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Flyfish
03-15-2013, 12:33
My wife and I have done the Bourbon Trail twice. I have asked about where the different distillers make the cut between the heads and hearts and the hearts and tails. In response I get a short lecture to the effect that the heads are methanol and they'll kill you; the tails have a nasty, bitter taste so they're left out. Okay. I get it. But it seems to me that where they make the cuts has to effect the flavor profile they are trying to achieve. I'd like to hear a tour guide say, "Alcohol boils at 173F and we make the cut at ___ F because we prefer the congeners that come off in that range. And we cut the tails at ___ because we like a little bite but want to retain the sweetness that our customers love so much."
Freddie at BT is our favorite guide and even he answers with the usual boiler plate.
Do any of you SBers know where they make the cuts at 4R or HH or BT?

VAGentleman
03-15-2013, 13:36
Sailor 22 posted this in the Does Yeast affect flavor thread

"BTW - in the conversation with Jim Rutledge that High Horse referenced earlier Mr. Rutledge said they don't make any cuts at all for heads and tails. So that would eliminate the heads and tails cuts variable someone mentioned. Also it seems every time I ask about the corn used I'm told #2 dent is the standard used by all the major distilleries. Rutledge stressed that there are differences in the quality in that grade. Balcones, High West and probably some other micros use blue corn to get a different product."

VAGentleman
03-15-2013, 13:49
I also remember taking a tour of A Smith Bowman with Truman mentioning they do the heads and tails cuts by taste and smell. Found this great article about him where he mentions it again


"Everything at the distillery is done by taste/nose. We distill the product and make the cuts by tasting. Our noses decided what we keep and what we throw away."

http://www.northernvirginiamag.com/food-and-wine/life-by-texting/2013/02/11/16-hours-with-a-master-distiller-truman-cox-of-a-smith-bowman-distillery/

If you haven't read the article, its a great read into the daily life of a Master Distiller at a small distillery

Josh
03-15-2013, 14:02
I have always been under the impression that "cutting for heads and tails" is a pot still thing only, and that distillers using continuous stills like the ones used in all the big American distilleries don't need to do that. In fact I thought that was one of the benefits using that sort of still, no need to make cuts. What I know about chemistry and distilling could fill a post-it-note, though.

AaronWF
03-15-2013, 14:27
I have always been under the impression that "cutting for heads and tails" is a pot still thing only, and that distillers using continuous stills like the ones used in all the big American distilleries don't need to do that. In fact I thought that was one of the benefits using that sort of still, no need to make cuts. What I know about chemistry and distilling could fill a post-it-note, though.

Yes, that sounds right. Heads, hearts and tails are automatically sorted by boiling temp in the column still. I don't remember where I read that. I would suppose that column stills can be built to sort the cuts at differing degrees, so not every one will necessarily be the same.

Rutherford
03-15-2013, 15:21
With a pot still, you cut off the heads by discarding the first distillate from a batch distillation, and cut off the tails by discarding the last distillate from a batch distillation.

Column stills are continuous, so with a column still, you can cut off the heads by having a taller column with more plates and taking a certain proportion of distillate from this point instead of the lower point where the heart comes out. These extra plates allow more separation between the ethanol and methanol, the higher parts of the column having a cooler distillate (with more methanol and less ethanol and water). Similarly, some distillate could be taken out at a lower plate, where the distillate is hotter and thus has more fusel alcohols and water and less methanol and ethanol. That said, the distillate out of a column still that only has two streams out (white dog and leftover mash) is going to have a lot of the tails left in the mash. It's necessary to cut off the tails with pot distillation, as each batch needs to be stopped when the still reaches a certain temperature or you end up boiling all your water/fusels out.

This is a fair bit harder than with a pot still. Furthermore, the advances in yeast quality, manufacturing quality, and the fact that there's really not enough methanol to do any harm in the original product all make these steps less necessary.

BigBoldBully
03-16-2013, 00:55
That strikes me as an excellent explanation, Rutherford. Hopefully it's also correct! I would add only that I once read that the results of a small-scale private distilling operation, with no cutting of heads or tails, were tested and found to contain less methanol on average than the products of commercial distilling.

tmckenzie
03-16-2013, 04:45
With a pot still, you cut off the heads by discarding the first distillate from a batch distillation, and cut off the tails by discarding the last distillate from a batch distillation.

