The Chemistry of Whisky and Rum

For those of us who are twenty-one years and older, you may sometimes think, what is it that makes liquors different from each other? Or more specifically, what chemical components cause liquors to taste differently? This is something that you may ponder if you are out for the night with your girlfriends, or at a family dinner party. Well good for you because I have done some research, specifically on whisky and rum– just for you!

Let’s start by taking a look at the similarities and differences in taste and smell between whisky and rum. Whisky will usually have notes of bitterness, smokiness, a coconut or spice flavor, vanilla or almond/grainy, fruity flavors through the fermentation and aging process. Rum is produced differently based on the country it is made in so its taste can vary quite a bit. Most common notes are fruity, caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, and oak. You may notice that some of these tastes are similar between the two alcohols, and why does that happen? What components allow for these differences as well? This all has to with how the alcohol is fermented and aged. I will first go over how each alcohol is fermented and then what chemical components at added at certain times and how this results in a certain taste.

First let’s look at whisky. Barley is first soaked in water and then dried (the way its dried can vary by the type of whisky), then milled (mashing breaks down the starches and creates a sugary liquid called wort) and added to water. Next yeast is added to start fermentation and change the sugars into alcohol—the yeast used can also have an effect on the flavor. This fermented product is then distilled to remove the “heart” which has an alcohol content of up to 70%. The “heart” is then stored in oak barrels to age for at least three years. Pretty cool stuff!

So what about rum? It depends on the type of rum being made, but the basics are as follows. Molasses (derived from sugar cane) is mixed with water and yeast to ferment. Then the rum is distilled to make it more concentrated and then aged. Usually, rum is aged in charred oak barrels that had previously been used for bourbon production. Rum is aged for a shorter amount of time than whisky because it is usually made in a warmer climate (so evaporation happens more quickly). After being aged it can be mixed with distillates to create a uniform flavor or be filtered to make white rum.

So how do these processes result in the flavor of the two alcohols? Whisky has phenolic compounds in it that make it bitter and smoky. Some whisky comes from barley that was dried by a peat fire or is aged in charred oak barrels. The burning creates phenolic compounds that are then absorbed either by the barley or the aging alcohol. Whisky lactones are isomers (cis- and trans-3-methyl-4-octanolide) that come from the oak barrels used for aging and both can give the whisky a coconut flavor, and the cis- isomer can give the whisky a spicier flavor. Aldehydes come into play in their highest concentration from the fermentation process and some in the aging process and gives the alcohol a vanilla or almond/grainy flavor depending on which aldehyde is present. While a large portion of aldehydes are filtered out when distilled, they are still a flavor worth noting. Esters are produced in the fermentation process when alcohols are combined with fatty acids. Esters are formed with fruity flavors from this. Similar to aldehydes, most esters are removed during the distilling process, but there are still some present in the heart. Ethyl hexanote is the most prominent ester in the heart and gives off an apple aroma. In addition, because of how long whisky is aged in oak barrels it is common for oak lactones to form. Each smell or flavor is associated with a specific part of production!

Rum has some of the same chemical components as whisky which is why they have some overlap in taste/smell. Esters are present in rum as they are in whisky and can give a fruity aroma/taste. However, rum also has ethyl propanoate which gives a caramel smell and ethyl isobutyrate which gives a butterscotch smell. Rum also has phenolic compounds that are incorporated during the aging process in charred oak barrels that can lead to smoky notes and the aroma of vanilla. Oak lactones can be found from the aging process, but in a much lesser concentration than found in whisky because it is not aged as long. The important thing to note about rum is how many different ways it can be made, and because of this the flavor and smell really can vary. For example, dark rums typically have more flavor and aroma and a filtered white rum can sometimes result in the removal of compounds that are a big part of the rums flavor.

Both rum and whisky are complex alcohols to make and the entire process plays a big part in the flavors that the end product has. When these two alcohols had similar steps in production it often led to them having similar flavors (i.e.: being aged in oak barrels, fermentation).  After doing all this research it really made me question, how can two different alcohols be made in such similar ways, but not actually be the same thing?? And then I realized, just because two things have some smells and tastes in common does not mean that they are the same! For example, a honey crisp apple is not the same as a granny smith apple. They have similar components but what really makes them different are the small additions and chemical components that give them distinct flavors. Alcohols are somewhat the same. While both rum and whisky have similarities in aroma and taste—they are not the same! These aromas and tastes vary in concentration and can be altered by aging and any additions in the production process; not to mention the starting product (sugar cane versus barley).

I hope that this sheds some light on why alcohols taste the way they do and how much of an impact the brewing process has on it! I certainly had no idea how complex alcohol could be, and what a big role chemical compounds had in the flavor and smell!



