Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pot Stills Versus Column Stills.

My issue here is not so much the technical one as the truth-in-advertising one.

When a producer touts a product as "pot still," what is the point being made? One obvious answer is: "not made in a column still." There is, among many spirits enthusiasts, a prejudice against column stills in favor of pot stills. I use the term "prejudice" deliberately because the attitude is based on some very debatable assumptions, but it exists nonetheless.

If it is an appeal to authenticity, to some sort of adherence to tradition, then does that have any validity if the equipment in question bears little or no resemblance to the traditional alembic or, at least, to the modern versions of same employed in Scotland and Cognac? Even if the equipment is, technically, a pot still, are you being true to the customer's expectations if you use that term?

There is a product called A. H. Hirsch bourbon, which claimed to be the only pot still bourbon made after Prohibition. Let me say right off that it is a delicious whiskey and I have purchased as many bottles of it as I can afford. It is exceptional. That's not the issue.

Extensive research has been done on the pot still claim and although all of the people with direct knowledge are dead (the whiskey was distilled more than 30 years ago), it appears that the claim was essentially false, but rationalized by the fact that the doubler in an American whiskey distillery is, in fact, a pot still, and at the time of the whiskey's distillation at the Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania, many other larger Pennsylvania distilleries had abandoned doubling, so Michter's did have a somewhat valid claim to a process, involving a pot still, that differentiated it from its competitors.

It also appears that the whiskey's makers set out intending to make an entirely pot still whiskey but were never able to get that off the ground and settled for just using the term to describe a conventionally-made whiskey. They did, however, stencil the words "pot still" onto their doubler.

There is a new product on the market right now called Willett Family Pot Still Reserve. The bottle resembles a pot still owned by the Willett family, however the product inside said bottle was not made in that still nor in any pot still except, as with Hirsch, for the doubler used by the conventional American whiskey distillery that actually distilled the product.

Woodford Reserve, on the other hand, uses three pot stills, manufactured in Scotland, to make one of the component bourbons in its Woodford Reserve Distillers Select. The company has also released two products in what it calls its Masters Collection that are 100% pot still. The stills function exactly like the pot stills used in Scotland for malt whiskey except that the first still uses a recirculating pump that allows them to distill from a mash, in the traditional American manner, rather than a wash.

That's whiskey and there is no question that whiskey can be made in pot stills. As for vodka, even if it is possible to make vodka, i.e., gns, in a pot still, even without the use of a rectification column, so what? What would be the point of the claim? What superiority would the use of a pot still ostensibly impart?

My purpose here is neither to prescribe nor proscribe, but to provide information and stimulate thought and discussion.

10 comments:

imagine said...

Thinking about High West and I understand most of what you had to say, I did however wonder about the distinction between Whiskey and Rye. For most of us consumers Whiskey is a blend and Rye is straight. High West is called both a Whiskey and a Rye, I find that confusing??

Ken.

Chuck Cowdery said...

"Whiskey" is a broad category that covers just about any spirit made from grain and aged in wood. Bourbon, scotch, Irish, rye--they're all whiskey. Some are straights, some are blends, but all are whiskey. American straight rye is a type of whiskey made from a mash that is at least 51% rye. Some confusion is caused by the fact that in Canada they use "rye" to describe their blended whiskey which, in many cases, contains very little rye. I hope this clarifies the matter.

Jack said...

"Pot still whisky" or "Alembic Pot still whisk(e)y is a much less efficient ethanol production process resulting in a larger number of the 400+ flavor congeners produced by our valiant little yeasties getting into the "whisky" along with the ethanol. It results in a much more fully flavored product with the taste of whiskey.

Anneus Coffey invented the Coffey Patent still in 1830. From the beginning it was a much cheaper way of producing essentially pure ethanol from grain. To my way of thinking perfectly suitable as a motor fuel if not very economic.

