View Full Version : Continuous Still Construction in the 1800's
I'd like to pass on some information I obtained from an enthusiast's European website on whisky. I have lost track now of the URL but will try to locate it again. The writer states clearly that in the 1800's, many continuous stills were made of wood and stones. That is, they would have looked like a wooden derrick with shelving containing a layers of stones. The steam, as in the metal continuous systems that replaced the wood affairs, would be introduced from the bottom and vaporise the alcohol from the falling wash. The author quotes the famous English whisky writer of the 19th century, Alfred Barnard, as stating that copper continuous systems were replacing the wood and stone constructions by the end of the 19th century. This is the first time I have read that continuous stills were made from something other than all-metal. The web site writer speculates that the wood and stone must have had a flavour impact on the whisky, and I agree. Also, he states this type of construction likely would have made the still less efficient than an all-metal still, and again this would seem likely. I must check Byrn (1875) again but do not recall him mentioning this kind of construction. It seems odd that a system which was an improvement of the older pot still distillation method would use materials that were less sophisticated, if that is the right word, than even the most basic pot stills then in use. (Think of the replica just used to make a Washington style rye whisky at Mount Vernon. It looks like a small dinosaur but is all metal). Because, simple as a pot still is in theory, one can't make them of wood, not at any rate if the combustion applied is direct flame or even I would think steam coil heating. Whereas one can see that shooting live steam through a porous wood and stone tower should not of itself lead to any danger of the wood burning. Those interested in recreating historic whiskeys might be minded to construct their own wooden continuous stills. Make sure you get the right permits first, though. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif
A few comments:
(1) I would imagine that the raw materials for making wooden stills are much
easier to come by than for making copper ones!
(2) Check out www.demrum.com (http://www.demrum.com), a rum distillery that uses a wooden still.
An excerpt from their webpage:
The continuous still used here is a wooden still that is the only one of its
kind still in operation in the world today. Rum experts attribute the
uniqueness of the Demerara light rums to this still. One rum expert in
describing the Demerara rums, attributes the quality to, and in the Guyana
Review he said "… part of the distinctiveness of the Demerara rums produced
by Demerara Distillers Limited, perhaps, comes from the wooden still - the
only one of its kind in the world. It produces a distinctive spirit, not
quite like either light or heavy rum…"
(If I read them correctly, they're considering "light" to be column-distilled,
and "heavy" to be pot-distilled... so the product is somewhere in between.)
(3) I haven't seen anything in the Moonshining literature that would
indicate an American tradition of using wooden column stills. As a matter
of fact, the "steam injection" method (as opposed to the "direct heat"
method) only appears, as near as I can tell, in the 20th century. I have
a vague recollection of a practice called "running it on a log" or
"running it out on a log" that has to do with using a wooden log
in some manner, but my memory is hazy on that.
Running on a log refers to what I would call a field expedient. You take a hollowed log, filled with fermentate, and place it directly on the fire. Then you cover it with a thick blanket. As the blanket becomes saturated with condensate, you wring it out. If you wish you can repeat the process and get a spirit close to proof strength. It's also a good idea to filter it through cheesecloth before drinking.
Excellent post in turn, Tim, that information about the surviving wooden rum still is fascinating. I'll have to see if I can find rum produced from that equipment. The younger rums in the El Dorado line up may be the ones to seek. I must note, although it involves disproof of something I said in my last post, that the pot still at this rum distillery also is made of wood! They must use steam coils in a way which does not cause the risk of fire. Maybe the pot still is insulated with a fire retardant material.
I checked Byrn's Complete Practical Distiller, 1875. All his diagrams of column stills show what, even in 2003, look like very spiffy metal equipment. It seems like so long ago, 1875 does, yet his stills look remarkably like many operating today..
That is very interesting because one of the rectification techniques mentioned by Byrn is straining through layers of blankets, I believe he specifies wool. In other words, that was an alternative to leaching through charcoal vats which became popular in Tennessee. Is there carbon in wool...?
