Back in October Max Watman posted an article to the Daily Beast (https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-reason-why-your-whiskey-should-come-from-a-pot-still) titled “The Reason Why Your Whiskey Should Come from a Pot Still”. As a Pot Still, devotee and specialist I certainly appreciated his take on the subject, however there were some technical mistakes in the perception of “Column Still” distillation. Max Watman’s mistakes were based on the fact that he simply took the word of Irish distilling giant John Powers from his testimony that was recorded in the infamous “The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits” in the late 1800’s and Power’s subsequent “damnation” of the continuous column to mean that Powers was damning all types of column stills (he most certainly was! However, he likely didn’t fully understand their capabilities) and subsequently Max Watman simply didn’t make the distinction that “All Coffey Stills are columns but not all columns are Coffey stills.”
This January Lew Bryson fired back with his own Daily Beast article entitled “The Reason Why Your Whiskey Should Come from a Column Still”. Another interesting read, and one which straightens out the Coffee Vs. Kentucky Beer Still argument to a small extent but again contains lots of misconceptions about how pot stills are ran as well as the intricacies of a true Coffey vs beer column debate and what their limitations are. These misconceptions didn’t come from Lew Bryson himself generally but from Jay Erisman, the Vice President of Strategic Development for New Riff Distilling, who certainly should have known better.
All of this takes a bit to unpack and understand and I am not going to get into the deep chemistry of each type of still but instead will try to keep this as basic as I can for readers/distillers who are not as in depth in the distilling arts. These arguments are nothing new and in fact stretch back across the continents for as long as the taxman has been trying to regulate and bring to heel rebellious distillers of old using inefficient small pot stills to the chagrin of the excise.
For centuries each distilling culture and region have had their favored type of distilling apparatus and unique methodologies for running them. Each type of distilling apparatus subsequently could be modified and run with a veritable plethora of modifying machinery to affect the proof and purity of the product and subsequently the passage of more or less volatile substances to the condenser prior to raw spirit ever being finished in whatever way it was intended. Unfortunately, through the industrialization of distilling in the 1800’s-1900’s we have lost sight of how diverse our technological distilling heritage is (particularly in the Kentucky Bourbon dominated United States) and have simply settled (at least in the houses of most of the big players in the field) on an apparatus as well as methodology that is common across large distillers that simply creates a consistent raw distillate that relies heavily on the maturation process/location of barrels in storage to give differing flavor profiles. This stands in stark contrast to the roots of distilling when the art was reliant on the skill and intuition of a trained or practical distiller to start the process of differentiation between products from mash, through distillation, to maturation. A blend and balance of all the tenants of the art.
At the base of understanding the differences between a pot still and a column still is understanding the functionality of each in their most basic form:
Pot stills are batch systems, able to process and distill only what the capacity of the boiler pot will handle in one run from start to finish. Pot stills are heated by way of indirect steam, infrared, or direct fire, and most generally ran very slowly as heat must build in the entirety of the fermented material inside the still before alcohol separation happens. Pot stills are unable to fractionate alcohol in an angular way at specific product outputs in the vapor path based on the boiling temperature of various compounds and subsequently all output will exit the system from the same port at the end of the condenser, meaning a distiller needs to be standing at the end of the port to make a valid examination of the products produced and subsequently to separate wanted alcohols from unwanted alcohols.
A column still on the other hand is a continuously operated system able to “flash” distill high volumes of raw fermented material in minutes instead of hours by direct injected steam and fed by a pump from several hundred- or thousand-gallon cisterns holding raw material. Advanced “Coffey” style stills can be “tuned” to bypass unwanted congeners like “heads” and to rectify tails to a higher proof for potable spirit. Generally, they rely on a second distillation in either a “Doubler” or “Thumper” (in the Beer Still/Kentucky Column) or a second column for “Rectification” or “Finishing” (as in a Coffey still) in order to raise the proof and purity of the finished spirit. A column can be as easily operated as a set of pre-written parameters (as is done in most U.S. Beer Column still houses) or as complicated as a distiller and his/her subsequent employer will allow (again, the Coffey Still). Many column still distilling employment positions in the U.S. industry are known simply as “Operators”.
