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.


Michael Shoshani said...

This sounds almost exactly like a column still, only made of wood. Kind of puts to rest the idea of the folksy li'l pot still, doesn't it? That thing looks designed to distill for an army.

Would be interesting to see a joint venture between Vendome and perhaps Independent Stave to recreate such a beast, but I'm guessing the costs involved would be fairly high.

EllenJ said...

Thank you Chuck, and Chris, and Sam, and ESPECIALLY Dave Wondrich for expanding on what has been a virtually unknown (or at least unaddressed) aspect of American distilling until Dave's Whisky Advocate article. Dave, your description indicates you know a lot more about this distilling method than many of us who thought we were pretty clear on historic distilling methods. Can you give us the names of some of those distilleries and how long they continued using these stills? Any why did they stop? Not only is wood a lot cheaper than copper, but it's impossible for me to believe that the flavor of the distillate would not have been majorly affected. Perhaps not in a good way, though. That could be why no one uses them today. Then again, thanks to Dave's article (and the ensuing discussions all over the place) I'll bet it won't be long before some artisan distiller with a bent toward history constructs such a beast. And not long after that before...

(1) Whiskey pundits all over the blogosphere (but probably not including Chuck) will be rolling over themselves laughing about those silly upstart innovators, and how bad the whiskey must be, and how they've never tasted any and don't expect they ever will.

(2) One of the Big Boys decides to release an experimental series, in half-size bottles, purportedly distilled 15 years ago on a secret wooden still they had set up in a far corner of the distillery. It will taste amazingly like regular rye whiskey stored for an additional six months in barrels filled with toasted poplar chips (or perhaps used Australian kauri wood), and will prove once and for all that the normally-produced whiskey they've been making since the late '80s is still the best.

Sam, we've talked for hours about both three-chambered stills and wooden stills, but until now I don't recall us ever combining the two, not at the level of this illustration. What can you dig up about some of the old rye distilleries that used them? Would any of then be brands we know?

David Wondrich said...

A couple of things--
1) I think it works more like a series of linked pot stills than a column still--without plates or the ability to fractionate the distillate, the three-chamber still looks like it would produce a cleaner product than a single or double pot still setup but not quite as light as a column-still one run at high efficiency. I look at this thing as a sort of bolt-action rifle to the pot still's muzzle loader and the column still's machinegun.

2) Good questions, EllenJ (and thanks for the kind words). I don't know for sure of anyone who was using the wooden version of the 3-chamber still after Prohibition. Baltimore Pure Rye used a 3-chamber until its demise in the 1950s, but I don't know if it was wood or copper. This is definitely an area that needs more research.Before Prohibition, there were numerous brands--even Old Fitz used a wooden 3-chamber beer still, according to an 1916 article. (Others include Old Clarke Pure Rye and T.B. Ripy.) Unfortunately, the Bureau of Internal Revenue didn't name individual distilleries, but judging from the sizes of the operations discussed their list must have included Guckenheimer, Gibson, Mount Vernon and such--the leading brands.
Apparently in the 1880s there was a general move to continuous or column beer stills and then a move back after the turn of the century, at least for rye, because distillers felt that they weren't getting the results they wanted. Thus Bonfort's Wine & Spirit Circular, at least. Definitely a lot more research needed here.

Unknown said...

IMHO, It's not the wood that's the key part of this still. It's the direct injection of steam into hammer milled mash for an hour (instead of just a few seconds as a column still) or more that makes this still unique. That, and the fact that it is a batch process.

This is not the only still that is fitted in this manner. German Eaux de Vie Stills (properly designed one, anyway) that are fitted with steam jackets have a simple bypass valve that allows for direct injection of steam. Like the three chambered still, it operates on a lowly 4 to 5 psig of steam, gently pulling the alcohol out of fussy mashes….avoiding scalding.

Both these stills are designed to handle grain mashes that haven't been lautered. When you hit milled rye with 4-5 psig steam, the temp of that steam will be in the 220's F. This elevated temperature really draws out the flavor of the grain. Moving to three chambers, where each mash in each chamber is boiled three times intensifies this reaction. This would really draw out the flavors and aromas of the rye substances that were not fermented.

I ran our still with un lautered malt mash many years ago, and I was amazed at how much more malty the resulting bierschapps was than the bier schnapps I made with beer. This is something I picked up in Austria, where several distilleries distilled unfermented rye or malt barley mash using direct steam injection before aging them in toasted wine barrels. You might want to look to those distilleries to get an idea as to what a three chamber still profile is like, outside of the old bottles from long-gone distilleries.

This has been a wonderful discussion on the brilliant history of American distilling. Thank you, Mr. Cowdery, and the other contributors.

Todd Leopold

David Wondrich said...

Indeed the 3-chambered still is closely related--knockoff? parallel development--to the Pistorius still, which was apparently the dominant style in Germany and Eastern Europe for most of the 19th century; some American versions are even fitted out with Pistorius's characteristic rectifying lenses in place of the doubler. Fascinating stuff about the low-pressure, slow distillation.

