Altitude Distillation


Distillation. Most distillation in the world is near sea level. Most alcohol that people drink is created in this way.  Distillation at  extreme altitudes is different. 

What makes an outstanding liquor (vs. a standard liquor that may require repairs to cover its lack of quality) comes down to: superior ingredients, cleanliness, and distillation control.

Distillation separates the spirit from the congeners.  Congeners are "co-generated" during the fermentation process and may or may not be removed during distillation. Congeners include foul smelling substances such as propanol, butanol, and pentanol, and somewhat toxic substances such as methanol, formaldehyde, and ethyl carbamate.

The hard job. The hard job of distillation is to remove congeners while still having something interesting left over to put in the bottle.  Most often, everything is taken out, the easiest thing to do, leaving just ethanol and water.

Due to the way distillation works, temperature control is one of the most important factors in distilling a good spirit.  High temperatures tend to distill off everything together, making spirits and congeners hard to separate. Low temperatures spread everything out, making spirit and congener easier to separate.

Because the air is so thin at high altitudes, liquids boil at lower temperatures. High altitude allows distillation temperatures to be lower, which in turn makes it more possible to separate the good from the bad.

What effect does this have in the bottle? At sea level, the all too frequent choice is to distill the heck out of things so as to make sure to remove most of the bad congeners. As a result, there is precious little left of the good stuff either, and the liquor tends to be flat, or is turned into a vodka.

Alternatively, a lighter hand in sea level distillation will leave a lot of bad congeners behind in the spirit, leading to unpleasant odors which may need to be removed through charcoal filtration (which also removes the aromas you want).  Or, the bad taste can be changed by aging.

At extreme altitude there are greater possibilities of distilling a great spirit that does not need to be aged. This is because it is easier to separate aromatics from congeners, which is what Singani makers do.

Effect of source. Anything produced from the juicy part of a plant, as are wine, brandy, eau-de-vie, cognac, champagne, tequila, will be different depending on where the plants were grown.

First, plants grown at high altitude are exposed to much more intense sunlight as the thin air and general lack of pollution do not block the sun's rays. Plants respond to the massive solar UV radiation by producing large amounts of anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants help prevent degradation of the fruit, thereby preserving more of its character. Plants also respond to the enormous amount of growth light by producing much more of the aromatic compounds.

Second, at high altitude there is less of a tendency for plants to sequester aromatics as oils, and thus a lot of the compounds that give the fruit its scent are in a free state. Aromatic oils evaporate at close to 400 °F which means that during distillation they will come last with the congeners and therefore be lost. In a free state, aromatics dissolve in ethanol, and thus are preserved in the heart of the distillate—and bottled, not lost.

Spirits of High Altitude. Altitude spirit adult beverages are those that are not only distilled at extreme altitudes, but are also grown there. Both these factors, growth and distillation, combine to make a superior breed of spirit.