Commercial distillers, and indeed 95% of all Scotch whisky, blend cheap neutral grain spirits with Pot Still whiskey, which produces whisky flavored neutral grain spirits.

The battle was settled by the English Excise office in 1890 and there has since been no legal difference between grain spirits and whisky.

But they never were the same thing.
Whisky comes from pot stills.
Alcohol comes from fractionating columns (actually gasoline does too).

If you mix the two, you can fool some of the people some of the time...

But you're still not making whisky.

Jack Rickard

Chuck Cowdery said...

By defining whiskey your way, no bourbon is whiskey. You also seem to say that spirit made in a pot still with a huge rectification column on it can be whiskey but nothing made in a column still can be whiskey. Obviously, I don't agree.

Although a column still can produce pure ethanol, a column still can also produce a very flavorful whiskey. An alembic, technologically, can produce only a low proof, hence flavorful, product; whereas a column still can do either.

Sergey said...

Chuck, I think it's not too late to continue this discussion. I agree that column still may be used to produce flavorful whiskey, but let me ask another question: Why do all modern bourbon distillers use a doubler?

Doubler is a pot still, and in spite of its name, alcohol strength increase is insignificant in it. If there is no difference it would be much easier just to increase height of the column or tune it for more reflux, but all bourbon producers use pot-still distillation as the final step.

So there should be something else in pot still that you forgot to mention.

As I understand flavor profiles for two methods of distillation at the same alcohol level are totally different, and pot distillation has more desirable one. So column still makes first step of the distillation much easier and cheaper, but pot still distillation is still required to filter out unwanted compounds and keep good ones.

My opinion that current tradition is good for large-scale production, but maybe for boutique bourbons and super-premium products it would have sense to try 100% pot-still distillation and let customers to choose better way?

I would be happy to hear your answer.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I agree with everything you say, Sergey, except you're making a slightly different point. Do you need a pot still somewhere in the mix to make good whiskey? All evidence points to "yes." If one pot still is good does that mean all pot still is better? No. And calling a hybrid still a pot still because "pot stills are better" will always be wrong.

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project said...

Chuck, I agree completely that a pot still hybrid, with any kind of column or enhanced reflux (beyond the shape of the pot itself) is not akin to pot stilling.

Traditional pot stilling typically involves two runs, the first a kind of "stripping, or beer run", at high speed which serves to concentrate the wash and remove some of the undesireable elements, and a "spirit run", done slowly and with more care to find the middle third cut, aka the "hearts".

The use of a "doubler", "thumper" or "retort" (all the same thing) amounts to running the output from the first pot into a second. The doubler/thumper amounts to a typical, second pot still run.

This latter is no different than double distillation using a single pot, or with two pots (pot/pot, pot/doubler) in series. These are exactly the same and achieve exactly the same, pot stilled flavorful output.

In either case the output must be monitored and the proper cuts made. Furthermore pot stilled cuts overlap. While the foreshots, and heads are usually eliminated, the hearts and a bit of the tails are kept to varying degrees to meet the house profile.

Anything that uses a column (with its much more precise separations) is really quite different in operation and result. Hybrids are really just a form of column, with the "pot" acting as the boiler.

While column operators insist that they can duplicate pot still output, few if any of them do, and resort to adding true pot stilled product in a blend to add lost flavor.

In my opinion it is perfectly valid to distinguish column produced spirits from those made with a true pot still process (whether double distilled, or using a doubler/thumper).

Capish?

Chuck Cowdery said...

We agree on the main point, which is that hybrid users who call their product 'pot stilled' are misleading the public and themselves.

Patrick said...

Is there a difference in distilling in a copper still versus a steel still? The extent of my knowledge suggests that pot stills are often made of copper and column stills of steel. Perhaps that factor could enter into the discussion?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Contact with copper is important to whiskey making. The column stills used by bourbon makers are lined with copper and use copper in other parts of the process. Bourbon stills may be steel on the outside but they have copper on the inside, where it matters.