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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Barley and Potatoes and Rye, OH MY! - The Starch That Spirits Are Made Of

I'm currently studying to become a Certified Specialist of Spirits and I began it by knowing next to nothing. I didn't even really have a clear understanding of what distillation was. It's just that this whole wine thing has kinda been my priority for, like, two thirds of a decade.

So in the beginning there were two things that completely confused the hell out of me: how the continuous column still works (something I don't think I'll ever understand) and everything involved in making alcohol out of the starchy stuff. On the other hand you've got grapes for brandy, agave for Tequila, sugar cane for rum... all of that is pretty easy to grasp. But Barley? Rye? Sure, I've heard of them but what the hell are they? Aren't they just wheat? No?

Understand that I'm a Cape Codder. We grow cranberries and golf courses here.

To find out what barley is and how it's different from wheat as a plant you've got to research barley and wheat. To find out how a barley vodka is different from a wheat vodka you've got to research vodka. Then to see what barley offers to whisky opposed to wheat you've got to research whisky. Gee, I sure could use all of that in one place... but there really isn't such a place... so I guess I'll just have to make it myself.


I'm sure you know that the process of turning sugar into alcohol is fermentation. If you'd like to know more about fermentation then I've got a blog post ready and waiting for you: The Chemistry between us... and wine.

The problem with the products highlighted in this blog post is that none of them have fermentable sugars. They've got starch, a white substance that stores carbohydrates. Luckily, you can take care of that issue with hydrolysis and heat. This tricks it into thinking that it's sexy germination time and triggers an enzymatic process, which converts the starch into fructose. The grain is actively turning from a seed into a plant and sugar is needed for growth. This conversion process is called saccharification.

Malted barley
Quite often to get things kickstarted, and for the very distinctive flavor it contributes, some or all of the grain will be made into maltMalting starts the starch-to-sugar conversion and helps do the same for the other unmalted grains that will be used. To start germination, the grain is soaked in water for a few days, taken out and left laying on a floor at 60°F until it sprouts roots. Then it's completely dried and the temperature is slowly raised to over 120°F, stopping germination until it's reactivated later. Voila! Malt!

Complete saccharification is done after the grains have been put in water and made into a sloshy mash. After the starch has been converted into sugar, the mash becomes a wort. Yeasts are added into the wort to convert the sugars into alcohol, and after that process is done the wort becomes a beer. Then it's off to be distilled into liquor.

The main spirits distilled from starch products are:

VODKA It can be made from many things. Any type of grain, any type of potato or even grapes. It's pretty much unflavored, unaged, liquid ethanol. But to be called "vodka" it does have restrictions. "Grain alcohol" is basically vodka made from grains that doesn't meet those restrictions, especially the ABV bottling limit.

GIN - AKA "the original flavored vodka". Although most gin is distilled from a mix of fermented cereal grains it can be from anything, such as sugar cane, as long as it's got that juniper berry flavor going on. In order to qualify as a London Dry Gin, though, it's got to be 75% corn. The other 25% must contain barley, whether all of that 25% is barley or just some of it. The remaining percentage must stick with grains, but whichever they decide.

WHISKY - By definition, this is all about the cereal grains. If it's from anything else other than cereal grains then it isn't a whisky. Oh, and it also has to be aged in oak unless it's the American corn whiskey. Real moonshine is technically grain alcohol. You'll notice there's two different spellings for whisky - with an E and without. Traditionally WHISKEY is Irish and American, WHISKY is Scotch and Canadian. When referring to whisky in general I'll leave out the E because it's the most commonly used worldwide.


When you think of cereal you probably immediately think of Cheerios and Fruit Loops. But the name of your favorite convenient breakfast originates from the category of the grass it comes from... cereal! Yeah, on the most basic level it's just grass. And at the very top of its blade it has grains, which is what we use to make a shit-ton of things from bread to Captain Crunch to whisky.

