Lesson Three: How People Make Distilled Spirits

Chapter Two: Let’s Get Cooking

Anybody Got a Still Around Here?

While a handful of beers and the upper echelon of wines are capable of aging, it was rare that these drinks were aged, and not until the last century or so. You have to have a lot of money to have leftovers you can stow away. And only the wealthy could afford underground cellars or caves for long term storage.  But distillation could create a far more long-lived drink. And higher levels of alcohol meant greater preservative powers regardless of hot or humid conditions.

Who Done It?

The inventors of distillation too are unknown. But as with beer, there had to be enough leftovers for someone to make not only beer, but then to have enough extras to distill them, and a certain amount of wealth or sophistication can be inferred. We don’t know who first distilled, but we can speak of the earliest known, commercial scale distillation, because the remains of those stills have been found in present-day Pakistan. Sometime around 250BC to 500BC, people, it appears, were hard at it. In his conquests through the Indian subcontinent, Alexander the Great (323 BC) wrote about the “grass that gives honey without the aid of bees” and from his description we can conclude that he saw sugar cane. Sugar cane juice was being used to make a rudimentary beer, and it also appears that they were distilling that beer. Alexander and his men wrote of Indian maharaji who served them a fiery and powerful drink; it was probably a kind of rum.

Still Waters Run Deep

The concept of distillation is simple enough: any beer or wine has far more water in it than alcohol (even at 15% alcohol, wine is nearly 85% water). Water boils or vaporizes at 212 degrees Fahrenheit; alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature, about 175 degrees Fahrenheit. So the trick is to take a wine or beer, keep the temperature high enough to vaporize the alcohol, but not so high as to vaporize the water.

Collect the vapor and let it cool and re-condense. The liquid you’ve collected will be at least twice as rich in alcohol as the one with which you began. Toss that liquid back in the still and do it again, until you get to the alcohol level that’s traditional or ideal for the spirit you’re making. Moreover, differentiating one spirit from another is sometimes as simple as asking how high the alcohol level in the spirit was when it came out of the still. Producers of high quality drinks such as Cognac and Single Malt Scotch are prohibited by law from distilling above certain levels. Cognac producers can’t distill above 145 proof* because the higher you distill, the more you are removing flavors. Cognac is supposed to have a certain amount of flavor; distill it too high and it becomes less flavorful.

*[footnote – see appendix for a discussion of proof, but it’s roughly twice the amount of alcohol.]

Some spirits such as vodka are distilled to very high proofs. U.S. law decrees that vodka producers are supposed to distill their spirit until it’s nearly pure alcohol. Why? Because vodka is supposed to be smoooooth, or nearly flavorless and aroma-less.

Distilled So Many Times it’s Invisible!

While vodka marketers have made lots of silly noises about the number of times they distill their drink, don’t be misled. All vodkas are, theoretically, distilled to above 190 proof and have been distilled multiple times. A few more distillations don’t really change anything, except the marketing materials and the ad campaign. The real key to quality or purity is the material you utilize: the cleanliness of the grain, the flavor of the water, the health of the yeasts. Distillation is a way of concentrating flavors: put crap in and you get crap out. Indeed, you get concentrated crap. Yum.

And perhaps most interestingly for the student of distillation, the vapor that comes off the still has lots of different aromas and flavors, dependent upon whether it comes early in the distillation or late. The first part of that steam, the heads, is typically discarded. It has some nasty smells and contains higher than normal levels of methyl alcohol, which is bad for you. The tails or latter part of the distillation, as the liquid in the still is running low, is usually lower in proof (there’s a lot of leftover water in the still) and has plenty of nasty smells too. The middle part is called the heart, and it’s the sweet spot for most distillers. Some producers will use a little of the tails and some won’t. Some will use it all. You can see how it is the choice of the heads, heart and tails that can alter the character and quality of the spirit, even more so than how many times it was distilled.

Still Crazy After All These Years

Though there are many permutations, there are roughly two types of stills: pot stills and column stills. The pot still is the kind of still that was employed two thousand years ago, and is still employed today.  The pot in question can be small (some mezcal stills hold only a few liters of liquid) or huge: one Irish pot still has a capacity of more than ten thousand liters.

But if the intention is to make a neutral spirit like vodka (often referred to as a neutral grain spirit), a pot still is not a good choice of still. The distiller would have to distill his beer many times in order to reach a sufficiently high proof for vodka. Each distillation requires that the distiller allow the still to cool enough so that he or she can clean the bottom of the still and then reintroduce some liquid and start the still up again. The whole process would take many laborious days.

Still a Better Still

In the early part of the nineteenth century, every industry was keen to improve its efficiencies. Labor might be cheap, but the Industrial Revolution was built upon the development of machinery and processes that radically improved efficiency, especially with large-scale production. Distillation hadn’t changed much since its inception: Arabic scientists had improved techniques. Somebody, perhaps the Arabs, had adopted malleable, cooling copper for still parts.

