Friday, June 20, 2014
David Wondrich Explains Three-Chamber Wooden Stills
David Wondrich's fine Whisky Advocate article has inspired most of the posts this week, so it seems appropriate to give him the last word. He even provided a helpful picture.
I'd like to jump in to say thanks, Chuck, for providing such an informative forum and such an excellent place for discussion. I'd also like to add some more detail on the wooden three-chamber still. This was a very different affair from the earlier hollow-log makeshift pot stills used by some small distillers up until the 1880s, more or less. By 1898, when the Bureau of Internal Revenue began its study of whiskey aging, it was still the dominant design used for rye distilling. Nine of the 16 ryes the bureau analyzed came from wooden three-chamber stills. (Another four were made in copper versions of the same.) The capacities of the stills indicate that these were major brands: still capacities, where indicated, range from a low of less than 2,000 gallons to over 15,000.
In its standard form, the three-chambered wooden still as used from about 1850 until Prohibition was a tall, open-topped cylinder, tapered towards the top, made of wooden staves bound with iron hoops. Inside were two or three horizontal wooden or copper plates, dividing it into more-or-less equal-sized chambers. A steam pipe went into the bottom chamber and a copper outflow pipe rose through the open-topped top chamber, which was filled with fresh wash that would be warmed by the hot pipe. The middle chamber (or chambers, depending on whether there were two dividers or three) had a sort of copper manifold coming up from the chamber below to feed the steam in without letting liquid fall back down. Each chamber also had a valve to let wash fall down into the chamber below or, in the case of the bottom one, drain off spent wash. The exit pipe on top led to a copper doubler or thumper keg, like the ones used in Kentucky today, and then the usual copper-coil condenser.
I agree heartily that the only way to see what kind of whiskey comes out of such a device is to build one and test it. Illustrations are available; the problem is finding the cooper.