View Full Version : Distilling

03-19-2005, 10:21
How are most (all?) bourbons distilled? Column still? Are any distilled in the traditional Pot Still?

03-19-2005, 10:25
Woodford Reserve is distilling using pot stills. Most others use column stills.

03-19-2005, 12:59
...Are any distilled in the traditional Pot Still?

It's arguable whether or not the pot still IS traditional to bourbon production, at least after its industrialization in the late 19th Century. Even Woodford Reserve's three pot stills each are two stories tall.

03-19-2005, 19:38
In addition to Woodford Reserve, there are a few very small distillers who use pot stills but with those exceptions, American whiskey is distilled from a mash in a column still, then distlled a second time in a type of pot still known as a doubler.

While there may have been a few hold-outs still using pot stills prior to Prohibition, since then all American whiskey has been made as described above. Claims to the contrary are either fabrications or based on the pot still doubler described above. Like Tim, I would dispute the use of the word "traditional" in the question. Since bourbon's evolution into the drink we know today roughly coincided with the introduction and popularization of the column still, it would be more correct to say that the "traditional" way to make American whiskey (bourbon, Tennessee, rye) is using a column still.

03-20-2005, 00:26
Thanks for the replys,I didn't mean to ruffle any feathers with my choice of words, if indeed I did do so. I certainly have nothing against the column still and if that is what is supplying me with all this wonderful bourbon then I just love the thing. I was surprised though. I have read quite a bit about whiskey production in the last few months, mostly on the Net, but most of what I had read about bourbon production was about the mashbill and the aging process. I hadn't read anything about the still used. A long time ago I read the Foxfire book account of the old time moonshiners and of course they used the pot still. Also, I have been reading about malt whisky and the books talk quite a lot about the stills used. I guess that colored my thinking. I have to get some books on bourbon. I am waiting for 'The Book of Classic American Whiskeys' but Amazon says it won't get here for about a month. That may mean that I never get it. Amazon Japan says that Chuck's book is unavailable. So I ordered it from the American site. (To tell the truth, I had forgotten I ordered it last night till jsut now. A little bourbon induced memory loss...) I can expect that to get here early to mid April. Soon my gross ignorance will be reduced!

I am going to have to get a hold of some Woodford Reserve and see what it is like. Till then I will look at what the members have said about it here.

03-20-2005, 05:15
In my view the column still vs. pot still issue is not really important since column stills can be designed or operated in a way to produce alcohol at the same strength as produced by double pot distillation. It is proof that is important - it must be under 160 for bourbon - since the lower the proof the more the flavouring compounds, called congeners, stay in the spirit. The "purer" the spirit, i.e., the higher its alcohol (ethanol) content, the less congeners it will contain. Such a spirit ends up clean, not tasting like whiskey as we know it. Why is that? Because the congeners tend to vaporise at a higher temperature than alcohol's boiling point (itself much lower than water's). So the more you concentrate that alcohol by repeated distillation (in either kind of still), the less congeneric taste there will be, it stays back with the water. Hence at 196 proof (almost pure alcohol, used to make vodka) you get an essentially flavorless and odorless spirit, this is known as a rectified spirit. Column stills can produce alcohol at 196 (often though you need a series of linked stills, beer still, rectification tower, extraction still) but also at lower proofs depending on how they are designed or operated. The more the number of perforated plates inside the column, through which the steam rises that vaporises the alcohol, the more distillations you get on each plate and the purer the final result will be; the alcohol condenses in part as it rises and gets redistilled to a greater purity. Pot stills are an older method and two runs will get you to about 140-150 proof. Wild Turkey's column stills produce spirit at under 140...

Why don't they use column stills in Scotland for single malt and operate them as bourbon stills are in the U.S.? I don't know, probably it is a question of tradition, I think whisky makers who used the column still were typed as grain whisky makers. Grain whisky is the lighter whisky used to blend with single malt to make blended scotch. Grain whisky is made (from any kind of mash, not just a barley malt mash) at about 194-196 proof, it is very close to the spirit used to make vodka. So maybe to be seen as on the "malt whisky" side of the divide, the malt whisky makers there stayed with the pot still (many of which are very large, and even more so in Ireland). Or maybe they felt malt spirit from pot stills still shows differences from the same proof spirit issuing from a column still, but I believe this is not the case. (This would be a good question to ask of a distiller who works with both types of plant).


03-20-2005, 06:23
Thanks Gary,
A thoughtful and informative post. I knew some of this from my reading about scotch. It seems that the boubon distillers take a much larger cut and therefore get more of the conegers. The book, 'Appreciating Whisky' which is my main source on column stills, says that the grain whisky produced is a flavorful whisky, not just vodka, even though it is distilled to 95% abv.
One Japanese blend that I know, Nikka All Malt, is pot still malt blended with column still malt. It is a nice smooth Speyside-like blend.

