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Pot-Stilled


Scotttos
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I've been running into this term a lot recently and I'm wondering what the distinction is between pot-stilled spirits and spirits distilled by other means? Is it about authenticity since spirits used in pre-prohibition cocktails were commonly pot-stilled, or is there something else?

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Column stills are more modern, more efficient, and make a higher-proof alcohol distillate more quickly and in one pass, while pot stills are old fashioned, less efficient, and allow the distiller to exercise more control over the booze as it comes out of the multiple stage distillation process.

Pot stills are traditional in Cognac and Armagnac making, while column stills are key to vodka making.

Read into those details what you will about claims of which kind of still is "better".

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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For lack of a better way of putting it, pot stilling is a more old-fashioned and artisanal way of distilling, and therefore produces a spirit with more character (although what can be considered "character" in one kind of spirit can be considered "impurities" in another).

One thing I recently learned about is that a lot of the microdistillers who are supposedly producing "pot stilled" spirits are really using a pot still for the bottom, but then a column on top of the still instead of an alembic. This produces a spirit that i suppose can technically be called "pot stilled" but really doesn't have the character one would associate with this distilling technique.

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just to elaborate on cdh's good explanation -- column stills are basically a contraption that allows "multiple" distillations in a single boil. this removes impurities quickly and efficiently (and much more cheaply) than a pot still, leaving you with purer ethanol. again, great for vodka, which is still often run through a column still many times to "wash" it of flavor and get a product that is more purely alcohol.

the problem with a column still is that there are a lot of flavor in the "impurities" and using one for whiskey or brandy will give you a pretty bland product (well, a vodka, i guess). also, you could make a vodka with a pot still, but you'd have to perform many distillation runs to get the purity that you'd want.

using a pot-still is about tradition, yes, but also about creating a product that retains the flavor and character of the sugar source that was used for fermentation. some distillers go as far as saying the size and shape of the pot influences the flavor of the distillate.

so, not really a matter of which is "better," but of which is better for what you're trying to make.

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Well, the control with pot stills cuts both ways.

Some friends and I were recently discussing a modern pot still gin.

Some of us thought it was good and some of us thought it was among the worst distilled spirits we had ever tasted.

On both sides, we were starting to think those on the other side either had no taste buds or were ridiculously picky about how our gin tasted.

Fortunately, some of us lived relatively close to each other and two with opposing opinions were able to taste each other's bottles.

Turns out both sides were right. The good bottles were good and the bad bottles were awful. Some with practical experience in distilling suggested they had let the cut go to far into the tails on the bad bottles.

With all the current excitement about pot stills and distilling, you kind of wonder just how many really good distillers there are in the US...

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Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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I certainly agree that pot distillation isn't ideally suited to every spirit. In particular, I wouldn't think that a pot-stilled modern dry gin would be ideal. You want a neutral base so that the aromatics shine through.

As an overgeneralized rule of thumb, I guess my feeling is that pot distillation is better if the spirit will be aged, and column distillation is better if the spirit will not be aged.

One may make a true pot-stilled (i.e., with an alembic) unaged spirit that is refined enough, but I think it's a lot more difficult than using a column still. On the other hand, I suppose it would also be possible to configure a column still to "let through" more character. It is, of course, possible to make a good spirit either way.

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With all the current excitement about pot stills and distilling, you kind of wonder just how many really good distillers there are in the US...

with the laws surrounding distilling, i would venture to guess not many. i think that's why there's such number of great micro-brews out there -- it is easy to brew beer as a hobbyist! so many of the brewers out there start that way.

distilling, on the other hand, is so hard to do as a hobbyist. it's legal status has thrown a lot of it underground, where it is difficult to get good equipment, recipes, knowledge on how to do it properly. there's a great underground distilling community (a lot of it from New Zealand, where home-distilling is legal), but a lot of it is focused on column stills/vodka/pure ethanol. plus, there's always the chance (although slim) that you could get caught. and then if you want to do it legally... well, that could mean years of paperwork and high, high licensing fees.

back to the topic at hand, it's really all about the distiller, right? a great master-distilller will use the right still for the job, and use it well. i don't see a reason why one couldn't milk a nice whiskey from a column still or a good vodka or gin from a pot still, but that is all up to the person working the controls.

