Thursday, June 26, 2014

Seagram's Explains the Multiple-Chamber Charge Still



During WWII, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, Inc. operated 14 distilleries in Kentucky, one in Indiana, and several more in Canada. They needed a lot of distillers to run all of those distilleries and were famous for the high quality of their distiller training program.

Continuing our conversation about chambered stills, Thomas McKenzie, Master Distiller at Finger Lakes Distillery in New York, and his assistant, Jerry McCall, submitted the diagram above and the description of it that follows, both taken from the Seagram's text book, Fundamentals of Distillery Practice, by Herman Willkie and Joseph A. Prochaska (1943).

After reading this and the rest of the series, I think what we have in the chambered still is a transitional technology, bridging the gap between simple alembics and continuous stills. That's why they disappeared after a short run and why they never caught on in some places, like Kentucky. My question is this: is there any way in which the continuous still is not superior to these chambered stills?

The description is as follows:


Charge Still. A charge still usually consists of three or four large chambers superimposed one above another. Heat is supplied at the base of the column, either directly in the form of steam or indirectly by means of an external tubular heater and causes the vapor to rise from chamber to chamber, whereas in a continuous column, liquid does not flow from section to section. At the beginning of the operation, the chambers are filled partially with the liquid to be distilled. After the liquid in the bottom chamber has been freed of alcohol by distillation, the chamber is emptied. The contents of each of the other sections are transferred to the next chamber below. The top section is refilled with fresh feed along with some distillate of low alcohol content which is obtained toward the end of each operational cycle when the liquid in the bottom chamber nears exhaustion.

Although there is a high consumption of steam and a pronounced thermal decomposition of beer, a charge still may be used for distilling material containing a large quantity of suspended solids.

3 comments:

EllenJ said...

I think you have the right idea about the 3-chambered still being technologically a bridge between alembics and continuous stills, but when it comes to answering your question ("is there any way in which the continuous still is not superior to these chambered stills?"), I'd have to say that many, if not most, of us are totally convinced that whiskey distilled in the even cruder pot still is far superior to the output of continuous stills. So much so that continuous stills are never used without a finishing redistillation in what amounts to a pot still. The MARKETERS of most whiskey brands would have us believe that every drop came from a copper pot still, and only grudgingly acknowledge the doubler or thumper when someone like you or I ask, "uh, isn't that a column still we're looking at, mister?".
Whether really fine whiskey can or cannot be made on a column still is not the issue. Well, at least it's ANOTHER issue, not this one. The fact is, though, that many people who are in a position to understand whiskey properties are convinced that (1) the type of still is very important, and (2) the older the technology, the "purer" (whatever that means) the whiskey that comes out of it.

I think the REAL question is: If 3-chambered stills were so commonly used before Prohibition brought about the physical destruction of all commercial distilling equipment, why did that style not re-emerge afterward, the way the simple one-chamber pot still did? Was it because (and this is just a theoretical example; I know nothing of the company's history) Vendome didn't make 3-chambered stills, so new distilleries didn't buy them. And of course, by "Vendome" I mean other boilermakers as well. If no one was schlepping around licenses for patented 3-column (or any other configuration) stills, then no one was buying and installing any. This certainly wouldn't be the first technology that has simply been forgotten about and passed out of public knowledge*. On the other hand, advertisements for such apparatus SHOULD be found in the trade journals of the late 1800s. The technology illustrated by Chris Middleton, Dave Wondrich, and your own Seagrams contribution is not likely to have been learned at Granpappy's knee; there must have been trade schools of boilermaking, coppersmithing, cooperage, whatever, that taught these engineering skills. Text books, even.

Who knows? Maybe such stills weren't really all that popular and those who say so are wrong. It would be the first time that ever happened. There is a well-known old news movie from the early 1900s showing a fantastic flying machine that operated by flapping layers of what could only be called umbrellas up and down, thus lifting the device off the ground. For a second or so. Another from the same period shows the launch of a multi-winged airplane that actually took off. Sort of. If that were the only footage, and if the part where the whole thing collapsed in on itself were somehow misplaced, might some of us not think there were once quatro-planes zooming around in the sky?


* And no, I'm not referring to the persistant belief by some that the Ancient Egyptians or Incas were flying around in jet aircraft.

Todd Leopold said...

A three chamber still would be "superior" to a continuous still in that the heat treatment is far longer. By the time the fermented mash hits the last chamber before exiting as slop, you're basically dealing with stillage----and you are running steam through it. You'll strip more flavor out of the non-fermented substances, and since you're only dealing with three "plates", for want of a better term, together with a doubler, reflux isn't as great as it would be on a continuous still.

This is relative, of course, as it depends on the design and operation of the continuous still----how many plates, what proof it comes off at, etc.

By all accounts I can find, the flavor of the three chamber still could not be replicated by the continuous still. "As with all whiskies, the bouquet is the governing factor and several distilleries to be erected or under construction, favor the three-chamber still because it is claimed to produce a better grade of heavy bodied and highly flavored whiskey." (Chemical and Mechanical Engineering 1936)

I have a drawing of the old Hiram Walker plant in Peoria that shows a three-chamber still right next to a continuous beer stripper. Seems like someone wanted the best of both worlds.

Alan Wolstenholme said...

Hi from over the pond. I've read this chain on wooden stills with great interest. Until now the only direct use of wood in stills I was aware of was in early rectangular Coffey Column Stills which were built from baulks of timber, like a log cabin with tie rods at the corners and perforated copper sheets in between.The first 3 chamber wooden diagram had me puzzling due to lack of detail, although I did note that sight glasses and pressure relief valves were included at each level.The Seagram's diagram helped a lot. I would suggest that the "inverted U" copper pipes were less to do with heat transfer (which would mainly come from the latent heat of the vapor) and more as a means to stop draining or siphoning of beer before the pressure got raised.