Grain alcohol is one of the common ways to term pure alcohol, also called ethanol, ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol. Specifically, grain alcohol often refers to a form of pure alcohol which has been produced by fermenting and distilling grain. This is the basis for the production of most alcoholic beverages, and has few other uses, such as a solvent or a in multitude of other industrial areas. Due to its high potency, it is mostly advised to refrain from consuming it directly, and in any case human beings should avoid from consuming other alcohols in their purest forms, which may be confused with grain alcohol, such as methyl alcohol (methanol) – those subtances are highly toxic to the human body and their consumption may result in brain damage as well as other health consequences.
By formal definition, for example the standard identification under U.S. law, „neutral spirits“ or „alcohol“ are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 95% ABV (alcohol by volume). The ‘grain’ in the name refers to the fact the drink is made from grain, although there are also spirits made from grapes, accordingly named ‘grape neutral spirit’, and so on. Informal definitions consider grain alcohol any distilled spirit of high alcoholic purity that does not contain added flavoring. The practical limit of grain alcohol is 95.6%.
Alcohol was traditionally produced from grains like corn and rye. The process of fermentation involves yeasts consuming their natural sugars and converting them into alcohol. Depending on the method of fermentation, grain alcohol can be relatively low, which is the case with beers, or considerably high. The process of producing pure (grain) alcohol involves allowing the fermented grains to reach a high ethanol content and then distilling them, resulting in a colorless, volatile, flammable liquid. The result of this process is often called neutral grain spirits, attributed to the clear color, „neutral“ standing for the fact it usually contains almost no other ingredients except water. A particularly popular brand of neutral grain spirits is Everclear.
Grain Alcohol vs. Drinking Spirits
Grain alcohol, although often marketed as neutral grain spirits, is different from classical drinking spirits. Drinking spirits, or in their other names, „distilled beverages“ or „liquors“, are alcoholic beverages containing alcohol produced by distilling grain, i.e. grain alcohol. The definition excludes undistilled beverages such as beer, wine or hard cider. Specifically, spirits usually contain no added sugar and have at least 20% ABV. There is no official maximum ABV, although drinks like absinthe, contain about 70% ABV. Accordingly, grain alcohol is the basis for all drinking spirits, which mostly contain additional ingredients. In contrast, grain alcohol contains at most 10% of water and the rest ethanol.
Normal grain alcohol and drinking spirits are a different definition from so called rectified spirits (or rectified alcohol), representing a highly concentrated type of ethanol which has been purified by repeated distillation not unpopular in the production of drinking spirits. This process itself is also termed „rectification“, and results in a drink contains 95% ABV. Those rectified spirits are also quite popular in the production of liqueurs, which are again a distinct class different from drinking spirits if we consider the formal definition (colloquially, we refer to almost anything with a high, over 20%, alcohol content as „drinking spirit“, but liqueurs differ from other drinking spirits in the fact they have added sugar, and are usually thick). Rectified spirits may also be used for medicinal purposes.
Grain alcohol is made from corn sprouts, usually from cornmeal placed in a cooker for a few days, which turns the corn into sugar. Afterwards, it is ground into a mash by adding boiling water to it. Following that, the concoction is allowed 3 days to ferment in case it contains yeast, and 10 days without. Once the mash’s bubbling stops, it is replaced into a cooker. Then, the process of distillation begins, which involves running water into a cask on a fire in order to vaporize the alcohol, which is then collected. This distillation process is actually the process separating different mixtures based on their boiling points, in grain’s case, 173º F.
In some regions, commercial sale of grain alcohol is actually banned due to health concerns. More commonly, grains are not allowed to fully ferment, as is the case with colored spirits like whiskey, or alternately, alcohol products are diluted to lower the alcohol content, as with vodka. Private making of alcohol, also called „moonshining“, may be illegal in many jurisdictions, as well. That is due to the risks involving drinking grain alcohol (especially if not distilled correctly), which may include alcohol poisoning.
The legal status of grain alcohol differs between countries, and even inside countries. In the US, neutral grain spirits is illegal in 11 states. In the U.S. Commonwealth of Virginia, grain alcohol lacking distinctive color, odor, and flavor, while not illegal, is not sold at any liquor stores owned by the State. In Europe, some countries such as Germany sell grain alcohol.
Risks and effects
Technically, ethyl alcohol is toxic, and most people who have consumed it may be aware of it. In limited quantities, grain alcohol may have intriguing effects on brain and motor function, which many enjoy. The same toxicity, however, also means that grain alcohol can be very dangerous, being very deceptive. It is easy to cause permanent brain or liver damage with it, and it is also a skin irritant which can cause discomfort when swallowed.
There are a number of industrial uses for grain alcohol and ethanol created through other refining processes. Ethanol can be used as an antiseptic, a fuel, and as a solvent. Industrial ethanol may not always be safe to drink, since it often contains additives. Other industrial alcohols like isopropyl alcohol have a different chemical structure which makes them unsafe for human consumption.