Even crabgrass has grains if you let it get out of hand but the different types of grass that fall under the cereal category produce the grains that are actually desirable. Grains are technically a fruit, even though they're dry, and they don't have any sugar that can be converted to alcohol. But they've got starch and that's all you need.

This has come in handy for farmers for hundreds of years. They can turn their excess crops into more income by using it for booze. In fact, most of the famous whisky brands you know of today started off that way. There are many types of grains and cereal grains like oats, rice and buckwheat but forget about those. I'm just going to stick to the ones that you really need to know when it comes to talking spirits: wheat, barley, rye and corn.

WHEAT was one of the very first cultivated grains. We now know that wheat's first domestication occurred in southeastern Turkey around 7500 BCE. That was a long-ass time ago. Actually, wheat is generally credited as one of the main reasons for the spread of civilization (along with grapevines). We could now hunker down in one place and grow our own food, rather than being nomads that followed migration patterns. Wheat could also be stored for a very long time before it was turned into food or beer. The longer you could stretch out the goods of a harvest the better. It is now the most widely cultivated food on Earth and the average persons main source of vegetable protein.

Wheat likes its overall climate a bit cooler and is harvested in late fall and early winter. It's that friend you have that, every fall, keeps telling you how much they love the fall while you're all like "Shut up douchebag, I wanna go outside without multiple layers". And then you realize they're much more bland and uninteresting than your other friends. Alright, enough picking on wheat. It's been a workhorse for the majority of our existence and it deserves some respect.

Wheat is pretty neutral in flavor and tends to pick up the flavors of the other ingredients used in whatever it's made into. This is why, during the middle ages, the upper class got all the wheat and the peasants got the barley and rye. Wheat was just considered more palatable. The blades from wheat are more useful than the other grains because they're flatter, so you can use them for things like baskets and paper. Unlike barley, wheat has to be milled before it's cooked.

Winter wheat is a strain of wheat that's planted in the fall. Naturally, during the winter months it only makes growing progress on the warmer days. But winter wheat isn't harvested in the spring like you would think. It takes its sweet-ass time and isn't harvested until the late summer or early fall. In some places, by the time harvest takes place, it's been over a year since it was planted! I don't know what theme winter wheat prefers for a birthday party but Frozen might be appropriate, no? Winter wheat has a higher gluten protein content than spring wheat.

Vodka is the primary spirit that wheat is used to make, and vodka made from enough wheat to be called wheat vodka is far more common than, and considered superior to, barley vodka. But the two of them tend to make a more acidic, lighter bodied vodka when compared to those made from other sources. The majority of Russian vodka is made from wheat, and Swedish vodka from winter wheat. Absolut (Sweden) and Grey Goose (France) are both made from winter wheat.

Wheat whisky, 51% wheat at the least, is mellow and all about subtlety. It's kinda just an American and German thing. Wheating is the term for using wheat in a blend of grains. It'll add a touch of softness to the final bread, beer or spirit. Because of this, there's some Bourbon that will use wheat in their blend rather than the more common blender rye.

BARLEY was also one of the very first grains ever cultivated and was so important to ancient life that it was even used as currency. It originated in Western Asia and made the bread and beer of ancient Egypt. Before wine was big in ancient Greece, the Aegeans preferred to drink barley beer more than anything else. The grain was also pretty popular in early Rome but was replaced by wheat before it became an empire. The Islamic prophet Muhammad named seven diseases that could be cured by barley. And if you've ever had Tibetan food then you know that barley is a staple of their cuisine.

Barleywine is that barley beer those Aegeans were drinking in the previous paragraph. They called it krithinos oinos. Originally it was barley beer with a bunch of other stuff thrown in, such as spices and fermented grapes (wine!), but eventually came to be just an ale made from barley. My new favorite beer is Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot Barleywine Ale and, as a follow up to this article, I've done a beer review on Clown Shoes Crunkle Sam Barleywine Ale.