The Chemistry of Rum

The Chemistry of Whisky




Greetings from the Chemistry Symposium!


I type this as I sit in the San Francisco airport. What am I doing in San Francisco? Well I am here for a Chemistry Symposium. While I wish this trip was just for leisure, I also learned so much! I gathered with many other chemists and I learned quite a lot about how chemistry is used every day. As I was listening to these presentations I realized how valuable some of these topics would be to all of you-my readers! There were so many applications to everyday life that there was no way I would neglect all of my readers from gaining this knowledge as well.

So many topics were touched on. From paintball, to candy, to coffee and so so much more. Out of the many presentations I chose the very best three-both because the presentation was good and the topics fit perfectly with my lifestyle blog. What are these three topics? Easy: chocolate, electric engines, and marathons. I thought that these three topics covered so many aspects of our lives: food, cars, and fitness. Could there have been any better combination for a lifestyle blog?

The first presentation was on chocolate…yum! The presenter was well rehearsed and had such a good understanding of the topic. She did not try to go to broad or too narrow with her topic and kept the audience engaged. This got my attention right away. How many of you have heard that chocolate is good for you? I know I have, that’s how I justify eating so much of it. But is it really? This was the main question asked by the presenter and I soon found out that the answer is “it depends”. Chocolate has anandamide and phenylethylamine in it. These two compounds make a person feel bliss and mimics the brain chemistry of someone in love, respectively. In addition, chocolate also has polyphenols in it. Polyphenols are antioxidants that protect our cells against free radicals-which are atoms, molecules and ions with unpaired electrons. Free radicals can damage a cells DNA and can lead to Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. So if chocolate has these awesome things working in its favor it must be good for us. Wrong-chocolate also has its drawbacks. A lot of chocolates are processed with extreme amounts of sugars and fats. Also, the longer the cocoa bean is fermented the more antioxidants are lost. So what is the solution to this? Eat dark chocolate (in moderation)! While it is still processed with sugars and fats the concentration of these two things are much lower. And who knows, research is being done to genetically modify chocolate to make the antioxidants last longer so that you can have that delicious milk chocolate with the benefits of dark chocolate.

The next presentation was on electric engines. This presentation was so well organized, had great visuals, and there was no question as to what the main topic was. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am definitely not a car person so I when I saw the topic slide I was not intrigued. But as the presentation went on I saw how relevant this topic is to everyone! In this day and age energy efficiency and environmentally friendly cars are very popular, but why? Electric engine cars have both of these qualities, and they also come with free charging stations in many metropolitan areas. The drawback is that they cannot drive as far as gas battery cars, convenience of charging (especially in rural areas), and length of time to charge. So what is the difference between these two engines? You guessed it, chemistry! The conventional gas battery is an example of a redox reaction. There are two plates in the battery-one of lead and one of lead-oxide. The lead plate reacts with sulfuric acid that produces electrons that generate energy. Those electrons are then part of the reaction of the lead oxide plate with the sulfuric acid. The electric battery has the same overall function as a conventional gas battery but its composition is different. It is a lithium-ion battery and is much lighter, holds a better charge, and can be recharged. Overall there are a lot of positives to electric engines but also many drawbacks such as price, range of travel, and lack of an environmentally friendly energy source. One solution to this is a hybrid car which uses gas and electricity to run. This is something that we can all look forward to using in the future to help our planet!!

The last presentation that struck me was on marathons. While I am not much of a runner myself I was really intrigued by the topic. The main focus was on “hitting the wall” at the 20-mile mark. This presenter did such a good job of getting to the point of their presentation, but also did not leave any important information out. He did a great job of making sure that all of his points connected and related to each other. The basis of this argument is that the average human burns 100 calories per mile. A given person stores 2000 calories worth of glycogen but if you do some simple math you will see that roughly 2600 calories are needed to complete a marathon. These glycogen “reserves” are used as energy to carry out aerobic respiration (chemistry!). So what happens when these reserves run out? Your body can go into anaerobic respiration, but this does not produce quite as much energy. The other option is to start breaking down fat-but this takes even more oxygen! So how can the wall be prevented? It’s actually pretty easy to prevent as long as you know that its something to prevent. A lot of athletes will “carbo-load” (aka eat tons of carbohydrates) the week before the race. Another option is to take race carbohydrates a couple miles before the wall so that you can finish the race with no problems. And lastly, some elite athletes are trained so that they can carry more oxygen in their blood, which is completely different story. So, if you are soon going to run a marathon, or are thinking of running one, now you know the chemistry behind why you hit the wall!