Before I start receiving hate mail for my descriptor let me add this; a column still in no way shape or form is “easier” to operate than a pot still, it’s simply a different set of parameters. As far as producing a “better” spirit, trust me I’m driving towards a point.
Let’s start with Lew Bryson’s assertion about the difference between a continuous Coffey still and a continuous beer still. Lew’s description of the difference is pretty apt. In a Coffey still, one will find (in most cases but not all) two distinct columns. The first column will contain a number of sieve plates used to separate the raw fermented base from its ethanol. These are flat plates placed in the path of the alcohol with numerous perforations to allow steam to pass through them easily. Product enters near the top of the column and runs from one side of this plate, designed similar to a strainer, to the other side where it meets a “down comer” tube and falls to the next level to repeat the same process. As the material moves across this perforated plate steam rises through the material from the bottom of the apparatus (where the live steam that makes the system work is introduced) removing the said alcohol from the raw material. From here the raw fermented material keeps making its way downward and eventually out of the system. The concentrated alcohol however then escapes the top of the first or “stripping” column and finds its way into the bottom of the second column which is known as the “doubling” or “finishing column” where it meets what are known as bubble plates. These plates have raised copper caps spread across them with small slits or holes in the side where they attach to the plate. These “bubble caps” are essential to raising the proof and purity as they allow for numerous micro distillations to happen as vapor alcohol meets liquid alcohol and an exchange occurs. Each plate represents a further step in the distilling process, raising the proof and the purity at each step. These stills were originally designed to make high proof spirit at 189.5 proof or higher, quickly and efficiently. This increase in efficiency led to a profusion of what we in the states would call “rectifiers” who would pass off spurious “whiskey” made from neutral spirits and blends of various flavoring components off to consumers both in the United States and in the British Isles. Such questionable behavior eventually lead to the quote from John Powers as noted above and subsequently an entire tirade written by John Jameson (Yes, that Jameson) entitled; “Truths about Whiskey”.
All negatives aside however, clever distillers, particularly in the Rum and Scotch category, figured out rather quickly how to modify these Coffee stills to deliver products across a spectrum of proofs higher than a common pot still generally all the while pulling from various points in the vapor path distillates that were full of flavor, life and character. Heads are eliminated from the top of the rectification column while various ports further down the column provide access to “hearts”. Anything impure like methanol or acetone can be returned to the first column for redistillation and subsequently cleaned up and salvaged. Rum distillers such as Foursquare and Demerara Distillers have both proven that these stills have unique capabilities in producing distillates that simply can’t be replicated on a simple pot still. Many times, these distillates are even blended with pot still distillates to create entirely new products. There is no doubt that a true Coffey still can offer many interesting variations and of course not a thing in the world wrong with that; a win for distillers in efficiency and a win for drinkers in diversity of flavors.
Enter the Kentucky Beer Still as described by Lew Bryson in his article. This particular style of still is very common in mid to large sized distilleries and started becoming popular and widespread after the excise tax was put in place the third time in this country in 1862. Essentially a Kentucky Bourbon Still/Beer Column is a Coffee still condensed to a single column. The continuous beer still is made up of a multitude of sieve trays in the bottom two thirds of the column and 2-4 or more bubble plates in the top of the still. Above this is a device known as a dephlegmator, essentially a condenser with a needle valve, which determines the rate of forced reflux (the condensation of ethanol vapor to liquid which falls back down the column to be re-distilled to a higher proof) in the apparatus. Raw fermented material is introduced above the first sieve tray and begins its downward descent meeting steam and separating alcohol from water. The alcohol then enters the rectification portion of the still where the proof is adjusted appropriately. During this initial distillation is when a small number of “Heads” (alcohol not wanted in potable spirit) is removed, usually by vaporizing to the atmosphere while distilling water from the previous run (used to clean out the still) during start up. A small tails fraction is also created by this same cleaning process on shutdown. The process for balancing true heads and tails portions on a continuous still is delineated by the “tuning” of the dephlegmator and condenser during the run, allowing the distillate to run fast and hot and to vent some amount of this unwanted material to the outside atmosphere (ever notice the smell of finger nail polish remover outside some of the large distilleries?) but this is a very limited method, and not truly a “cut” in the traditional sense. Methanol, acetyl aldehyde, and ethyl acetate from those portions are all collected alongside hearts for the duration of the run. Tails are generally dropped out of the still with stillage or rerun to raise their proof and purity. Even with the limited control that does exist for this “heads” portion, at most large companies and distilleries this is all pre-determined and is simply a matter of sticking to the standard operating procedures of the company, leaving the distiller with no choice but to run the still as the specs dictate. Many times, these specs are set simply for efficiency, the old “alcohol is alcohol” is standard, these methods often are put in place by engineers, not by distillers. This is a massive reason why product from large distilleries is consistent from run to run.