By the way, I always wondered whether the modern charring of casks is done in a way to lessen the smokiness of charcoal. Is anything added such as would make activated charcoal (or is that de-activated charcoal, anyway, the "tasteless" kind)?. I ask that because some whiskeys seem hardly to have any smoky taste at all, say, Jim Beam White Label. Or is it just that they haven't spent enough time in the cask to acquire the true, almost wood smoky odour one notes in some (usually older) whiskeys?
I saw charred white oak casks as small as one gallon advertised by an on-line Virginia general store. They carry both charred and paraffin-lined casks. They state specifically that the charred type may be used to store whiskey.
This opens the possibility to continue to age whisky in home conditions, an intriguing thought. Now I can see what Pikesville rye whiskey would be like with another three years or more in the cask. Only trouble is, where in Toronto do I find one gallon of Pikesville rye? http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif
By the way, www.redhillgeneralstore.com (http://www.redhillgeneralstore.com) is an on-line source of small-scale charred white oak barrels (the smallest size is only one gallon).
Byrn in Complete Practical Distiller, under the heading rectification, explains that double distillation will remove most of the "oil and phlegm" from spirits. He stresses that it is necessary to "gently" distill both times. This is because he knew from practise that many of the unpleasant congenerics (including higher alcohol fusel oils) would not vaporise at the lower temperatures at which ethyl alcohol evaporates. But if the fire ran too hot, these undesirable elements would come over with the alcohol vapour. He states that if after the second distillation the "spirit should be found to have too much of the essential oil", "it may be let down with fair water, and gently distilled; by this means it may be brought to any degree of purity". I believe the modern version of this practice is extractive distillation where the spirit is diluted to as low as 20 proof. In the modern method, mixing the spirit with water alters the volatility of remaining undesirable flavour elements. A gentle heating will vapourise them (they are drawn off the still at the top) but allows the alcohol to remain in solution and be siphoned from the bottom of the extraction still. The 20 proof liquor is brought smartly to about 95% abv. (in Canadian rye production systems) in an impressively efficient third distillation, in the rectification still. I am not clear if Byrn really utilised an extractive distillation. It may be he meant just a regular third distillation where alcohol vaporised in the normal way. But why was it felt necessary to dilute the spirit? Maybe because otherwise its volume of alcohol was too high and a third boiling would result in the loss of too much alcohol. But possibly empirically the idea of extractive distillation was practised in distilleries of the time.
Byrn offers as an alternative to this third distillation that the spirit be "filtrated through paper, thick flannel, sand, stone, etc., placing at the bottom of each some cotton wool, for absorbing the oil that escapes from the filter". In an appendix to the book he adds various forms of charcoal to this list. He goes on to state that the slowness of such filtration (of which clearly the Jack Daniel charcoal leaching is a modern survival) leads some distillers to use chemical or flavouring methods to rectify their liquors. He says these can be reduced to using, "fixed alkaline salts", "acid spirits mixed with alkaline salts", or "saline bodies and flavouring additions". He says of these alternatives, the best is the use of "dry sugar" because it "detains and fixes" the essential oils (i.e., covers over their taste). He criticises the use of alkalines and acids, not on grounds of adulteration or possible harm to health, but because they can impart a "urinous, alkaline, or other nauseous flavour to the spirits".
The author quotes the famous English whisky writer of the 19th century, Alfred Barnard, as stating that copper continuous systems were replacing the wood and stone constructions by the end of the 19th century.
I'm not sure how they were doing it where Alfred was, but I'm pretty sure I know how they were doing it in Bardstown, as early as 1795... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif
I used to own a tiny building in the heart of Bardstown (you can see the main Courthouse from the window). It was Adam Anthony's Coppersmith Shop, and it predated 1795. (On the Historic Register, 12" brick walls housing a small brick forge with a copper hood...very cool little building, but I lost my ass... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif) David Hall, a local historian suggested this may have been the first brick structure in Bardstown.
What that tells me, is copper was available and at least one guy was making a living providing it. Mr. Anthony went on to build a very large brick home that sits on Courtsquare today. Something just tells me...he made a still or two... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/wink.gif
I just bought this postcard on ebay. The back reads:
Back in the hills, off the beaten highway, the mountaineers have their own distilleries, making powerful moonshine called "Mountain Dew".