These three presentations were wonderful not only to watch, but also to learn more things than just science. I learned many new skills that I can use in future presentations! These three presenters all had one main thing in common-they new what they were talking about! They were able to answer any and all questions that the audience had and were not surprised by unexpected questions. This is a skill that I can definitely use to improve on, while I can sometimes predict what questions the audience may have, you never really know what they may be thinking. The other thing that struck me was the use of minimal words and enough images on their slides. I really enjoyed this because it showed the basics of the topic and had visuals that were engaging but not distracting-something everyone can learn from.

These presentations were so wonderful and I wish that all of my blog audience could have been there. You would have all learned how chemistry is in literally everything we encounter in life and that these are just a few highlights!


What is Chemical-Free?

In this day and age, every consumer is looking for the best and safest products to use on their bodies. Consumers often seek out labels that say “chemical-free!” but is this really true? Let’s look at an example. Burt’s Bees carries a “chemical-free” sunscreen, but what does this really mean?

Many people think “chemical-free” means that there are no toxic chemicals in the product. More specifically, that these toxic chemicals are only present because they are man-made. While this may be the case, it is important to understand that Burt’s Bees may be referring to these man-made toxins, but there are other toxins to be concerned about as well.  Naturally occurring chemicals are toxic to humans too. Some examples of this are found in apples, pears, and potatoes. Wait…what??? Foods that the average American consumes multiple times a week is potentially dangerous for us to eat? To the commoner this is surprising, why would the FDA let people consume potentially toxic chemicals?

Well the real reason we can still consume toxic food items is because the toxins are in such a small concentration that they really do not have any effect on humans! Woo-hoo! No need to worry now!

Back to Burt’s Bees sunscreen and its “chemical-free” label. If we want to be extremely picky about what does it mean to be chemical free, we have to consider what is a chemical? Water is a chemical (and the first listed ingredient in the sun screen), as is Titanium dioxide (the sunscreens active ingredient), along with all other ingredients listed. All things that we eat, wear, and interact with in every day are composed of chemicals because chemicals make up literally everything. All chemicals are made of chemical compounds, which are elements that bind together, and all elements are made of super small particles called atoms. The compounds make up the keyboard I am typing on right now, and the computer screen that you are reading off of.  So is it fair for any product to be labeled as “chemical-free” when it is in fact made up of chemicals entirely?

I think that we have to consider that the company who marked their product as “chemical-free” did not know that this label is incredibly broad and that this statement could never be found to be correct. Burt’s Bees most likely meant that this product, the sunscreen, is toxin free or free of man-made chemicals, which is consistent of most peoples interpretation of “chemical-free”. In other words, Burt’s Bees meant to create a label that roughly said “Our product is natural and does not have any dangerous chemicals known to cause harm” which is very different than “chemical-free”. It is safe to say that the average consumer does not know the difference between “chemical free” and “non-toxic” and that the Burt’s Bees marketing team is appealing to a large audience and knows that by using the phrasing “chemical-free” the consumer will know that the product is not dangerous to use. Although this label was added with good intentions, it truly is false advertising. Instead, Burt’s Bees should use a label such as “non-toxic” or “toxin-free”.

So what does this mean for you? You can still use beauty and health products labeled as “chemical-free”! Just know that this label is somewhat inaccurate. You now know how abundant chemicals are and that they make up everything! BUT- now that you have read through my entire blog post you know what “chemical-free” really means and you can tell all of your friends and now you know so much more about how chemistry impacts your life!


Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my blog!

My name is Hannah Hamlin and I will be blogging for the next few months on a variety of cool things. The main purpose of my blog is to deliver you, the reader, with all sorts of everyday life occurrences that relate to chemistry! As I am sure you may already know, chemistry is everywhere! It effects us every day and is important to how we live every single day. From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the shampoo we use, and the cars we drive in-chemistry is needed for all of them!

Chemistry is a basic unit of life that is in literally everything. It is in the air we breath and everything in-between so it is very important of the impact it can have on us. This impact can be positive or negative but nonetheless, is important to understand.

The main focus of this blog is all things lifestyle. I will touch on all types of topics including fashion, beauty, and health and fitness. Chemistry is used to understand why our clothes have different textures and colors along with the tension of the fabric. In addition, chemistry is used in the making or beauty products like eyeshadow and lipstick to more necessities like shampoo and soap. Furthermore, our bodies work very precisely move ourselves when we exercise along with how it digests and uses nutrients from different kinds of foods.  Our bodies work in a very specific way that would not be possible to understand without an understanding of basic chemistry.

So, if you are looking for a place to learn more about the things in your life and how they relate to chemistry then this is the place for you! Be sure to check back every couple weeks to see what new blogs I may be writing on cool chemistry topics pertinent to our lives!