Three things you might not know about distilling

If you’ve ever had the chance to tour our Distillery in downtown Memphis, you got a pretty good education on what it actually means to distill spirits. And in case you haven’t yet (psst: click here to come see us) we’ll consult the dictionary for help.

Distill: purify (a liquid) by vaporizing it, then condensing it by cooling the vapor, and collecting the resulting liquid.

Okay, that’s a good start – but that definition only gives you a hint of everything that goes into great whiskey. Here are a few more facts you can impress your friends with tonight over an Old Fashioned:

  1. Flavor profiles: Most of the flavor of the whiskey (60-70%) comes directly from the barrel it’s aged in, not from the distilling process itself. At Old Dominick, we’re fortunate enough to be able to use barrels made from 100% West Tennessee wood – white American oak, to be specific. We like to use a number four char, an alligator char, which is the deepest char. That char opens up the wood so the liquid can get in more easily, but it also caramelizes the sugars that are naturally present in the wood. That’s where you get those caramel and vanilla notes associated with whiskeys – it’s all about the barrel and the char!
  2. Top secret: the type of barrel or char that a Distillery uses typically is something that is widely shared and known – but there are some secrets in this world. One of them is yeast strains. In the distilling process, the yeast yields different chemicals during fermentation, and those chemical compounds are what can change the flavor of the spirit. If you used the same barrel and char but three different yeast strains, for example, you could have markedly different whiskeys in the end. Another element of the process that tends to be pretty protected is what’s known as the blending strategy. If a particular whiskey maker has 12 warehouses and is doing a batch of 50 barrels, for example, they might use barrels from each of the 12 warehouses in the ultimate blend.
  3. Angel’s Share: In the aging process you rely on temperature changes. You need those cycles of warming and cooling, but as the liquid heats up there’s a risk: it can evaporate. This happens with both the water molecules and the alcohol molecules, and in the first year it’s estimated that about 10% of your volume is lost out of a barrel. If you’re working with 53 gallons, you just lost five gallons in one year. And over the course of its life, as it ages, you’ll probably lose about 8% depending on your climate. We call that lost spirit the “Angel’s Share.”
  4. H2Oh Yeah: Water is crucial in spirit production. You start with water to cook, you add more water to barrel proof and bottle proof it – really clean water is absolutely vital. Can you filter it and get it where it needs to be? Sure. Plenty of distilleries exist in places that don’t have great water, and they filter everything they use. We’re spoiled to have incredible water in Memphis, right from the source!


Old Dominick Head Distiller Alex Castle shares insights every other week in our “Share A Sip” blog series.