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How Booze is Made: The Basics of Column Distillation

on 05/02/14 at 12:03 pm

 Photo: HighKing on Wikimedia Commons

Photo: HighKing on Wikimedia Commons

Bourbon benefits from being produced primarily in column stills, which allow distillers to continuously produce spirits, without having to stop after each batch to clean the still. In theory, anyway, this means round-the-clock production of your favorite booze.

Bourbon isn’t the only spirit produced in columns; others include most white rums, nearly all gins and vodkas, some brandies (including Armagnac), and the grain spirits used in blended Scotch.

But before I get into all of this, it might help to review the basics of distillation, and some pot still vocab, just to get an idea of how liquor was made before the invention of the column still.

All caught up? In today’s column, I’m going to discuss the basics of column distillation.

A Brief Pot Still Primer

To understand how a column still works, we’ll start with considering how a pot still works. With pot distillation, you put a batch of fermented liquid (the beer or wine that you’re planning to distill) into a copper pot. You cap and seal the pot and heat it. As the liquid heats up, the alcohol in the liquid boils first (because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does) and turns to vapor. The alcohol vapors rise up into the head of the still; then they’re drawn off into an arm and then to a coil. The coil is submerged in cool water, which condenses the alcohol back into liquid. The liquid alcohol runs out of the coil and into a collection vessel.

But the vapors that rise are never purely ethanol. If they were, every batch of whiskey or tequila or brandy would taste like Everclear. The vapors are a mix of alcohol and congeners and other compounds that provide flavor and aroma.