Column stills are continuous, so with a column still, you can cut off the heads by having a taller column with more plates and taking a certain proportion of distillate from this point instead of the lower point where the heart comes out. These extra plates allow more separation between the ethanol and methanol, the higher parts of the column having a cooler distillate (with more methanol and less ethanol and water). Similarly, some distillate could be taken out at a lower plate, where the distillate is hotter and thus has more fusel alcohols and water and less methanol and ethanol. That said, the distillate out of a column still that only has two streams out (white dog and leftover mash) is going to have a lot of the tails left in the mash. It's necessary to cut off the tails with pot distillation, as each batch needs to be stopped when the still reaches a certain temperature or you end up boiling all your water/fusels out.

This is a fair bit harder than with a pot still. Furthermore, the advances in yeast quality, manufacturing quality, and the fact that there's really not enough methanol to do any harm in the original product all make these steps less necessary.
That is the case in scotch grain whiskey production and rum and vodka production. where they have to columns. All bourbon stills pull vapor out of the very top. There is a heads cut of sorts when you switch from condensing water to whiskey on start up and you cut to tails when you chase the beer through the still to shut down. This is all redistilled.

squire
03-16-2013, 07:48
I was waiting for Tom to weigh in but let me add some thoughts. The old fashioned pot still is a giant superannuated tea kettle whose inefficiency puts out a distillate that has to be separated by the stillman. The heads and tails go back to be redistilled or discarded while the middle is barreled for aging. The modern column still (also called a continuous still) is quite efficient and does the separation job in the process.

The old phrases still hang on though, I remember print ads from 50 years ago when much would be made of the image of stilling whisky (we only use the middle cut), (we only use the heart of the run), etc, which is partially true but what they didn't say was the column still did that automatically for them and still does today.

Flyfish
03-16-2013, 08:14
If continuous stills eliminate the need to cut the heads and tails, why don't the tour guides just say so instead of launching into their lecture about methanol being poisonous and the tails being bitter? My original question still stands (so to speak): If they cut, do distillers cut in pretty much the same place(s) or do some deliberately hold on to more congeners (for good or ill) than others? And who does what?

squire
03-16-2013, 08:36
Flyfish (great handle by the way), I believe tour guides are there to entertain not educate. They are tightly scripted and their job is to promote the brand. Can't blame them when you think about it, I mean why should they give out technical details of their operation to any stranger who walks in the door. There's also a very good chance the guide doesn't know those details either.

HighInTheMtns
03-16-2013, 09:06
I don't think the distillers are likely to reveal that information. They typically won't even reveal distillation proof.

Peter_Pogue
03-16-2013, 10:41
For artisan "craft" distillers like ourselves it is pretty much done the old fashioned way, i.e smell and taste with a little guidance from temperature reads and boiling points. We use a 125 gallon Vendome pot still. The decision to make the cut is largely based on taste, but the temperature of the vapors coming over is a very good indication of the compound that is in the distillate. Here is a list of the major chemicals in distillation and their boiling points:
Acetone (134F)
Methanol (wood alcohol) (147F)
Ethyl acetate (171F)
Ethanol 78C (172F)
2-Propanol (rubbing alcohol) (180F)
1-Propanol (207F)
Water (212F)
The heads portion of the run is the Acetone to Ethyl Acetate, Hearts is Ethanol as you know, and the remaining components comprise the tails. There is always some leaching of the heads into the hearts phase and hearts into tails since few stills are equipped for 100% separation like some laboratory stills or the stills in the oil industry. Using the boiling points and temperatures as guides, and then smelling and tasting you get a pretty good idea of when to cut the heads to the hearts and then hearts to tails. If you have ever had the opportunity to smell and taste the heads and tails v. the hearts you can pick it up pretty quickly. Hope this helps answer your question to some degree Flyfish, at least that is generally how we are doing it these days.

Peter Pogue

black mamba
03-16-2013, 10:55
Great post, Peter, thanks for the info!

Flyfish
03-16-2013, 10:59
Thanks, Peter. We're making progress. But I'm interested in not so much how the cuts are made but where. Where is that sweet spot that includes as many of the desirable traits without getting the less desirable? Without revealing any proprietary information, can you say "We tend to make the cut at X point (XXX F ?) because we think the taste there has the best balance of Y and Z"? Is this a factor in determining why some whiskey tastes rough around the edges or have I just gone too far out on a limb?

squire
03-16-2013, 11:07
Thank you very much Peter, that's exactly the sort of answer I've requested from tour guides in years past but finally stopped bothering to ask. Ya'll are a bit out of my drive range but if those the kind of answers I can get you are certainly on my list of out of the way places worth visiting.