Barley and its spirits are very straight-faced and serious, and so naturally its portion of this blog is too. It thrives in warmer climates and it's harvested in the late spring and throughout the summer. It's got a tough, resilient blade, it's pretty hardy and drought resistant, but it loathes cold winters. It has more protein and fiber than both wheat and rye. Also, unlike wheat, it can be cooked whole.

2 row & 6 row barley
2 ROW / 6 ROW
About 25% of barley used for alcohol is malted. It's actually the grain that is malted the most because it has an abundance of the enzymes needed for saccharification. The barley grains chosen to be used for beer or spirits, as opposed to bread or animal feed, are more often the ones low in protein. This barley is known as two-row barley. The high protein six-row barley will cause cloudiness in the beer and is not as talented at creating fermentable sugar. The row is the number of spikelet rows sticking out of the sides of the grain. You can visually see the difference in the image to the right.

Barley is the champion of Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky. Lots of warm climate plants, like barley, feel right at home in Ireland and Scotland because of the tropical current coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, all the other weather stuff in that area makes it cloudy and moist instead of a Caribbean getaway, and their people pasty white instead of golden tan.

They both have different categories based on grains that I'll quickly cover. First, Scotch has the "Singles", referring to the fact that the Scotch was made at a single distillery. Single malt is 100% malted barley from a pot still. Single grain also comes from a pot still and it must contain malted barley, but it can also use other malted or unmalted grain varieties. Then there's the kinds that come from multiple distilleries. Blended malt takes two or more single malt from different distilleries and blends them together. Blended grain, as you would expect, is a blend of two or more single grainBlended Scotch does whatever the hell it wants and dumps any combo together. Irish whiskey also makes a single malt, made from a pot still, and the grains must be 100% malted barley. Single pot still whiskey is 100% barley as well, but a mix of malted and unmalted. Irish grain whiskey is made from any kind of grain and distilled in a continuous column still.

Scotch is distilled twice and sometimes smoked with fire from peat moss, some waaaay more than others but most far less (if at all) than we're led to believe. Japanese whisky is purposely identical to Scotch as far as rules, grains and categorization. Irish whiskey is distilled three times and has a lighter, cleaner body and flavor than Scotch.

Barley is used for vodka too, although it's not often you'll see one made from enough barley to be called barley vodka. It's just not considered to be all that good at running the vodka show. Like its cousin wheat, it tends to be more acidic with a lighter body than vodka from other sources. Finland is big on barley vodka.

RYE originates from Turkey, or so it's believed, but there's really no unquestionable evidence of its existence until the Bronze Age. It's thought that it started spreading outside of its original stomping grounds as a blending grain for wheat.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer, said that rye "is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation".

Yeah, he was probably right. Rye, for most of its history, was a poor-folk grain because its products are pretty sour and bitter. The reason why it wasn't just left to extinction is because it thrives in the poor conditions where the other grains call it quits. Shitty soil? No problem for rye. Heavy snowfall? Bring it on, you don't even know me. This made it a great source of grain for peasants, even if they made weird faces while eating it. However, it would have its poetic justice when it would become part of the ultimate rich-guy sandwich: The Rueben.

Rye is the main grain for bread in Germany, Austria, Poland and the other countries in that area of Europe. It was the preferred grain for the whiskymakers of the newly free and newly established United States of America in Pennsylvania until they decided to pack up and leave at their own refusal to pay the distiller tax implemented by President George Washington. They moved to Tennessee and Kentucky instead where corn eventually became favored.

Winter rye, the most commonly cultivated rye, is just rye but grown in the winter. It's not a different strain like winter wheat is and it's handled drastically different. It's planted in the fall, grows on the warmer days through the winter, and is harvested in the spring. After it's harvested you can plant your spring wheat which is harvested in the fall, then plant your winter rye again and you have yourself a nice crop rotation of grains growing on the same land.

