What Chemistry Goes into Producing Alcohol?

alcohol2At the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, a session called Chemistry at the Bar proved popular with some of the 14,000 scientists. And if you’ve ever made a cocktail, that puts you in league with all of them.

According to Neil Da Costa of International Flavors and Fragrances:

“Making cocktails is something like chemistry at its simplest… adding different ingredients together, experimenting – that’s how they’ve evolved over the years to become as popular as they have.”

Da Costa was at the meeting presenting his analysis of the Hurricane, which is a cocktail that was invented in New Orleans in the 1940s as a means to use up rum that bar owners had to buy in order to get access to the more prized whiskies.

Cocktails tend to be a very interesting mixture of chemical components, and that is not just the crucial molecule called ethanol, but a great many flavour compounds and so-called volatiles which contribute to aroma. Just what the spirits are made from, though, remains hidden.

There is no labelling that means alcohol producers have to say what is going into the manufacture of the drink. In the US, alcoholic drinks are regulated not by the Food and Drug Administration, but by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which has very different standards for labelling.

It’s not just the spirits that have attracted the attention of chemists; the humble beer presents a complex combination of chemical components as well. One of the more surprising elements was that there were marked variations even among 2010 and 2011 versions of the same beer with the same hop.

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