By the way, is Limestone Landing on the market yet?

squire
03-16-2013, 11:36
The old timers had their take on it relative to their job responsibilities, mash men would say whisky was made in the tub, not the still, still men would say they made the whisky good, warehouse men would say the others supplied the ingredients but they were the ones who made the whisky fit to drink.

Good whisky is round stone smooth like the rocks found on the bed of a constantly flowing stream.

BigBoldBully
03-16-2013, 11:44
"... can you say "We tend to make the cut at X point (XXX F ?) because we think the taste there has the best balance of Y and Z"? Is this a factor in determining why some whiskey tastes rough around the edges or have I just gone too far out on a limb?"

Will be very cool is Peter is able to provide additional information on this point. My suspicion is that a distiller's judgments in this regard do make a significant difference. There are a couple of interviews on tequilawhisperer.com where tequila distillers (who were using pot stills) talk directly about this process. I recall at least one saying he liked to keep extra tails to add character, but I do not think he identified particular temperatures if that is the primary info you are after.

sailor22
03-16-2013, 16:01
The mash tub it not heated precisely evenly so there is overlap of elements from different boiling points.
Some heads and tails do add complexity as long as they don't dominate. The wood will modify their taste, often in a positive or complimentary way.

Disclaimer - I don't distill and what I just posted is what I have been told by distillers in recent conversations.

Peter_Pogue
03-16-2013, 16:47
Well, not to confuse the process any more, but when ethanol and water mix their boiling points average out to another boiling point depending on the relative concentrations of each chemical. It's call an azeotropic mixture (more here if curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azeotrope). If we get a 10-13% alcohol solution from the fermentation we'll usually see the heads section from about 170F to 180F, hearts from 180 to 192F, and tails from 192- 206F. If we get a 14-16% alcohol solution the vapor temperatures will be lower by about 1 degree because there is more alcohol in the water/alcohol mixture.

There are potentially several other factors to consider when making a cut, including the proof of the distillate, the rate at which the distillate is being collected, the type of still and the amount of reflux occurring if applicable. You can try to quantify the cutting process by accounting for all of the above, but your sense of smell and taste will ultimately be the deciding factor. After all, if it tastes bad, you probably wont drink it and certainly wont sell it. Some try to stretch the hearts by cutting early into the heads and late into the tails to get more marketable product, but we think that adversely impacts the overall product, even after aged, so we try not to get many, if at all. Sailor is correct that some may add complexity if aged properly.

Thanks for asking Squire. Yes, our Limestone Landing is in limited distribution in Kentucky, Illinois, and New York, and likely soon in Indiana. We also will have an aged rye in the next few months with limited distribution as well.

Peter Pogue

Flyfish
03-16-2013, 18:05
[QUOTE=Peter_Pogue;329960]
Some try to stretch the hearts by cutting early into the heads and late into the tails to get more marketable product, but we think that adversely impacts the overall product, even after aged, so we try not to get many, if at all. Sailor is correct that some may add complexity if aged properly.

Thanks, Peter. What I hear you say is that you prefer to emphasize quality over quantity and, I infer, cheaper whiskey tends to have more of the heads and tails. Your practice is to "not get many, if at all." Do you know of any colleagues/competitors who choose to reach into the heads and tails because they believe that there are desirable qualities found in them; i.e., not just a matter of stretching the production a little? A certain amount of creative judgment must be involved if it is done by taste. We know how variable that can be. (Read any post on this site.)
And I really do appreciate you willingness to share your professional expertize. SB.com seems to lean heavily towards bourbon consumers who can get quite geeky at times. Not that I'm in that category, of course.

tmckenzie
03-18-2013, 04:34
it leaves a ton of heads and tail in the product. that is why it tastes so good.

VAGentleman
03-18-2013, 08:34
Do you need to cut heads and tails on a pot still for a second or third distillation or is it only with the mash? I'm thinking of A Smith Bowman. If they get a white dog from BT that has already been distilled twice, why would they need to cut heads and tails?