No one person should be given credit for the invention of the column still, the type of still that produces most spirits today. Many regions had their own inventors and as a result, their own particular version. Jean Baptiste Cellier Blumental crafted something for use in Armagnac; Aenas Coffey had several operating stills in the British Isles in the 1830s; young Swede Lars Olsen Smith had his own version by the 1880’s; the stills used today to make Absolut are taller and far more complicated.

Essentially, the column still producers stacked pot stills on top of each other; each pot becoming a chamber, and the top of each chamber having a perforated plate instead of a swan’s neck or lyne arm for the vapor. Within each chamber distillation would proceed much as it did inside of a pot still, but the perforations allowed some of the vapors to flow into the next chamber. Some of the vapors meet the unperforated portion of the plate and re-condense, dripping downward. At the bottom of each chamber, the liquid again is vaporized to waft into the chamber above.

Just as the top of each chamber was perforated, so was the bottom. Steam rushes up from the bottommost chamber; the beer might even be introduced into one of the middle chambers. So now, instead of having to stop the distillation each time to clean out the pot, the stills can be run continuously. It’s not for nothing that many people call these continuous stills. Now one could start with beer and end up with nearly pure spirit in a matter of hours instead of days.

Still With Me?

Technical improvements were quick to follow: if a few chambers stacked atop each other in a column could quickly speed the process, then more and more chambers would improve things further. Today there are column stills with eighty or more chambers, and they look more like rocket ships on a launch pad than the tools of artisan distillers.

Nonetheless, great spirit is made in these stills just as much as it continues to be made in arcane pot stills. It all boils down to one who is distilling and how far they are willing to go to get the best ingredients and to dispense with anything that doesn’t improve their products.

A very large pot still can allow that vapor to bang around inside, vaporizing, cooling and condensing on the side of the still, then re-vaporizing and so forth. As a result, it becomes rather irrelevant to worry overmuch about whether someone has used a pot still or continuous still. Instead it falls to us as folks who want to understand the sporty stuff to ask a few more questions: what kind of still, sure, but what raw ingredients, how much of what the heads and tails were used, at what alcoholic strength does the spirit come of the still?

Yes, continuous stills (or column stills) offer short cuts to some of these questions. Continuous stills were all about industrial efficiencies. Buying such a still, a distiller could make spirit quickly and more cheaply, but the costs were prohibitive to all but the larger companies, so in some sectors of the industry, distillation quickly became the province of a handful of large companies. For some observers, that’s all the proof needed that pot stills are used by the good guys and continuous stills by the big, bad, industrial meanies from IHateYouStan. That is a pail of poo.

As with the number of distillations, don’t believe everything you hear from the marketers about this still or that being the ideal still. That’s nonsense. The ideal still is the one that some dedicated, passionate distiller can utilize to craft their drink.

A couple of other important points, points that will become very important in future lessons: generally speaking a pot still is a fairly inefficient way to convert beer or wine into neutral spirit. But if you’re trying to retain a lot of the flavors of the raw products, a pot still may be perfect for your purposes. If you’re trying to make a neutral spirit quickly and cheaply, then a column still is definitely your man.

Rules, Schmules

But as in so much of the spirits and cocktail business, hard and fast rules get all soft and slippery in the face of practice, history and reality. We say that column stills are quick tools for making neutral spirits. Yet Bourbon makers use column stills and Bourbon has a lot of flavor, maybe too much for some people. Bourbon producers don’t distill to the high proof levels that vodka producers love, for one. Bourbon makers also age their spirits in brand new, charred oak barrels for several years, all of which adds lots of flavors. Cognac uses only pot stills. Armagnac producers usually use column stills.  But their column stills are small and inefficient, so Armagnac comes out of its column stills with far more flavor than Cognac has. One reason for that is that Cognac producers will distill to about 140 proof*. Armagnac producers see their Armagnac pour out of their column stills at a lower proof, usually around 110 or 120 proof.  As noted above, the higher the proof at which the spirit is distilled, the more neutral that spirit becomes and the less flavor and aroma that it has.

*[footnote – see appendix for a discussion of proof, but it’s roughly twice the amount of alcohol.]

Still Size Matters

And though we’ve told you not to worry too much about the size and shape of the still, it has to be admitted that the size of the still has an impact. A taller column still means more chambers, and so more opportunities for continuous distilling. As we told you above, a very large pot still (you’ll read more in the Irish whiskey lesson) can allow that vapor to bang around inside, vaporizing, cooling and condensing on the side of the still, rolling to the bottom and then re-vaporizing and so forth. As a result, a very large pot still produces a lighter, less flavorful spirit than a smaller pot still (in general). Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe that’s not. It’s in the hands of the distiller and now we’ll see how each category of spirit goes about its business of distilling, maturing and sometimes flavoring or filtering.