Introduction To Distilling
By Malcolm Lieban
Distilling is an interesting process that will get you more familiar with the science and depth of the flavors of your favorite alcoholic beverages. This process of concentrating and separating the flavors from inside your beer, wine, or “wash” to create a character all its own is a wonderful way to expand and explore your hobby of homebrewing or winemaking.
What even is distilling?
Distilling is the process of separating the chemical components within an alcoholic beverage. We achieve this by heating the beverage or “wash” to a simmering point where alcohol and other compounds will evaporate but the majority of the water does not. As the alcohol evaporates, we collect the vapor and condense it back down into liquid form. The volatile compounds that come out will be in much higher concentration than in the beer or wine which leads to more intense or volatile flavors and aromas. While collecting this newly concentrated “spirit” we separate certain parts of the product for various reasons. We want to separate the distillate into portions as it comes off of the still. The very first portion that comes off is colloquially called the "heads" and contains "Foreshots" which are poisonous as well as other volatile compounds that might not smell or taste good. The next portion is the bulk of the ethanol and tasty flavors known as the “hearts” and the last portion contains excess oils and is known as the “tails”. More on that later.
What makes different spirits?
Spirits are named by what sugar was fermented to produce the alcohol. Brandy comes from fruit, Whiskey from grain, and Rum from sugar cane. Another way to classify spirits is by how they are distilled: distilling to a high proof achieves neutral flavor of vodka; distilling spirits with juniper berries and other botanicals is what makes a gin. By distilling at home you can create your own specialty spirits from whatever sugar and by whatever distillation process you choose.
What is a “Still”?
A still is the apparatus through which distillation becomes possible. The still comprises 3 main parts: The Boiler, The Neck (a.k.a. Column or Lynne Arm), and the Condenser.
The boiler can be made from a brewing kettle, electric kettle, or pressure cooker. This is simply a large vessel that holds the wash while it is heated. The most important aspect of a boiler for distilling is that it creates a seal with the neck so all of the vapor is contained and captured. Electric kettles are preferred to open flame gas stoves because alcohol vapor is flammable.
The Neck, Column, or Lynne Arm are where much of the flavor characteristics of your still are realized. Simpler Pot Stills or Alembic Stills will have just a small copper or steel pipe coming from the lid of the kettle straight over to the condenser. These stills inherently produce a more flavorful spirit at a lower proof. These kinds of stills are excellent for rum, agave spirits, bourbon, and brandy.
Other, more complex, stills are commonly called “Reflux Stills” and will have tall columns with copper wool or percolation plates inside and an extra “reflux condenser” on top of the column. These materials inside the neck add “reflux” to the still. Adding reflux causes the vapor to condense into liquid form and fall back into the wash instead of exiting the still. This means that heavier, more flavorful compounds stay behind and do not make it into your finished spirit. These types of stills are necessary for the production of vodka, modern gin, and fuel.
The product condenser is the final piece of the still where the vapor is turned back into liquid form just before being collected. This is the most important part of the still because without it we are venting flammable vapor into our workspace. Condensers come in lots of different shapes and sizes. The size and efficiency of the condenser will limit how much throughput your still can manage safely.
General outline of the distillation process.
The distillation process is fairly simple and rewards patience.
Most spirits are distilled two times. The first run is called a Stripping Run. In this run we want to get all of the alcohol evaporated and condensed. During a stripping run we collect all of the product that comes out of the still and we throw away all of the wash that is left behind. We can do this as fast as the boiler and condenser can handle. For stripping runs it is important to use an anti-foam agent to prevent any foaming hot break.
At the end of a stripping run the wash will be boiling close to 212 degrees since you have removed and collected the alcohol. The product you collected is called “Low Wine” and should be anywhere between 40 and 100 proof. Low wines are not safe to drink, but probably don’t smell too enticing anyway.
The distillation is called the Spirit Run. This is where we will separate the poisonous foreshots, harsh smelling heads, ethanol rich hearts, and flavorful tails.
Conducting a spirit Run
Charge the still with your low wine. You will want your charge to be less than 90 proof for safety reasons and for ease of use. The lower the proof, the easier it will be to control the temperature inside the still which will make it easier to separate your cuts. The goal of distilling is keeping only the portions that include the flavors and aromas you want. Focus and control of the vapor temperature and flow rate will help you manage the run and the cuts more easily.
