How to Make Alcohol From Potatoes? Eva Ekeblad, Google Doodle Scientist, Knows What to Do

Potatoes move toward their cleaning site on October 1, 2009 in Matougues, northern France, at McCain deep frozen French fries factory. The root vegetables can be distilled into vodka and other forms of alcohol. FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty

Today potatoes are one of the most widely-consumed foodstuffs in the entire world. But back in 18th-century Sweden, the humble root vegetable was a rarity, grown only by the aristocratic upper classes and not available to the common people.

That's where Eva Ekeblad, the subject of Monday's Google Doodle, comes in. The Swedish scientist, who was born 293 years ago on on Monday—she died in 1786—discovered that potatoes could be made into moonshine or flour, revelations that helped avert famine in Sweden (but probably led to a few damaged livers).

Ekeblad, a Swedish countess, grew her own batch of potatoes for study. Her experiments led her to observe that the starchy vegetable could be ground down into a form of flour. At the time, Sweden was suffering from a shortage of oats and barley grains and Ekeblad's findings meant that potatoes could be used as a substitute.

But the agronomist is more renowned for unearthing another potato creation: the production of alcohol, including vodka. This breakthrough meant that other grains that were being used to make alcohol, including wheat, could be saved for food production. Ekeblad's scientific work helped to prevent famine in Sweden in the following years.

Happy birthday Eva Ekeblad, 1st female member of the Swedish Academy of Science #womeninscience

— Dr Rebecca Kahn (@rebamex) July 10, 2017

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Making alcohol from potatoes involves mashing the vegetables to release the starch; adding enzymes to convert starches into sugars; and fermenting and distilling the mixture. Potato vodka remains a popular drink in Sweden and beyond, and one of the country's most famous vodka brands—Karlsson's Gold Potato Vodka—was ranked in the top 10 potato vodkas in the world in 2015 by online reviewers Alcohol Aficionado.

Her discoveries resulted in her admittance to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1748, aged just 24, the first woman to join. As one of the world's most prestigious scientific institutions the academy is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry every year. Ekeblad's achievement was was not repeated for more than 200 years, until Austrian nuclear physicist Lise Meitner joined the academy's ranks in 1951.

Besides her scientific exploits, Ekeblad lived a life of relative comfort as a member of the Swedish nobility. She married a count, Claes Claesson Ekeblad, at the age of 16, and, on the occasion of her marriage, was given two castles by her father. In addition to conducting her own research, Ekeblad was the mother of seven children and tended the family's estates.