What are alcohols made from?

Do you ever have one of those days where a drink is in order? Maybe your boss yelled at you for something that wasn’t even your fault, or traffic somehow takes two hours longer than usual. Whatever the case may be, we’ve all been there. But have you ever wondered what exactly that alcoholic beverage is made from? Let’s dive right into it.

The Basics

To put it simply, alcohols are organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They contain at least one hydroxyl (-OH) group attached to a carbon atom (so fancy). There are many different types of alcohols such as methanol, ethanol (consumable), propanol and butanol among others.

Fermentation – Alcohol Ingredients

When talking about consumable alcohol like beer or wine, the basic ingredients include some sort of sugar source (think grapes for wine or barley for beer) and yeast. Yeast is added to turn the sugars into alcohol through a process called fermentation. During fermentation yeast consumes simple sugars such as glucose and fructose releasing waste products which happen to be ethylene glycol and lithium heparin (Just kidding…Obviously not true….Those substances can actually kill you) No! Ethanol , Co2 along with few minor components are released (True story) .

Different fruits/grains result in different tastes because they give different flavors depending on their composition.

Hard Liquor Ingredients

Hard liquor might seem intimidating but it too involves fermented base material just like other drinks except stronger(alcohol percentage). Additional processing steps come in picture when trying to make hard liquor.

  1. Distillation: Once an alcoholic mixture has been fermented usually achieving around ~12% alcohol concentration ,you distill(have massive party trick here!) . Heat the liquid so that component with lower boiling point evaporates which we collect from vapor and that component is nothing but more concentrated alcohol. This process of boiling liquid mixture to condensing the resultant purified substance back into liquid form leads to production of hard liquor which can achieve upto 95% concentration. You have vodka, gin, whiskey among others.

  2. Aging: But here’s where things get messy: Once distilled one could just bottle it up(yawn) or most commonly -it will be aged in a wooden barrel which impacts its taste significantly by adding flavor . Some whiskies mature ageing for decades adding various flavors like vanilla,caramel and giving a detailed description of an actual bourbon flavour-more smoky spice than American rye (mouthwatering!).

The Technical Stuff

For those science enthusiasts out there who want something to sink their teeth into, let’s go over some technical knowledge.

Chemical Formula

The general formula for alcohols is R-OH, where R represents any organic group (so formaldehyde aka embalming fluid as well!) . For example:

  • Methanol has the chemical formula CH3OH
  • Ethanol has the chemical formula C2H5OH
  • Propanol has the chemical formula C3H7OH

Alcohol Groups

Alcohol groups come about when an oxygen atom is bonded with two other atoms through one bond each resulting in them sharing electrons.This electronic configuration makes this bond relatively easier to break making them more likely candidates for reacting further.Some reactions also occur at low temperatures using various catalysts like palladium on calcium carbonate allowing bonds between an alkene group(C=C double O-H single )to Ester(Note-Esters are found in perfumes)with changing acidity.These name changes certainly don’t help matters.Anyway,I digress.

Types of Reaction

Different reactants respond better(can make desired product via specific reaction type)certain types/structure/electronic characteristic differences.It all depends on the desired outcome but here are a few common alcohol reactions:

  • Oxidation: This can occur to primary alcohols which upon reacting with oxidizing agent for eg.- potassium permanganate, KMnO4 results in formation of K+, Mn7+(purple)ions and forming carboxylic acids(Ethanal → Ethanoic Acid), while secondary ones can convert into ketones.(reaction typically carried out in acidified with dil. sulfuric acid mixture)
  • Esterification: Forming ester derivative(compounds formed using Organic or Inorganic Acids-Petrol,Protein,Fat etc) which often have pleasant fruity odor(namely Esters like Ethyl ethanorate). Reaction happens between an alcohol group and Carboxylic Group by removing water molecule(a process called Dehydration).
  • Polymerization is another type catalysed usually by metal hydroxides.Often involves saturated carbon chain molecules joined together,get longer chain polyol substances .


So there you have it folks! Alcohols are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They come from fermented base materials that go through processes such as distillation or aging to produce different types of hard liquors. Whether you’re a science enthusiast or just someone who enjoys drinking occasionally(we don’t judge!), now you know what goes on behind the scenes.

Stay safe always drink responsibly!

Bonus Table

Here’s a bonus table ranking some drinks that could get your party started
| Drink | Alcohol percentage |
| Everclear | >95% |
| Absinthe | ~70% |
| Tequila | ~40 – 60% |

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