From the column the resultant distillate will then be condensed and run to either a “Thumper” (utilizing parasitic heat from the previous process to distill) or a “Doubler” (using steam heated coils to distill) which most generally resembles a small pot still. This device, always made of copper, again flash distills the product, raising the proof slightly but also allowing for catalytic conversion via copper contact in order to remove unwanted congeners. Due to laws regarding the proof ceiling of distilling bourbon and due to the nature of bourbon having been traditionally distilled inefficiently on pot stills (with the residual flavor of the raw material) the output of this second distillation is usually somewhere in the range of 135 proof.
The remaining unwanted congeners in the finished spirit (foreshots/heads) are over time esterified in the barrel or lost due to their volatile nature to the angel’s share. But depending upon the tuning of the still this process may not be complete in all samples.
This is not uncommon in distilled spirits of several types, even those produced even on pot stills, as many traditional Black Forrest Schnapps forego a heads cut in favor of retaining the sharp and acidic tonality of the fruit (although consumption of these spirits is to be moderated as they are unaged) and Armagnac distilled on a hybrid/Saville style still is known for its long ageing and “Rustic” qualities. No wonder then Armagnac is the brandy considered the closest kin to Bourbon.
In rare exceptions the beer column is used as a stripping still to feed a true pot still, such was the case at the original PA Michters Distillery.
As mentioned, these Beer Column stills are incredibly efficient, and they can make good product in what has become (perhaps unfortunately) the traditional Kentucky Bourbon style. However, for me as a distiller I don’t find the Kentucky Continuous Beer Still that interesting due to its lack of versatility and the focus almost exclusively of large producers to diversify products by focusing solely to the raw material and fermentation and the subsequent maturation in a large warehouse. I would even argue that the raw material might be of questionable concern to most of these firms as many large Bourbon distillers will tell you 60-70% of their flavor is derived from maturation alone. Again, this isn’t to say these stills don’t make some fantastic products as they certainly can and as their market share indicates. Instead the Kentucky beer columns simply lend themselves to a very specific and very commercial profile of whiskey. I don’t like limitations, and I hate Dogma, so generally I find myself less than enthralled with this type of distillation. That said, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger admirer of Heaven Hill than myself.
On to pot stills:
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Pot stills, which were the preferred method of distillation for centuries, clearly have a much longer and in-depth history and study and are still the preferred mechanism of distillation for many different traditions the world over. Pot stills are the darlings of American craft distillers, single malt scotch distillers, Cognac distillers, and of certain regions of Calvados production due primarily to the inefficiency inherent in their distillation process and the subsequent flavor which is retained and concentrated directly from the raw material of fermentation. (low proof ceiling).
Pot stills of course automatically lend themselves to a bit of poetry and romanticism giving their long run and association with producers of illicit folk spirits and long association with farmers and smallholders. These folk distillers have been appreciated primarily for making one off distillates unique to a specific still, location, and raw ingredient such as Mescal, Slivovitz, and Clairin. The Charentes method of double pot still distillation is one of the oldest methods of producing potable spirits still in practice.
A pot still is a very percussive instrument, it is rhythmic and reflective and everything around it effects its output. It is an extension of the distiller themselves as well as a reaction chamber for chemical conversion and of itself a study in the atmospherics of the location where it is run.
A pot still is made of a boiling pot with a simple or complex head system connected to a condenser (or potentially a retort or thump prior to the condenser). Pot stills are generally heated by way of steam jackets in modern times (though not always) and require a trained distiller to monitor constantly the output of the distillate in order to make the correct cuts for a good potable spirit. I would argue any distiller using an automated cutting system as offered by certain manufacturers should consider themselves simply an “operator”.
