERMENTATION?

Full-spectrum fermentation describes a process of techniques combined with intricate ingredient formulas that create complex flavor arrangements evoking the response “There’s so much going on there! How did you do that?”

Full-spectrum beverages are complex and improbable, but ultimately well-balanced drinks.

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WHY IS THIS BOOK DIFFERENT?

It takes a full-spectrum look at beverages from soft drinks to hard liquor. It thoroughly discusses the components necessary for flavor balancing. It examines related spectra, such as the inebriation spectrum and the commitment spectrum. It has a textbook approach to data, with a multitude of tables for ingredients and supplies. It provides recipes and detailed instructions, but more importantly it is a call to chefdom for aspiring fermentation artists. Tally Ho!

Buy The Umami Factor now for a substantial pre-release discount here.

Announcing! UMAMI Factor–The Book!

Now available for pre-ordering at a substantial discount!

Now available for pre-ordering at a substantial discount!

You’re about to be introduced to the UMAMI factor, the secret to sensational homemade beverages, including spirits, wine, beer, soft drinks, kombucha, and more. Chances are you may not have heard of umami, the taste impression created by certain amino acids in a food or beverage. Now you know. Starting the novice off right with a thorough understanding of “full-spectrum” fermentation theory,the book dives into the various preparation techniques and shows how umami-producing ingredients create beverages with a sensation of balance and roundness on the palate, tongue, nose, and even throat. More than 75 recipes, including all the beverages here, plus sharp insight, and handy tips help the amateur fermentation chef conquer the next frontier in beverage science. Even the most experienced of fermentation aficionados will discover a philosophical yet practical approach to further exploration. Pre-order now from Amazon.com and save 21% over the cover price!

Germano-Bohemian Lager

GB PilsPWGermano-Bohemian Lager marries the idea of rich, full Bohemian Pilsner with the crisp bitterness and clean flavor characteristic of North German lager.

The recipe uses floor-malted Bohemian Pilsner malt, made from Bohemian spring barley. This malt shows a wider color range among individual grains than malt processed by modern pneumatic malting methods, with their tighter temperature control. The result is a fuller malty flavor, with a bit of residual sweetness. It is slightly under-modified however, and will benefit from an acid rest and protein rest.

The mash bill uses 3% acidulated malt to lower mash pH, in the German manner, which prohibits additives such as organic acids to do so. In soft water this is enough to bring the pH down to about 5.2 in a full-grain recipe.

Munich malt contributes a mild toasty bread flavor to the brew. Carapils is a high dextrin malt that provides foam stability and full body to the beer while adding very little flavor.

Because the starting gravity is a bit above the high-end of the range typical for North German Pilsner (which is around 13 Plato), the hopping rate is also a bit higher than the typical example (which is 35-45 IBU).