I was wondering what exactly this setup was. Is this what you're talking about?
While very cool, that picture appears more fanciful than historically accurate, the way the artist imagined a moonshine still might look. If this is accurate, it's much more sophisticated than what I was describing, which literally requires nothing more than a large log and a thick blanket. In your picture, the barrel into which the pipe is going could contain a worm that's not shown, although then where does the condensate go from there? Also, not sure why the alembic seems to be jacketed in something (wood? stone? mud?). A crude frontier alembic would be heated directly, not with any kind of steam.
This suggests a question not actually depicted here. Has anyone found any indication that any frontier distillers distilled from a wort, rather than a mash? Any brewer would have been familiar with the separation process and a wort is much more practical in an alembic than a mash. I'm not quite sure what the advantage of distilling from a mash is, except that it squeezes every last bit of alcohol out and, all other things being equal, is more efficient due to the elimination of the separation step.
> It was Adam Anthony's Coppersmith Shop, and it predated 1795.
Pardon my ignorance, but what did people use copper for back then?
(And enough of it to support a local coppersmith??!!)
Pots and pans? Roofing parts? Tabletops? I'm just guessing here!
> While very cool, that picture appears more fanciful than historically
> accurate, the way the artist imagined a moonshine still might look.
I'll have to disagree with you there. This looks to me like an accurate,
authentic, old-timey copper pot distillation apparatus.
> In your picture, the barrel into which the pipe is going could contain a worm
> that's not shown, although then where does the condensate go from there?
It drips into the little bottle!
> Also, not sure why the alembic seems to be jacketed in something (wood? stone?
It's probably stone and mud, in order to make a "furnace" or "fire box". It's
essentially a fireplace, carefully designed to draw air like any fireplace.
(A poorly designed fireplace/chimney will fill your house with smoke, so
it's designed to draw air into it from the room.)
> A crude frontier alembic would be heated directly...
No, no, no! You'll scorch it that way! The still sits on a rock ledge,
and is heated indirectly, by (1) the fire heating up the whole firebox,
and (2) the hot air from the fire going around the still.
Have a look at "The Foxfire Book" (a.k.a. "Foxfire 1") for a good
I think BJ is right in speculating that this coppersmith probably made and repaired a lot of stills. Click here (http://www.michaelbonne.com/index.html) for some of the other items he might have made.
I'm not an authority for sure, but things like lanterns (the coach lights on the outside of the building were 'period', and they were copper), roofing (several of the large homes around Courtsquare have copper roofs), pots and pans, all kinds of general household stuff, and last but not least, stills... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/drink.gif
I find it interesting that it was a coppersmith to be one of the first folks to settle in Bardstown... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif
Gotta love this town http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/toast.gif
Yeah, that's exactly what I meant... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif
That little shop is called Raspberry Alley to the locals. Sits behind Wilson & Muir Bank.
He must have been a pretty important guy... http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/cool.gif
I've enjoyed this discussion and the information imparted. I would note that domestic implements and industrial-scale equipment would have been two different things especially at the time in question. The expense of using copper may have precluded its use in the tall (often multi-story) column stills that were used increasingly to make spirits and whiskey after Coffey (Ireland), Stein (Scotland) and Adam (France) did their groundbreaking work. Not to prejudge the issue but I think the point is worth making..
There is such a thing as a small column still. They are commonly used by itinerant distillers in the Armagnac region. Likewise most of the alembic stills used in the time of BJ's coppersmith would have been small. Your point, however, is well taken that the local coppersmith probably didn't support the larger scale distilleries that came later, regardless of which type of still they used, but he would have made and repaired the small "home" stills that were common in that period. In fact, I suspect that the reason Bardstown had a full time coppersmith at such an early date may be directly related to the prevalence of distilling activity in the region.
I would also note that today and, presumably, then as well, the column stills are copper lined and much of the piping used is either copper or copper-lined.
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