I'm relatively new to various forms of alcohol and the processes used to distill them, and so I have a theoretical question. What kinds of organic matter can't be used to create an alcohol?

There's wheat and rice and various fruits like oranges or grapes that are common for beers, vodka, etc. And then there's gin which confuses me a bit. Would it be possible to ferment (for example) pine sap? Maple sap? Garlic? Onions? Oregon Grapes? Poison ivy?

Is it the relative expense of some of those materials that makes them rare or non-existent? Or is it that the results are poor and/or not worth repeating? Or just non-starting results?

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    Your question is a bit to broad. And it is unclear if you understand the difference between distillation and fermentation and which is used then. Not sure if these topics are entirely on point with this site; despite my desire to help. – brewchez Feb 17 '14 at 13:19
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    Funny that you list oranges as "common", but in reality they are too acidic for normal fermentation. Citrus flavor is popular as an additive for fermented beverages but they are usually not the sugar source themselves. – Graham Feb 17 '14 at 13:49
  • @brewchez: my apologies for the overly-broad question, and thank you for the great answer. I should have asked my primary question as "can I distill an alcohol from garlic and/or vanilla beans?" – abiessu Feb 17 '14 at 14:47

Alcohol comes from the fermentation of sugars. Fermentation is the process by which microbes (often yeast) transform sugar sources into ethanol (alcohol) The source can be anything as long as the sugars are indeed fermentable by the yeast being used.

Distillation is the mechanical means by which alcohol is separated or purified from the solution that was fermented. Beers and wines are not considered to be distilled. Vodka and gin and other "hard" liquors are distilled. (On a side note, most all distilled spirits start out as vodka from a process standpoint. How its processed afterwards is how its transformed into things like scotch, whiskey, rum or gin. I am grossly simplifying this.)

The choice of starting material is only limited to the sugar content and how difficult it may be to process. In the history of man I am sure there are many different things that have been attempted to be fermented, but may have failed due to flavor reasons.

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    And "sugar content", if its not obvious, does not mean that the thing being fermented tastes sweet to begin with. You can take very starchy things like Agave root or corn starch and use enzymes to convert the starches into sugars. – Graham Feb 17 '14 at 13:47

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