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Distilling Q & A - BrewChatter LIVE August 6th, 2020

Join us for a discussion all about Distillation and see our show notes below!
Distillation Q & A LIVE Show Notes
  • Welcome Everyone / Thank Everyone
  • We are drinking TBD.  
    • What is everyone else drinking
  • Brief overview of Distilling
    • We will talk about:
      • What makes different spirits what they are
      • Different kinds of stills - anatomy of a still
        • What they make and why
      • Foreshots, Heads, Hearts, Tails and Feints
      • Easy guide to finding the hearts
      • What to do with the rest
      • Oak Aging
        • What a barrel does
        • How to cheat as home distillers
        • Anatomy of a barrel
  • Store Updates
    • BrewRentals Commercial
    • Talk about the new available equipment
      • Apple Crusher - electric and manual
      • Press
      • Crusher / Destemmer
      • Jockey Boxes and Pump Couplers
      • Canner

Dive Into Distillation

  • Part 1 - Types of Stills
    • Alembic or ‘Pot Still’
      • Traditionally used to make lower yield, more flavorful distillates like whisky, whiskey, some rums
        • What’s the difference between whisky and whiskey?  Whisky is made in Scotland, Whiskey is made everywhere else
      • Typical alembic stills will begin the Hearts part of the run around 160 proof and stop somewhere between 80 and 90.  The mixed hearts are usually between 135 and 150, depending on the distiller
      • Alembic stills allow more flavor to come through because they are not as efficient, allowing more of the compounds of the tails through into the hearts
      • Little reflux, only what happens naturally due to the shape of the conical dome where the column is attached
      • Still Spirits Alembic Dome and Condenser is a great and super efficient way to get started and make killer products
    • Reflux Still
      • This is a larger category of stills, including any and all stills that actively use the reflux process to refine the ethanol to its purest state before allowing it to condense in the collection jar
        • This includes what are commonly referred to as fluted or plated stills and reflux stills
        • The T500 is the perfect example of a super efficient and easy to use reflux still
      • Reflux Defined
        • Reflux refers to the portion of the overhead liquid product from a distillation column or fractionator that is returned to the upper part of the column as shown in the schematic diagram of a typical industrial distillation column. Inside the column, the downflowing reflux liquid provides cooling and condensation of the upflowing vapors thereby increasing the efficiency of the distillation column.
          • Roughly translated, what that means is that as the vapor gets higher, it gets cooler and condenses before it hits the point where it is condensed into the collection jar.  This falling liquid, in turn, picks up and condenses more vapor on it’s way down, making it so that, in theory, only the purest ethanol can get through into the condenser
      • Reflux stills are generally used for making odorless / colorless spirits, like vodka and gin.  The French use them with the reflux turned down for brandy.  More versatile than an alembic still in most cases
        • Explain why they are more versatile with some back and forth to break up the science
          • More versatile because you can turn down the reflux and make a cleaner whiskey or rum

  • Part 2- Anatomy of a Still
    • Column  - Main part of a still as shown by R.J.’s still
      • Main pathway of vapor from boiler to condenser
      • Increased surface area inside will increase reflux action, increasing the yield.  Example is adding SS wool or Copper wool
      • On home stills, usually 2 in diameter - we’ve seen up to 4 in.  Commercial stills can be 4 to 12 in or bigger
      • This is where bubble plates, or fractionation plates, would go
        • Explain briefly how the plates work
          • Each chamber is cooler, making the top of the chamber a defleg (more on that concept later) and forcing the liquid to vaporize and condense 100’s of times before it can get through to the next plate, taking the reflux and refining process to an epic level
    • Lyne Arm
      • The Lyne arm is simply the connection between the tower and condenser
      • Lyne Arm angle for home distillers at a 45° Angle is generally better, as it provides more surface area for initial condensation and helps smaller stills run more efficiently
      • Otner than efficiency, the Lyne Arm angle is not the same for home distillers like it is for commercial distilleries.  There are different designs that make big differences on the big scale, but almost none on our small scale
    • Condenser
      • Three main types of condensers.  The better your condenser, the faster you can run and stay efficient, which means you can run faster and keep your hearts pure
        • The old school ‘Worm’
          • Sucks and is super inefficient, but easy to set up and a great learning experience
          • Consists of a coil of copper connected to the lyne arm and stuffed in a bucket or barrel with ice and / or water around it
        • Sleeve Condenser
          • Very efficient and easy to build (show them mine and talk a little about the build)
          • Water is constantly pumped from a cold water source around the interior tube, creating the temp differential and forcing condensation
        • Shotgun Condenser
          • Same concept as the sleeve condenser, but with several cold water lines running through the main condensation pipe
          • Sleeve condenser on steroids and PCP.  Super efficient with a ton of cooling power
          • Slightly harder to build, but worth the effort