Edited by lostmyshape (log)
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One thing I recently learned about is that a lot of the microdistillers who are supposedly producing "pot stilled" spirits are really using a pot still for the bottom, but then a column on top of the still instead of an alembic.  This produces a spirit that i suppose can technically be called "pot stilled" but really doesn't have the character one would associate with this distilling technique.

That is both slightly depressing and unsurprising. Any well-known brands you can name offhand guilty of this?

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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No idea. But if you look at the pictures of the hardware at most "craft/micro-distilleries" you will see that there is a rectification column on top of the still.

From here:

. . . Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, is a big champion of pot stills. As far as Bill is concerned, reviving the pot still is what this ADI enterprise is all about. That pot stills produce a superior quality distillate seems for him and many others to be an article of faith.

What is it about pot stills that makes them so attractive? They are traditional, ancient in fact. They also continue to be the choice for several important distilling traditions, those of Scotland and Cognac most famously.

Yet the so-called pot stills many craft distillers use today have no precedent in a pre-industrial distilling tradition; American, Scottish, French or otherwise. They have a pot but no alembic. Instead the pot is topped by a rectification column, like the rectification section of a column still. To call them "pot stills," as if they hearken back to some earlier, more authentic period, is misleading. They are not pot stills in any historic sense. They are a modern hybrid, as much column as pot. They may be "craft" in that they are mainly manual and usually not tricked up with sensors and automatic process controls like their industrial counterparts, but they are not the stills of our ancestors.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Great replies, looks like I should have subtitled this topic "why is it different" instead of "why is it better." Pot-stilled products have been spoken of with such reverence I figured it was naturally a "better" method of distillation. Now I understand why I was off in that assumption.

"Imbibe!" mentions a few readily available pot-stilled whiskies (Old Potrero, Redbreast) and I know Junipero and Genevieve are pot-stilled, as well as some of the interesting products from the guys at Tuthilltown, but are you guys aware of any other stand-out products? I'd like to taste more pot-stilled products for comparisons sake.

However in light of some recent comments it looks like regardless of distillation method the art of a truly great distiller will have significantly more impact all around. Interesting stuff.

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I wonder if Junipero is really pot-stilled from beginning to end. I suspect that it starts out with pretty pure neutral spirits (of the kind that can only be obtained by column distilling), then infuses those spirits with aromatics and redistills in the pot still.

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I wonder if Junipero is really pot-stilled from beginning to end.  I suspect that it starts out with pretty pure neutral spirits (of the kind that can only be obtained by column distilling), then infuses those spirits with aromatics and redistills in the pot still.

Yeah that makes sense, their website says that Junipero starts out with a base of 100% neutral grain spirits, would there really be a point in producing such spirits with a pot still (if it's even possible)?

Edited by Scotttos (log)
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I wonder if Junipero is really pot-stilled from beginning to end.  I suspect that it starts out with pretty pure neutral spirits (of the kind that can only be obtained by column distilling), then infuses those spirits with aromatics and redistills in the pot still.

No, they do not distill the GNS from which they make Junipero. I asked a while ago and they said they buy "special" GNS, infuse with spices, and re-distill.

To the best of my knowledge there are almost no distilleries in the US that distill the Grain Neutral Spirits from which they make their gins or vodkas. Almost all buy bulk Grain Neutral Spirits, infuse, and re-distill. I will point out, as explained to me when I visited House Spirits in Portland, that there is a great variety of quality and source material of GNS available to the Gin producer.

The only two exceptions I can confirm are Death's Door, who distill a portion of the spirits used to make their Vodka and Gin, and Anchor Distilling, who made the distillate they used to make their Genevieve Gin.

Edited by eje (log)

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Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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It's worth bearing in mind that most American whiskeys--bourbons, ryes, corn whiskeys--are made in column stills, some of them the approximate size of something you would find near the Houston Ship Channel. It's entirely possible to make heavy, flavorful spirit in a column still, if you know what you're doing.

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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It's worth bearing in mind that most American whiskeys--bourbons, ryes, corn whiskeys--are made in column stills, some of them the approximate size of something you would find near the Houston Ship Channel. It's entirely possible to make heavy, flavorful spirit in a column still, if you know what you're doing.