As you go through your spirit run it will be helpful to have lots of jars or bottles on hand. Every now and then take a small sample of the spirit coming from the still and label that jar with the time, temperature, and proof. At the end of the day you can take all of your jars and smell them side-by-side to learn the differences and how the spirit changes throughout the run.
Heat the still gradually. You want the product to start coming out of the still in slow and steady drops. The more patience you have, the better you will be able to concentrate and separate the heads. There are no hard and fast rules for how much heads you will get from a batch because every still and wash is different. Pot stills will get more blurring between the heads and hearts and reflux stills will get more concentrated heads portions with less overlap. To see this for yourself you can use small jars to collect your heads as they come out. Label them carefully.
Sometimes I’ve cut off as much as 40% of my alcohol volume as "heads" just because it didn’t smell good, and if it doesn’t smell good why keep it in your batch?
Drinking the foreshots really can make you go blind. And drinking heads can give you a nasty hangover. Always throw out the foreshots, which is the very first distillate that is produced. Some distillers will keep the heads to distill again later, but one can expect diminishing returns for the time invested.
At some point you will see your flow rate and temperature increase and the proof decrease all at the same time. The spirit should no longer sting or burn your nostrils when you smell it. These are all indicators that we have reached the hearts of the run. Now we can start collecting and tasting the spirit. Use a small spoon to collect a few milliliters to taste. It can be helpful to add distilled water to your sample if it is very high proof. Many distillers find it helpful to always dilute each sample to the same proof every time they taste to ensure consistency. Exhale right after taking your sip to taste more of the volatile flavors. Be very careful when tasting high proof spirits. Remember to save small portions to sample side-by-side later.
As the run goes on, the proof will decrease and the flavors will become heavier and more oily. It is a matter of personal preference where you stop collecting as you enter the “tails”. It is great practice to collect your tails in small jars, take notes, and come back to taste them later. You can always blend the different fractions back into the full batch later.
You can collect the tails in bulk to distill in future batches. This is a time honored tradition and will keep your spirits’ flavors consistent if you want to do multiple distillations to fill a barrel.
Flavoring and aging spirits
Now that you have your finished spirits there is a whole wide world of what to do with them. You can drink them as they are or add any flavor you want to them. Most distillers like to add oak to spirits. You can add 1oz of oak cubes into 1-5 gallons of spirit depending on your personal preference. You can even use fresh fruits and spices to make flavored rums, vodkas, and gins. Spirits have an indefinite shelf life when stored in glass, steel, or oak barrels. The sky really is the limit here.
Overall there is a ton to learn and it is guaranteed that your tenth batch will go smoother and taste better than your first batch. Keep trying stuff and sticking with it and you will have lots of excellent spirits to enjoy and share!
In a plate and column still, a bubbler cap goes over the open section between two chambers. It condenses the distillate and drops it on the plate for redistillation.
The act of adding wash to the still chamber.
A blue mineral that can form from hard waters and copper.
A device to take a vapor and turn it to a liquid.
The lighter than alcohol fraction that comes out before the alcohol. It contains poisonous chemicals.
A device that connects to the condenser and fills a sample jar. Normally a hydrometer is floated in the sample jay to monitor proof in real time. When the sample jar overflows the excess is collected into the receiving vessel.
A form of distillation that intentionally fractionates poorly in order to retain flavors that are lost in a reflux still.
A measure of the percentage of alcohol in a distillate. In the US it is two times the percentage of alcohol.
A white stain caused by evaporating hard water.
A still that has a water cooled cap on the top of the distillation column in order to condense a portion of the distillate back into the column. Used to increase the efficiency of the still.
A state where the still will push out liquid in burps. When a still is surging look for places that a vacuum can form and eliminate them (see surge breaker). Also, surging can be stopped by lowering the heat. Foaming in the wash pot can cause surging.
Holes between the condenser and the parrot to break the vacuum that the liquid seal in the parrot can cause.
The heavier than the alcohol fraction that contains many flavor molecules.
Any liquid that will undergo distillation.
The vessel that will be heated to provide vapor to the still column.
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