Oh, booze. Sought after by bugs, birds, and elephants, it was only in the hands of early humans that the crafting of intoxicating beverages was elevated to an art form. It’s likely that honey, soaked in water, was the first major source of alcohol to early people, who almost certainly considered the bubbly concoction and its effects to be gifts from the gods.
Fundamentally, alcohol is one byproduct of yeast consuming sugar. If you’ve never mixed up a batch of wort (the liquid that yeast turn into beer) or must (the liquid that becomes wine), you can make a simple experiment with white sugar, water, and bread yeast. A regular canning jar will do, but a curved-neck bottle will give you better visibility on the bubbling that will develop. There’s very little to it:
This is four cups of water, 40g of cheap white sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of regular old bread yeast, and a bourbon bottle I pulled out of our recycling bin. I used a funnel to put the sugar and yeast in, then filled the bottle halfway with water, put the stopper in, and shook it for a while to help the sugar dissolve. Then I topped it up with water to the shoulder. In a few hours, this bottle should be bubbling.
[Note: That did indeed happen. Today is day two, and it’s bubbling nicely, though my camera isn’t capturing it well, so I’ll spare you a fuzzy photo.]
What’s happening with that is that the yeast, a wildly beneficial species called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, will begin to eat the sugar and secrete alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. Bread yeast and the strains used for commercial (and homebrew) alcohol fermentation are cousins, all in the same family, with some adapted to produce more CO2 (and help bread rise), and others adapted to produce more alcohol. In alcohol fermentation, a given strain of yeast can only tolerate a certain amount of alcohol, and will produce it until it creates an environment that is toxic to it.
What’s the Difference Between Beer, Wine, and Spirits?
The first step in making alcohol is this fermentation performed by yeasts. When sugars are extracted from grains like barley and wheat, the result is called beer. When they are extracted from fruits (usually grapes), the result is a wine. When honey is hydrated with water and yeast goes to work, it creates a drink called mead. There are variations and traditional names for countless fruit-based wines, mixtures of various sugary substrates, and so on, but the basic idea here is that a fermented beverage has had a proportion of its natural sugars converted by yeasts into alcohol.
Spirits like whiskey, vodka, and gin are created by using distillation methods to extract and concentrate the alcohol. There are different approaches to distillation, but the traditional approach is to put a bunch of wine into a big pot and heat it up. The pot has a long neck that extends away from the heat source and, at some point, routes through a condenser (a cold spot) of some kind, then ends with a spout. When the liquid in the pot gets to a given temperature, alcohol products begin evaporating, rise up through the neck as a gas, then return to a liquid state when they hit the cold zone in the condenser. At the far end, alcohol – including some toxic products like methanol – are produced, leaving the water, coloring elements, and other material in the pot. Note that in most of the world, including the United States, home distillation is illegal, but fortunately, home brewing is an art all to itself.