Ed Hamilton had a post on here somewhere with a similar point regarding rums.

Whether you're using a pot still or a column still, it comes down to the source material and the distiller(s) using the tool appropriately.

Edited by eje (log)

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Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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It's worth bearing in mind that most American whiskeys--bourbons, ryes, corn whiskeys--are made in column stills, some of them the approximate size of something you would find near the Houston Ship Channel. It's entirely possible to make heavy, flavorful spirit in a column still, if you know what you're doing.

Ed Hamilton had a post on here somewhere with a similar point regarding rums.

Whether you're using a pot still or a column still, it comes down to the source material and the distiller(s) using the tool appropriately.

Point taken. So what I'm taking from all this is (for serious cocktails) proof and flavor and the competence of the distiller are more important than whether or not something comes from a pot-still.

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Doesn't Tito's distill their own?

Why someone would want to go to all the trouble of distilling their pre-rectification neutral spirits escapes me.

Oh yeah, you're right, there are a few vodka makers who both ferment their own material and use a pot still.

Stillwater in Petaluma, CA, comes to mind, as does Cirrus, from Virginia.

There's that one in Vermont, I think, that makes Milk and Maple vodkas.

Tuthilltown makes an Apple based Vodka. I assume with a pot still.

Like Death's Door, Hangar One ferments and distills some of their vodka, then blends with purchased GNS.

Edited by eje (log)

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Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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Dry Fly Distilling, in Spokane, WA, claims to make their own neutral spirits from Washington-grown wheat.

I've tasted a locally-made grape-based very-high-proof distillate down in the Willamette Valley, Oregon (used by a winemaker to fortify his madeira-like product) that was surprisingly drinkable even at nose-hair-curling strength. Would make an interesting base for some other spirit, I think. I don't know the proof, but seem to recall it was something in the 80% ABV range. I didn't think to ask if it was pot- or column-distilled.

-Dayne aka TallDrinkOfWater

###

"Let's get down to business. For the gin connoisseur, a Martini garnish varies by his or her mood. Need a little get-up-and-go?---lemon twist. Wednesday night and had a half-tough day at the office?---olive. Found out you're gonna have group sex with Gwen Stefani and Scarlett Johansson at midnight?---pour yourself a pickled onion Gibson Martini at 8:00, sharp." - Lonnie Bruner, DC Drinks

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Doesn't Tito's distill their own?

Why someone would want to go to all the trouble of distilling their pre-rectification neutral spirits escapes me.

Allegedly they do, and also do a distillation run in a pot still, though I would be thoroughly shocked if it had an alembic.

That said, not a bad product, as Vodkas go, and a very fair price. It's our house pour at Veritas, we go through at least 2 liters/week, and that's a slow week.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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It's worth bearing in mind that most American whiskeys--bourbons, ryes, corn whiskeys--are made in column stills, some of them the approximate size of something you would find near the Houston Ship Channel. It's entirely possible to make heavy, flavorful spirit in a column still, if you know what you're doing.

it's also worth mentioning that not all stills are equal. there are pot stills that have long, tall heads that function much like column stills (Glenmorangie) -- only letting the more ethanol-rich distillate through and sending the rest back to the pot to be re-boiled. and modern column (or continuous) stills are fairly complicated and "tunable." they can be constructed (or set) to produce a very pure distillate, or to make a more flavorful product.

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Some assorted pot-versus-column still posts scrounged from elsewhere about these forums:

Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still in 1832 after Robert Stein introduced a two-column continuous still in 1826.

While a number of rum marketers claim to be selling rum made in pot stills several of the distilleries where these spirits are born don't even have a pot still. Much more important than the type of still are the raw ingredients and the skill and experience of the distiller.

When making rum from molasses, pot still rums are generally too high in congeners to be pleasant to drink so distillers blend these flavorful rums with more highly distilled continuous column still rum.

Where rums are being made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, distillers don't have to distill their spirit to such a high proof and many prefer to distill to only about 72% alcohol, about the same as many pot still distillers in other industries.

When properly distilled, the distillate from a single-column continuous still can be even better than the distillate from a pot still. On the other hand, it is possible to redistill the distillate several times in a pot still and end up with something that is very similar to that obtained from a continuous column still.

