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  1. #1
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    Cutting those heads and tails

    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?
    If God made anything better than bourbon he must have kept it for Hisself.

  2. #2

    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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."

  3. #3

    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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/f...an-distillery/

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

  4. #4
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    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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.
    Last edited by Josh; 03-15-2013 at 14:05.
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  5. #5
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    Cutting those heads and tails

    Quote Originally Posted by Josh View Post
    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.
    "A man comes from the dust and in the dust he will end-- In the meantime it is good to drink whiskey."
    -->WhiskeyWonka<--

  6. #6

    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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.

  7. #7
    Advanced Taster
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    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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.

  8. #8
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    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    Quote Originally Posted by Rutherford View Post
    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.

  9. #9
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    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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.

  10. #10
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    Re: Cutting those heads and tails

    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?
    If God made anything better than bourbon he must have kept it for Hisself.

 

 

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