Beer And Whiskey: Getting Drunk On Science
September 13, 2013

Beer And Whiskey: Getting Drunk On Science

I was surprised as I began taking courses at the American Brewer’s Guild. I’ve been brewing beer for only a year, but my…ahem…extensive research told me there were many things going on in a glass of beer. At its most basic level, beer is little more than a concoction of some cereal, hops, water and yeast. The way these things come together, however, is an aggressively intensive process. I was foaming with anticipation as I sat down for my first class, stoked to drink some beer, toss around some semi-technical terms, and poke fun at the dummies who say “I like dark beer.”

What I got instead was a quick review of college-level biochemistry before going even deeper. I was over my head.

“I thought I was just going to be growing my beard and drinking beer,” I told my wife after that first class. I had no idea it was going to be this tough.

This is all a lengthy preamble to say the things that get you drunk aren’t nearly as simple as you think. There’s some hardcore science going on in your glass. You may even be surprised to know that we haven’t figured it all out yet.

Case in point, at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society this week in Indiana, Thomas Collins, Ph.D., gave a talk wherein he explained how he’s just now able to chemically profile a shot of bourbon, a shot of rye, and a shot of whiskey.

I should state right now that, while both forms of alcohol are complex, distilling is an entirely different animal. Therefore, the different whiskeys could very well have more going on inside of them chemically than a bottle of beer.

Beer, as you may know, is made when yeast procreate in a sugar solution (we call it wort) and convert the sugars to alcohol. A common ale only needs a few weeks’ time before it’s ready to be in your mouth.

Whiskey (and wine, for that matter) take a literal metric sh*t ton of time. The liquid has to set inside barrels for years on end, leeching out flavor compounds from the wood. These compounds are all specific to the type of wood used, of course. And just to make things difficult, (because whiskey guys really get off on that) these brown spirits can be filtered in different ways or even soak in a barrel which has been charred, adding even more flavor compounds to the liquor.

We’ve only just discussed the barrel, too. Other factors, the least of which being the ingredients of the spirit (bourbon features a majority of barley, but switch to corn and you’ve got whiskey; switch to rye and you’ve got rye whiskey, but not always) can also drastically alter the chemical makeup of the spirit. Other considerations, such as time, air pressure, the amounts of sugar and tannins in the solution (which is determined by the recipe) can also change things up.

In other words, there’s a lot going on inside a shot of whiskey. Those flavors of caramel, vanilla, smoke, tobacco, and wood aren’t present because the distiller tossed them in the barrels along with the booze, no sir. These flavors are simply the byproduct of all these different compounds getting nice and cozy in the barrel. Ever tried a beer and thought; “dear lord, this tastes like chocolate!” More often than not, there wasn’t any chocolate used in the brew, but the malts had been roasted in a way to get that flavor in the bottle.

It’s a complex science.

Worry not, gentles, for the Good Doctor Collins has taken it upon himself to understand the chemical makeup of the brown spirits. He’s not just drunkenly stumbling around in the lab to serve his own selfish desires, either. Collins believes (and rightfully so) that understanding the chemical makeup of bourbon, whiskey and rye will help distillers make a quality product each and every time. After all, it’s only after you understand WHY a cake rises in the oven and tastes delicious that you can make even more delicious cake.

Sweet, sweet, boozy cake.

Here’s the crazy part; Collins says the chemical fingerprint of a bourbon and a whiskey made in the same facility are nearly identical. Yet, when two whiskeys are compared from two different facilities, they look totally different.

That means that even though bourbon and whiskey are made up of different ingredients — themselves made up of different chemical compounds — the location in which they’re distilled largely ties them together. With this knowledge, distillers could employ some forensics to identify any counterfeits. What’s more, these distillers could also better understand what makes their whiskey taste like THEIR whiskey and make sure every bottle tastes the same.

It’s a branch of science I can get behind, even if it is mostly over my head.

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