03-20-2005, 06:51
Yes, thanks, and I understand too the Scottish grain whisky (as the Canadian) is considered to retain some flavor. Apparently (in Canada at least) the extraction stage of distillation, not used in Kentucky for bourbon, allows some congeners to stay in, the "good" ones, although the fact remains both Canadian and Scotch grain whisky is very light. Aging of that whisky has a different function from aging of malt whisky or bourbon: to give bland spirit an oak flavour. Aging of true whisky is different, it is done to oxidise the higher alcohols and other elements of the congeners to produce fragrant esters. Here we get into the finer points of chemical engineering and organic chemistry, not (by a long shot) my specialty. But generally this whole thing about cuts is simply (as I understand) a question of proof difference.


03-20-2005, 10:52
Why don't they use column stills in Scotland for single malt and operate them as bourbon stills are in the U.S.? I don't know, probably it is a question of tradition, I think whisky makers who used the column still were typed as grain whisky makers.

It is generally accepted that the specific shape of the stills used to make malt whisky determines the character of the whisky, and while some broad generalizations can be made (tall thin stills produce a lighter spirit than short, squat stills) the exact effects of each change in contour are not clearly understood. But what is understood is, differently formed stills produce different whiskies. And, Scotch malt distillers' main customers are in most cases blenders, who want more than anything else consistency. As a result, when a pot still at a distillery in Scotland wears out, it is replaced by another of exactly the same proportions. I have heard a story from several sources of a distillery that had a dent in a still; when it was replaced with a new still, they very carefully made an identical dent in the new one.

It is quite likely that one could make a fine malt whisky using a column still, but the whisky it produced would be different from the whisky made in any pot still (or, for that matter, any other column still, probably). So, Scotch malt distiller is going to replace its pot stills with column stills.

Of course, there are new distilleries in Scotland (e.g., Arran) that are using pot stills, but I think that is due to (a) prejudice against column stills because, as Gary says, they are associated with "grain whisky" distilling (Aside: Scotch grain whisky can be quite good---Compass Box distributes a pure grain product called Hedonism, which is very tasty, albeit overpriced) and (b) visual appeal: pot stills fit the tourists' conception of what a Scotch malt distillery should look like, and tourism is big business over there.

03-20-2005, 12:05
Well, you might like this new series then. The whiskies show Macallan influence (i.e., Oloroso sherry cask) but dampened down and the effect of the bourbon casks is to lighten the whisky. Obviously the series are not "bad", in fact in conventional terms, very good, but I don't see how they distinguishes the house from other whiskies that have that profile.


03-20-2005, 12:24
It's too bad you didn't say something to me, Edward, but for the sake of any other international folks who may be reading this, you can order my book, BOURBON, STRAIGHT at bourbonstraight.com (http://bourbonstraight.com) and for a small, additional charge I will ship it, via International Priority Mail, anywhere in the world. It takes a week to ten days. Depending on your local laws, you may be required to pay a duty of some sort, but no different from anything else you would buy from a retailer not in your country. It's maybe a little faster than Amazon, though admittedly not a lot. In fairness, I will say that Amazon is selling it right now for a little less than I do, and I certainly don't mind if people buy it from them (just so long as they buy it).

03-20-2005, 12:39
As for stills, it isn't all about proof. Copper, for example, is believed to add flavor to whiskey but has no role in making neutral spirits. Exactly how copper contributes is not entirely understood, but it is known that tiny amounts of copper do go into the solution in the still. Scottish pot stills are 100 percent copper while column stills used for American whiskey are lined with copper and have various other copper components, although the plates that slow the mash's progress through the still are stainless steel. American whiskey column stills are periodically relined and Scottish pot still are periodically replaced as they eventually become too thin to function.

Another factor is the various rectification trays, donuts and other apparatus within the still that are used to accentuate certain flavors and reduce or elminate others.

In other words, the column stills used to make American whiskey may be column stills but they are designed to make a flavorful whiskey, and are different in significant ways from the column stills used to make neutral spirits, industrial alcohol or even grain whisky for blended scotch.

03-21-2005, 01:42
Thanks Chuck,
I was pretty sure that I could get it from you directly. And I would have if I couldn't have gotten it from Amazon. The main reason I went to Amazon was that I knew I could get it with one click. I hate filling out forms. Back before I had email I use to write long letters and then fail to send them because I wouldn't address the envelope. I know, that makes no sense at all. It's a disease...
I just checked and it is on the way. I can hardly wait!