Our distilling operation uses two distinct styles of still to produce our spirits – a charentais still and a gin still. Our stills are made from copper, a material that has two distinct advantages. Copper conducts heat from the flames to the wash with very little loss, and then removes the heat from the vapor in the condenser. It also acts as a catalyst to oxidize undesirable sulfur compounds and removes them from the final product. By using copper, we produce a better tasting product in the most efficient manner possible.
In a charentais still, wash is pumped into both the boil pot and the preheater and the still is heated by a gas burner. The direct fire of the burner adds to the flavor profile of the spirits by caramelizing a small portion of the residual sugar giving the spirits a sweet toasted taste. As the wash boils, the rising steam travels through the swans neck and the preheater prior to encountering the condenser coil, preheating the next batch. With a charentais still, we can produce spirits with the full flavor of a pot still, and the efficiency of a reflux still.
Our gin still is a pot still fitted with a gin basket. Above the boil kettle, a copper basket sits in the column where our organic botanicals are placed. As the alcoholic steam rises up the column, it extracts the flavors of the juniper and accompanying botanicals which are then condensed along with the ethanol. Gin made in this method is lighter in body and crisper in flavor than products made in traditional pot stills or by soaking the botanicals in the neutral base spirit to extract the botanical flavors. It allows the secondary botanicals to shine through the juniper base and gives our gin the fidelity of flavor we desire.
Looking for a geekier description of the distilling process? Click below for a more in-depth discussion.
The process of distilling as a purification method relies on the different boiling points of compounds. In alcohol distilling these compounds are ethanol, which boils at 78º C, and water, which boils at 100º C. During distillation the goal is to raise the temperature of the fermented sugars (the “wash”) to over 78º C, but keep it below 100º C. Once the temperature rises above 78º C, the ethanol boils and converts to vapor, which rises up the still column until it reaches the condenser where it is condensed back to a liquid, yielding an ethanol-enriched distillate.
As the wash is heated, the first things to boil and condense are called the foreshots, or more commonly, the “heads.” These are all of the low boiling point compounds produced by the yeast during fermentation. The next set of compounds purified by the still are the “hearts.” This is where the highest concentration of ethanol elutes, and also the range where the flavor compounds of the specific type of alcohol (i.e. rum, whisky) start to elute. After the hearts come the “tails.” They contain much of the heavier fusel and essential oils as well as the high molecular weight esters that can make up the flavor of the desired spirit. This is the part of the run that adds mouthfeel to the final product.
While the heads are considerably noxious, they include many sweet smelling compounds that can bring character to the spirit. A small amount of fragrance can enhance the product without compromising the entire batch.
The tails include desirable flavor compounds such as fruit-smelling esters ethyl or methyl butyrate, along with bitter, oily, and malodorous compounds. The distiller must decide whether or not to include the tails, and if so, how much. Whiskeys, for example, often include a fair amount of tails. As the tails run their course, they get more bitter and much more oily.
Regardless of whether or not the tails are included in the final product, they are almost always collected. This is because the distiller can add them to the next run of the same spirit to increase his yields. Heads, on the other hand, are rarely saved because the impurities which are not desirable overlap with ethanol much more than those in the tails, and can spoil a batch.
To create the desired flavor profile, it is the master distiller’s job to isolate only the compounds which he wants to keep while excluding those he does not. A distiller’s skill is deciding where to make the cuts between the heads, hearts, and tails, and how much of each element he wants to include in the final product.