The two biggest misconceptions I've discovered in the rum industry are that the older the better and that pot still rum is better than rum made in column stills.

Don't get hung up on the age of your rum, or the still. Much more important than age is maturity and much more important than the type of still is the raw material and the  skill of the distiller.

From Lara over at Charbay:
As for the topic at hand--"pot stills," you may find it interesting to note that that's basically a generic term since, yes, the distilling material is held in a pot, but how the steams rises and is collected (whether separated, fractionated or just pulled straight out) produces distinctly different results.

There are pot stills that function much like continuous column stills, such as the Holsteins used by several American distilleries. My family's is an Alambic Charentais Pot Still, designed by Pruelho in Cognac, France. Our spirits are not fractionated--we separate the batch as it is distilled. We believe that the Alambic Charentais design is best-suited to creating smooth, full-bodied, flavorful spirits. That's

as much of our family secrets as I can say...:-)

Other variations include retorts which basically perform multiple distillations in a single batch process. This type of still is the most common in the islands. One advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you view it, is that none of the vapor from the distillations is removed during the process. In multi-column distillations there are generally several product streams. In the basic pot still there is only one product stream, though as Lara points out, some pot stills have fractional columns on top of the still.

But like the age of your spirit don't get hung up on the kind of still. There are a lot of variations. Skilled distillers operating single column stills can produce spirits that even trained experts swear came from a pot still. If you think pot stills are the only way to make good spirits think again. There are advantages to all kinds of stills. One advantage of the pot still is the small batch capability. Column stills require much larger fermentation washes in order to reach a steady state during the actual distillation, but they have the advantage of being able to distill a lot more alcohol without being shut down. I know of several column stills that run for months at a time. But unless you have the demand for the alcohol and a large fermentation capacity you can't benefit from the increased production capability.

i9688.jpg

Here's a picture of a still that marries the benefits of a pot still with those of a small column still.

For a distiller, one of the main benefits of a column still is increased production, but at the same time, unless a distiller has a large production capacity, including fermentation tanks and plentiful raw material, they are better suited to the smaller batch process of a pot still.

By adding a small column to the top of a pot still the distiller is able to separate several product streams during the distillation process and even redistill the lighter distillates as desired.

This still is from the LaMauny corporate headquarters in Martinique. The still was in use in the early part of the last century and later replaced by a small column still for greater production. It about 3.5 meters tall.

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Doesn't Tito's distill their own?

Why someone would want to go to all the trouble of distilling their pre-rectification neutral spirits escapes me.

Allegedly they do, and also do a distillation run in a pot still, though I would be thoroughly shocked if it had an alembic.

That said, not a bad product, as Vodkas go, and a very fair price. It's our house pour at Veritas, we go through at least 2 liters/week, and that's a slow week.

Tito's is my house vodka at home. :) As you say, good product at a fair price. Plus it's made here in Texas! What's not to like about that? (especially when out of town guests visit)

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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From Lara over at Charbay:

As for the topic at hand--"pot stills," you may find it interesting to note that that's basically a generic term since, yes, the distilling material is held in a pot, but how the steams rises and is collected (whether separated, fractionated or just pulled straight out) produces distinctly different results.

There are pot stills that function much like continuous column stills, such as the Holsteins used by several American distilleries. My family's is an Alambic Charentais Pot Still, designed by Pruelho in Cognac, France. Our spirits are not fractionated--we separate the batch as it is distilled. We believe that the Alambic Charentais design is best-suited to creating smooth, full-bodied, flavorful spirits.

I think this is the real distinction here: fractionating columns, whether clapped on top of pots or used on their own, allow the volatile compounds in the steam to condense separately from each other and be drawn off accordingly. The old-fashioned swan's neck-style alembic condenses all the steam together. This forces one to fractionate afterwards, by separating the condensed steam out into heads, heart and tails. Inherently a much cruder process.

Depending on where you place your condensing plates and tap your column, you can get an approximately comparable product (if perhaps missing some of the rich oiliness an alembic-stilled product has), or you can get something practically pure. The latter is easier.

Edited by Splificator (log)

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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