All alcoholic beverages are made by fermenting a sugar solution with yeast, a process which converts the sugar to carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Usually, one does not start with a pure sugar but with fruit juices for wine, the starch in grains for beer and whisky, molasses for rum, etc. Over the centuries trial and error have shown that a bewildering variety of sugar sources can be exploited in this manner, even such an unlikely substance as milk being usable because of the sugar lactose it contains. Regardless of the sugar source the alcohol is the same.
In addition to the variations imposed by the source of sugar, the yeasts themselves and the conditions under which they are used also make their contribution to the character of the final product. This is because yeasts produce small quantities of other substances in addition to the main product --- ethyl alcohol. It is no wonder, therefore, that the flavour, colour, aroma and general quality of fermented beverages vary so widely and that a great deal of skill and experience is required in order to produce an acceptable beverage.
No alcoholic beverage (with the possible exception of certain vodkas) consists simply of alcohol and water with no other constituent present. If it did it would be colourless, odourless and tasteless. And rather boring unless you mixed it with something which had a flavour, e.g. vermouth, tomato juice, orange juice, etc.
The colour, aroma, and flavour of beers, wines and spirits are due to the other components present, components which collectively are known as "congeners". Many of these congeners are relatively harmless but there are always a few produced during fermentation, any fermentation, which are actually poisonous. Methanol (rubbing alcohol) is one of them. Surprisingly enough to those of us who have been brought up to believe the opposite, it is the congeners and not the alcohol which are responsible for headaches and hangovers following over-indulgence. More will be said about this interesting and little-known fact towards the end of the chapter.
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