EllenJ said...

@Dave... " I look at this thing as a sort of bolt-action rifle to the pot still's muzzle loader and the column still's machinegun."

That's about as perfect a characterization as I can imagine. Oh Boy! Have you ever opened a box of Pandoriana here!! Chuck's blog is becoming really exciting! THANKS!!

Ethan Smith said...

I will put it on the record that the precursor to Pennco and Michter's in Schaefferstown, PA used a metal 3 chamber beer still. I can say for sure that Penndale and Kirk's Pure Rye used it before installation of the column and doubler pot because I've seen the blueprint elevations and piping diagrams of the still house during the time it was in use.

Unknown said...

I agree, that Wondrich article on rye was great. But does anybody have any ideas on how wood stills would have handled sulfur, which copper is so good at removing? Like many here have already said, the only way to know is to build one.

These old ways are fascinating, and I'm always curious to try them. But what I find just as interesting is the tendency for nostalgia to affect our judgments. What would win in a battle of wood vs. pot vs. still in a blind tasting? Better, worse, or just different?

David Wondrich said...

All of the pipes and the entire doubler assembly were made of copper; more than enough to do the job. As for the blind tasting question, there's only one way to find out, and it ain't cheap. I think it's interesting, though, that many distillers apparently switched to continuous beer stills in the late 1880s and switched back 15 years later (at least that's what the Bonfort's whiskey columnist was claiming at the time). I've got no complaints with the rye we're getting today (and especially with some of the stuff still in the pipeline) but I'd love the opportunity to see what the apparatus can do.

Unknown said...

All the 3 chamber drawings I've seen have copper lyne arms feeding copper doublers. In addition, some use copper for the decking separating each chamber. I believe that the doubler would be sufficient for the sulphur reactions. Personally, I prefer more copper in the vapor path, but that's just me.

I don't think anyone would notice the difference between wood and copper interior for the still, assuming that you don't clean the copper with acid during the lifetime of the still. As you all know, more than a few distilleries never clean their pots (or beer strippers, for that matter), lyne arms, condensers etc. with acid/caustic.

What this means, of course, is that the stills are "seasoned", much in the way that a wood still would be. So if there's any flavor to be had from the interior surface of the still, I can't think of a reason why wood would behave any differently than unclean copper in terms of congener transfer.

All just my opinion.

FWIW, I would never want to operate a wooden still, especially so indoors. Far too dangerous in my opinion, and I can't think of a practical reason as to why you'd want to use one. In other words, I don't believe it would improve the distillate coming out of the still.

The three chamber still, on the other hand, would clearly yield a very different distillate than either a continuous or pot still with direct fire or steam jackets.

Perhaps when I have a bit of free time (commissioning a new plant at the moment), I could send you gentlemen our rye distillate from our pot stills, as well as a sample of rye distillate prepared from direct steam injection. My experience is that they are quite different.

Sam Komlenic said...

Todd, I definitely want to try your Maryland-style rye, which is pretty much what started this entire thread.

I'm curious, however, about your statement that, "Moving to three chambers, where each mash in each chamber is boiled three times intensifies this reaction."

Are you implying that the mash is boiled three times in EACH chamber? I would have thought that it was boiled once in each before dropping to the next.

Reid, I'd be willing to bet that every piece of metal that touches the vapor, condensate, and new make in the wooden still pictured is copper, enough to mitigate any sulfur compounds.

And as for your second question, if all spirits involved were carefully distilled by someone knowledgeable about the given equipment, just different.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I wonder if the return to wooden stills occurred at a time of high copper prices. Copper tends to be a very volatile commodity.

NewYorkJosh said...

Utterly fascinating post and following comments. I had never heard of the 3 chambered still - but I'm eager to learn more (and maybe taste, if I can). Interesting final comment, Chuck - wondering if copper prices drove the re-adoption of wooden stills in the mid 1890s. The USGS periodically publishes market price histories (and usage stats) for a wide range of commodities. They have a price history for copper going back to 1850. In it we see copper's prices falling through the 1880s and 1890s (below 10 cents/pound in 1894 for the first time, probably fallout of the panic of 1893 which suppressed capital investment). So the answer appears to be "no". The readoption of wooden stills at that time doesn't appear to be related to copper's prices - although the move to copper column stills in the 1880s might be. Copper spiked in WWI (war production) and then fell through the floor in the great depression and stayed low until after WWII's price controls ended. This might have helped encourage the use of copper column stills in the build-up after Repeal.


Unknown said...

Mr. Komlenic,

Poor turn of phrase on my part. I'm not the writer that the rest of you gents are.

I mean that each charge is distilled three times in total by the time it exits the still…once in each chamber.

I think that you, Mr. Cowdery, and EllenJ will be much more fond of our Maryland-Style rye in a few more years. We'll have a BIB version, and 8's and 10"s in due time. Those will be more to your liking, I'd imagine.