United Vacations

When used in vodka for a blend of grains, rye adds a spiciness and robustness. When there's enough rye to be called a rye vodka it's all about the spice and muscle. Next time vodka is on your shopping list, pick up a rye vodka and you'll see just what I mean. Belvedere (Poland) is made from rye, and Poland is the big pusher of rye vodka as well as potato vodka.

Rye is a popular blending grain in all varieties of whisky, but rye whisky is largely American and Canadian. In the USA the grains used must be at least 51% rye for that title. There's no conditions for Canada to use it, though. This is because the older crowd still refer to Canadian whiskey as just "rye". As in "what aisle is your rye, eh? Ya hoser." That's because traditionally Canadian whisky was mostly rye but times have changed. Now they'll blend a bit of flavoring whisky to get some rye flavor in there, if that's what they're aiming for.

So do a bit of research if a Canadian whiskey calls itself rye. The common Canadian whiskey is considered a good blender due to its light body but a true rye whisky is popular in cocktails for a different reason. It has this very specific combination of fruit, spice and bitterness so you can taste the flavors past the other ingredients being added. Thus, if that cocktail calls for rye whisky then don't think you can get away with using something else like a sweet Bourbon. It won't be the same.

CORN was domesticated in Tehuacan Valley, Mexico from the vastly dissimilar looking teosinte plant some 7,000 years ago or more. From there it spread to be cultivated all over Mesoamerica. Originally it grew just one small cob per plant but the ancient people of the Americas got down to business and, through artificial selection, increased the size of the cob and its numbers. When the Europeans came they gobbled it right up and sent it back home to be grown there too. Despite its long history, the highlight of its entertainment career is the brief appearance in the classic film What About Bob?

Whether corn is a grain, fruit or vegetable is a heated subject. The plant is a cereal grass but the grains that it produces aren't dry like the rest of them. Instead, they're juicy as hell. Although the other grains are technically a fruit we categorize corn as both a grain and a vegetable. None of that really matters though because in reality, when you really get down to it, all I really care about is that it makes that delicious corn bread. Dear lord I love corn bread. And corn muffins. Goddamn!

Corn is planted in the spring and its root system is shallow so it needs moist soil until it's harvested in the fall. It's a big deal as a crop in the United States, who produce 40% of the world's corn, so of course it's also a big deal to make booze out of it too.

Corn can bring a sweetness to whisky. The big-boys of America, Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, are pretty damn sweet in comparison to the other guys and they both must be made from 51% corn at the least. Rye is a popular blending grain in both. As long as it doesn't specify Kentucky Bourbon, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States if it follows certain guidelines. There's the whole corn thing, and it has to be aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Tennessee Whiskey has the same set of rules except that it must be made in Tennessee and has to be filtered through sugar maple charcoal (The Lincoln County Process) before barreling. Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon can be filtered through charcoal but it's just not required. Charcoal filtering mellows the whiskey and makes it more pleasing and approachable. Maybe for my next Distill Wars (read Episode I and Episode II) I'll match up Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey and Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon.

Sour mash is similar to Bourbon and Kentucky Whiskey but involves one extra process. Backset is liquid that does not contain alcohol from the bottom of the still after distillation. Sour mash takes that backset from a previous batch and uses it to balance pH and contribute a sour taste to the finished product. Backwash is something I do to your unattended soda if I don't like you.

Corn whiskey is strictly an American product. It's pretty much the legal version of moonshine, cut down to 62.5% ABV with all the right permits and licensing. It must be from 80% corn and an insanely huge percentage are unaged (and come in mason jars), but it can be aged in oak for a few months if the producer is so inclined. Straight corn whiskey is aged for two years in used charred barrels or new uncharred barrels.

The majority of vodka made on the planet is primarily corn with a mix of other grains. I said the majority of vodka, yes, and keep in mind that the majority of vodka is dirt cheap and grossly harsh... but don't hate on corn vodka because of that. Quality corn vodka is softer and milder when compared to those from other sources. The now extremely popular Tito's Vodka from down in Texas is distilled from corn.

