A KIND OF MAGIC
Distilling is a confluence of science and art
This will either come as a predictable statement from a “creative”, or as a shock for someone who makes a living writing about distilling, but: I’ve never been very good at science. I got decent grades in scientific subjects at high school, but would put that down to my ability to regurgitate information in a test rather than solid understanding of that information (sorry, all my former science teachers). The finer details, such as formulae for experiments in physics or chemistry, just seemed to bounce around in my brain then float right out, like steam out of a kettle.
This is not to say that I don’t find science interesting – I do.
It would be difficult not to be fascinated by those actions and reactions through which the universe functions, whether it’s photosynthesis, condensation or the effects of atmospheric pressure. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but my mind gravitates towards the broader picture, preferring grandiose statements on the effects of the process to its minutiae.
For once you get under the skin of chemical or physical processes, such as those of distilling, the possibilities for learning and improvement seem endless. It really evidences the assertion that knowledge works in a bell curve: the more you start to learn, the more you realise you don’t know.
As much as we may like to think it, with our high-minded ideas and big words, creatives are not the only ones who strive for enlightenment through their work, nor are they the only ones who employ creativity to get there.
A fundamental part of achievement in any scientific field is curiosity. In a discipline such as distilling, with so many moving parts (and some parts which can be swapped out for other parts), there is enormous capacity for exploration. What happens if I slightly decrease the flow rate through my still? What if I use five per cent less of this or that botanical?
What if I ferment my wash for an extra three hours, or increase the speed of my rotovap by a few RPM? What if I only use barley grown in this field for my base spirit? What if I distil fresh orange peels rather than dried? To me, this is one of the most fascinating things about scientific practice: the smallest shifts can make seismic differences to the end result.
The word “innovative” gets thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it has perhaps lost a bit of its potency, but true innovation is still easy to spot.
Take Ulrich Dyer at Woodlab Distillery in Northern Ireland, whom our contributor Bernadette has interviewed for this issue. He uses microwave hydrodistillation (no, I hadn’t heard of it before either) to create his Symphonia Gins, alongside rotovap cold distillation. With these methods, Ulrich feels he can get the best out of each botanical, and therefore create a better gin.
Or there’s Ted Kilgore, co-founder of bar and restaurant Planter’s House in St. Louis, Missouri, and his molecular approach to cocktail making. For Ted, this isn’t a pretentious attempt to wow drinkers with the latest trendy techniques and machines. It’s an honest, careful way to make the most of the ingredients at his disposal; any resulting ‘flashiness’ is incidental.
There are few better science lessons... than listening to a distiller who knows their craft
Also featured in this issue is Hendrick’s – perhaps the master of playing up the magic and wonder of gin making. But when I peeked behind the proverbial curtain on a visit to its Gin Palace, I didn’t find wackiness and whimsy: just a team of people passionate about producing excellent gin, led by a woman with a blinding distilling talent and an insatiable curiosity.
There are few better science lessons in this world than listening to a distiller who knows their craft inside out, explaining how it works and what makes their process different. Because even in the relatively tight chemical confines of alcohol distillation, there are countless nuances. You just need someone with the right combination of intellect and inquisitiveness to give it a try.