A basic pot still operation requires the raw fermented materials to be pumped into the boiler or cucurbit and then heated in two unique steps of distilling. The first distillation known as the “striping run” simply allows the removal of all the available alcohol from the raw beer or wine in the still with no “cuts” or removal being made (generally, although some do make a heads cut on the first run), in order to produce “low wine” at 60-70 proof to then be redistilled in what is known as a “doubling” or “finishing” run.
The low wine is then pumped into a second pot still where the temperature is closely monitored and the spirit exiting the condenser is constantly subjected to sensory analysis in order to make the appropriate cuts to remove unwanted alcohols and flavors from the finished potable spirit. Generally, 4 cuts are made on pot stills. The first amount produced is called “fores” (short for foreshot) and is removed and discarded as it is full of poisonous methanol, this is generally discarded. The second fraction produced is known as “heads” and has a strong fingernail polish remover/solvent aroma. This fraction is often saved and redistilled in the next stripping run of the same product as the proportions do not build up over time and break down with heat. The next fraction is the “heart” which is composed of potable alcohol intended for consumption or maturation. The last fraction is the “tail” which is composed of various “fusel oils” and has a boiled vegetative aroma and bitterness. This “tail” is actually where a vast amount of flavor lies and some consistency comes into play for pot still distillers as these tails are saved and rerun in the next doubling run of the same product.
Even in this most simple form of pot still distillation there are tons of variables (including when the fractions that are unwanted are or are not added back to the process), and each distiller will have their own methodology and preferred place to make particular cuts depending on the product. Those cuts are also greatly affected by everything that happens in the distillery before the distillation even begins, starting with the raw ingredients that went into the beer or wine to be distilled.
Generally, a pot still distillery will begin the process of determining where to make cuts at by deciding whether or not the distillate is going to be a young or even potentially unaged product vs the product of many years of maturation. A young product will be cut accordingly by the removal of as much heads or tails as deemed necessary to make the raw product palatable whereas an aged product distiller might elect to keep more of both components to esterify in the barrel during maturation.
The spirit produced from this second run is called “high wines” and usually clocks in around 135 proof, just like those column still’s we spoke of earlier. However, in this case, because each of the components has been selected each individual batch to make up the potable alcohol, variation is the rule and consistency is the exception.
My love for pot still distillation comes from their finnicky nature. Everything can, does, and will affect a pot still. If you are running in cold weather you get more natural reflux and a lighter spirit, in hot weather the effect is the opposite. Barometric pressure and moon phases also effect the still and each pot still runs slightly differently. Five pots made by the same manufacturer to the same specs, run in the same distillery, by the same distiller, running the same raw material, will all five turn out slightly differing products due to the human element and the atmosphere surrounding the pot still, but all will be excellent representations of the elements retained and concentrated in the raw materials (provided the distiller knows what they are doing). You don’t create consistency on a pot still, you manage it with refined senses and the use of those senses, including intuition and then through the art of marrying your barrels or batches for bottling.
Of course, nothing in life is as straight forward as what my explanation of pot still distilling above would imply. Pot stills have all manner of variations and gadgetry. Some are equipped with Pistorius lenses for forced rectification, some with dephlegmators, some with attached bubble plate columns, some with purifiers, and some with water jacketed heads. The simple line arm directionality (45 degrees up, straight over, 45 down, swans’ neck) can greatly affect the spirit by forcing reflux and creating a lighter or heavier bodied spirit. Worm or serpentine condensers vs. shell and tube condensers also make a world of difference. Some of the best pot distilled whiskies in the world that I have ever tasted have been made on a simple Appalachian style 40-gallon pot still with an attached dephlegmator holding the spirit at 155 proof for the duration of the hearts run. It’s all about flavor, and each of these setups can and does create a unique flavor, that’s all distilling should be about!