  • Part 3 - What’s Happening During Distillation?
    • It’s easy to forget that distillation is purely a separations process.  All you are trying to do is separate ethanol from the fermented wash.  The rest doesn’t matter, but what does matter are the other alcohols and fusel oils that come off
    • What comes out the other end of a still and when?
      • Foreshots and Heads
        • This is the poison stuff.  Either it will kill you or give you a WICKED headache the next day
          • Acetone
            • The first thing to come off of the still at 134° F
          • Methanol
            • Wood alcohol.  This is what makes you go blind!  It’s not when, but how much, and it doesn’t take much!  Evaporates at 147° F
          • Ethyl Acetate
            • This is what they use in non-acetone removal chemicals.  Awesome at damaging your liver and kidneys, and headaches!  Evaporates at 171° F
      • Hearts
        • This is what we’re trying to get when we distil.  Pure, sweet hearts.
          • Ethanol
            • Potable, drinkable, wonderful alcohol.  Evaporates at 173.1° F.
      • Tails
        • A mixture of compounds, oils, and alcohols that stink and need to be cut from the hearts, generally at the end of the run.  Collect these to put in the Feints
          • 2-Propanol (Isopropyl)
            • Rubbing alcohol.  You don’t want to drink a lot of this.  Evaporates at 180° F
          • 1-Propanol
            • Another common solvent offshoot of Isopropyl, and used in many similar products.  Evaporates at 207° 
          • Congeners
            • This is the term for a mixture of other prevalent alcohols present in the tails that evaporate at higher temps.  While they can and do add flavor to the spirit, a little goes a long way, and purer distillates are always best.
      • Feints
        • Everything that you save to put back in your next run.  This is a mixture of everything, although some people only use tails, but still has a significant enough amount of ethanol that can be easily extracted once it gets mixed with a larger volume of wash
    • What’s the easiest way to tell what the hearts are??
      • Cuts are the most important part of distilling!  Here’s what we would do if we distilled on a small scale
        • Use ½ Pint (8 oz) mason jars and let the still fill them all about ⅔ of the way full, approximately 6 oz in each
        • Put a coffee filter over the top and number each jar as it fills
        • Line them up and let some of the more volatile compounds air out while you finish your run
        • Start by smelling from the first jar.  Smell each jar until it stops smelling like poison and you feel like you can taste it without dying
        • Taste until it tastes like something you might want to drink.  I like to proof these down by 50% (add 10 mL spirit and 10 mL distilled water to a glass) to get the full effect of the flavor and help more compounds become taste-able
        • Once you get to a good jar, pull it out of the lineup
        • Start again using the sam process from the very last jar that came off the still.
        • Everything in between the two jars you pulled out of line is the hearts.  Mix and proof accordingly!

  • Part 4 - Process, Process, Process
    • What is good process in distilling?
      • Your run should be slow and low.  You want whatever your condenser type is to be able to easily handle the flow coming out of the still, and unless you have a glycol chiller to use as condensation water or an oversized condenser, this means a good run should take 7 - 14 hours depending on volume
      • Don’t be afraid to adjust flow mid run.  You see steam coming out of the condenser, you need to slow down so that the condenser can keep up.
      • The slower you go, the easier it is to determine where you are in the run and what kind of compound is likely coming off
      • Use the multiple mason jar method!  It makes things safe and easy!!
    • How much should I get out of a run??
      • Easy math, especially if you take hydrometer readings.  For example, if you have 10 gallons at 10% abv, then you know that you have about a gallon of ethanol at 200 proof in there.  
        • Adjust that for your still, say your hearts, when combined, yield a proof of approximately 160 proof.  With this number, you know that once you make your cuts and combine hearts, you will get approximately ⅘ of the available ethanol in solution, so about .8 of that gallon, or about 80% of the possible yield is what you’ll actually collect.  Science!!
    • Does fermentation matter?
      • YES!!!  A cleaner fermentation yields a cleaner wash!
      • Heads and tails are just concentrated yeast compounds that are produced during fermentation.  This means that if you ferment in 2 days at 95° F, you will get tons of heads because the yeast are fermenting hot and fast, and you’re not giving them time to clean up.  What would happen if you fermented your favorite IPA like that?  It would taste like ass, that’s what!!
  • Part 5 - Types of Distillates
    • What makes us call a certain distillate a ‘Type’ or style?
      • Depends on what the wash was made from and the type of still, and therefore proof of the hearts
        • Brandy
          • Fruit Base (grapes, apples, whatever)
        • Whiskey or Whisky
          • Grain Base
        • Tequila
          • Agave Base
        • Vodka
          • Any base, but the hearts must come off of the still at 189 or higher
        • Gin
          • Any base, just like vodka, but infused with herbs and spices
  • Part 6 - Oak and Carbon
    • Barrels are made of magic.  The distillate dissolves the oak a layer at a time, letting in color, lignins, vanillins and other compounds into the distillate
    • The charcoal inside the barrel also helps refine the spirits by soaking up higher alcohols and congeners, leaving a cleaner product
    • As home distillers, we have a harder job.  Instead of putting the distillate in the barrel, we put the barrel inside the distillate and use temperature and our senses to emulate a 56 gallon barrel - talk here about freezing and thawing on the regular to make the oak expand and contract to speed up the process
    • Chips vs Spirals vs Cubes
      • It’s all about surface area
        • Chips have the most, and are the most inconsistent, but also age your product the fastest.  This works the same way with beer, wine, or anything you want to age
        • Cubes have more than spirals, but are more consistent and age slower and more completely
        • Spirals are the most consistent, and maybe the easiest to work with, as they come in just about every char and American or French.  They make refining a favorite product easy and consistent
        • You should try all of them and see what works best for you
    • Filtering through carbon, like with the EZ Filter, is something that everyone should do on every distillate that they make.  This helps refine your cuts, pulls out higher alcohols and congeners, and will always leave you with a cleaner product!