What is vinegar made from?

or the answer to how spirit vinegar was created.

In Europe, the production of wine and spirit vinegar is particularly common. In our cultivation area, the sugary juice of grapes is fermented to alcoholic wine by “wild” yeasts, which are mainly found on the surface of the grapes. Nowadays, this process is optimized in most cases by the use of special imperial yeasts. The alcohol content of the resulting wines depends mainly on the sugar content of the grapes and the predominantly present fermenting yeast. The wines obtained in this way can then be directly processed into vinegar by acetic acid bacteria.
The alcoholic precursors of vinegar – mainly wine and fruit musts, but also beer – are quickly infected by acetic acid bacteria when exposed to oxygen. Wines and fruit musts are therefore not very stable and the worst thing is that they reduce or completely lose their alcohol content due to acidification. In order to prevent such losses, the problem of preserving alcohol by concentrating the valuable product has been dealt with for a long time. In short, for more than 5000 years mankind has been dealing with the concentration of alcohol, especially through distillation.
The oldest distillation devices were not used to obtain alcohol, but rather to produce herbal extracts or rose oil for perfume production. This was successful mainly because the value-giving components, the essential oils, have a lower boiling point than water. The first distillation of alcohol took place around the 11th century at the University of Salerno. The alcohol yields achievable with these distillation devices were extremely low and the product obtained was so precious that “aqua vitae” was only used as medicine. Only after the development of more effective coolers could alcohol be produced economically in larger quantities around 1400. In the 19th century, the scientific elaboration of modern distillation techniques took place and today’s distillation devices are largely based on this. For vinegar production this meant that solutions with much higher alcohol concentrations than those found in wine and fruit musts could be used as starting material. Such raw materials enabled higher acetic acid content in the end product, resulting in spirit vinegar.

About the author

Dr. Klaus Hagmann, Dipl.-Ing. Food Technology, has been internationally active in sales, consulting and engineering of distillation plants for more than 25 years. His area of responsibility includes the planning of distilleries, the development of recipes and the professional operation of all equipment in the distillery. His reference books “Schnappsbrennen”, “Technologie der Obstbrennerei”, “Blitz-Liköre morgens zubereiten, abends genießen” and “Essig selbstgemacht” are best-selling classics.

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