Pot stills do have another advantage chemically speaking over column stills as well if one wants to produce a heavy/full bodied spirit. The business of distilling is nothing more than the business of creating, maintaining, and manipulating flavor and since that flavor is determined by the breakdown of long chain fatty acids into short chain esters (the flavors you want in finished whiskey) and those esters are broken down with the duration of heat, why not go with an inefficient system. You get three chances to create esters; fermentation, distillation, and maturation. During distillation the duration (time) that those acids are exposed to heat is vital to the breakdown of those acids into esters and since we aren’t “flash” distilling alcohol through a device distilling hundreds of gallons a minute and instead are focusing on a batch that might take from 8-12 hours to distill we by proxy end up with volumes more chemical reactions. Add an open flame under the still and hot spots in the heated surface and you go a step further by creating Mallard reactions (think caramelization!).
In the article written by Lew Bryson, Jay Erisman pointed out that in a beer column:
“And those grains get pounded by live steam. They enter in about three-quarters of the way up the still, and all the way down, it’s giving up flavor. The beer still allows for that, and that’s important for making the biggest, fattest whiskey possible.”
Which is true, the steam is interacting with the grain for a short amount of time in the still and removing alcohol from the matrix, but points to a misunderstanding of pot still functionality and chemical reaction as well.
He goes on to say:
“You can make good bourbon on a pot still, but it is difficult to make it as big and as hefty as on a Kentucky beer still.”
To which I will add that it is not difficult at all because we pot still distillers rely on those chemical conversions mentioned above to achieve something quite similar and perhaps more complex, particularly when paired with the sensory evaluation of the different fractions of pot distilled alcohol.
Erisman goes on to say:
“Why does that beer still make a difference?” he asks. “Because a pot still whiskey is lighter, going in the barrel, and you need the biggest, fattest whiskey you can get going in that new, charred oak barrel. That’s why a pot-stilled whiskey shows best in a used barrel. The beer still is essential in making big bourbon whiskey that ‘fits’ that new charred oak barrel.”
If any distiller wanted to argue that a pot distilled whiskey from a simple pot, even with an inclined line arm, was “lighter” in style than a column distilled whiskey I would say they needed to go back to the drawing board regarding distillation theory and philosophy. Pot distilled whiskey was in new barrels and holding up just fine long before the column was introduced and the current crop of small distillers is bringing that back around. The only instance in which this might be true would be in those instances where the entirety of the grain was not entering the still as is common in scotch single malt distillation and Irish whiskey distilling where only the “wash” or liquid from the fermentation is included in the pot still. The method of wash distilling on a pot still is not common in Bourbon distilling.
Another of Erisman’s faulty points of convention is as follows:
“You don’t get stillage for sour mash out of a pot still,” Erisman explains. “What goes in the pot still is a liquid. What goes in a Kentucky beer still is everything, all the grains, everything.
Which is patently untrue. Folk distillers, commercial Bourbon and Rye Distillers, and Brandy distillers have been including solids in pot stills since the advent of pot still distillation. With old open flame systems, yes there is a chance of “scorching” or burning the material but simple stirring of the pot until it boils alleviates most of that concern and automated water power or hand crank agitators have existed for centuries, folk distillers sometimes overcome the concern by lining the bottom of the still with straw. This means that even in pot still distillation (short of Ireland and Scotland and some home distillers) Everything, grains and all, go into a pot still for distillation which also means you can take stillage for sour mash back out of the still. The oldest recipes for sour mash distilling come from pot distillers, not column producers. It’s just not a well-informed or thought out statement.
The truth is, a Lew pointed out in his article, it’s a non-argument. The art of distilling is all about the preference of flavor desired for an end product, and flavor is highly subjective. Truthfully your whiskey should come from all the variations noted above as well as others we didn’t speak of, because they all have their own unique characteristics and flavor components and each has its own set of parameters and modifications that make them distinct. For too long the U.S. was suffered commercially to drink only one type of domestic spirit distilled homogeneously across a handful of large companies. Fuck that, that’s boring. We want diversity and we should have it. If you are a column still commercial producer customer happy with where you are, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you expect diversity go seek it out and support the people producing it. I’d like to think none of us have tasted the “best” yet, simply because there are too many variables. Hell, we may already have done as such and don’t even realize it. I’d wager odds our great, great, great grandparents did, and I bet it came off a 40-gallon pot still in an old farm shed!