In addition, as mentioned a wicked long time ago, London Dry Gin must be 75% corn.

Potato heart

So I bet if you ask anybody where the potato comes from they'd probably say Ireland, half joking and half taking a shot in the dark because really... who the frig are you to ask such a blindsided question? The potato comes from Peru and Bolivia. It was domesticated some 6,000 years ago by the Inca, and didn't leave the Andes region until 400 years ago.

The potato is a tuber, and the purpose of a tuber is to store nutrients so the plant can survive the winter cold, extreme summer heat, occasional drought or whatever is thrown at them. I would hope that everybody knows that the potato grows underground but did you know that it grows flowers above ground? Shit, I didn't know that until just now. I wish somebody would bring me a bouquet of potato flowers. You know, just to let me know that I'm loved.

The potato was brought to Europe in the late 1530's by the Spanish after they conquered the Inca. Northeastern Spain was the first to embrace the new crop, and then it was introduced to Ireland in 1589. It would slowly spread to the rest of Europe and eventually win over the reluctant farmers because it was so much easier to grow than wheat and other crops. The people of Scandinavia dropped grains like a bad habit for the potato because it could handle their weather, where as sometimes entire crops of wheat and oats would be lost in a bad year. Their spirits were especially influenced. Aquavit, their form of early vodka, went from grain spirit to potato spirit.

Irish Mr. Potato HeadThis one crop was saving lives in Europe, providing everybody with an inexpensive food that was high in nutrients, vitamins and carbs. It's been given credit for the spike in population and reproduction over the next two hundred years after its arrival. There weren't many kinds of potatoes brought over from the Andes, even though there's thousands of them back home, so the lack of genetic diversity made the potato crops of Europe vulnerable to disease. Potato blight attacked the continent in 1848 and the Irish, so dependant on it, lost one million souls to starvation and disease. They also lost one million citizens to immigration across the pond.

Grains can be kept for a very long time but potatoes not so much. They go bad, as you've undoubtedly experienced before in your own kitchen, so distilleries will keep them cold to extend their shelf life before they're used. Potatoes also don't contain the enzymes that you need to start saccharification. You can buy commercial enzymes or you can throw some grain in the mash with it, like malted barley, to get things rolling.

Potatoes are almost completely a vodka thing and it creates a more full bodied, creamier vodka. Most distilleries peel the potatoes entirely, others partially, and some not at all before it's made into the mash. From what I can find on the subject, it does matter what kind of potatoes are used but the information on how they differ isn't widely available. Most just use the locally grown favorite. Karlsson's (Sweden) uses Old Swedish Red potatoes, Covington's (North Carolina) uses sweet potatoes, and Blue Ice (Idaho) uses Idaho Russet Burkbank potatoes.

These days the Polish are the biggest proponents of using the tuber for their breathless spirit. Chopin, the most famous, uses seven pounds of potatoes per every 750 ml bottle. Potatoes are also becoming the favored source of vodka in the multiplying USA distilleries, especially the northeast, as the American boutique spirits craze continues to surge. Cold River Vodka from Maine is highly acclaimed and highly rated by experts and myself (not an expert).


Thank you for reading this long-ass article that took me a whole month to research and write. Feel free to comment with your thoughts. More importantly: please let me know if you spot any inaccuracies. I would hate to be a source of any misinformation. :)

- Joey Casco, CSW

Shout-out to @ZinThePhoenix on Twitter, who unknowingly inspired this blog post. Zinfandel Steen is a CSW, CSS, hot-sauce fanatic and is probably the coolest person on the damn thing so you should all give her a follow.

Whiskey & Spirits for Dummies
Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide

The Difference Between
alcoholic drinks: Characteristics of Vodka
Potato History and Fun Facts
Massachusetts Beverage Journal: Aroostook County Maine potato vodka
Youtube: How to make vodka from potatoes
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