The Tasting Panel magazine

March 2017

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88  /  the tasting panel  /  march 2017 FEEDBACK LOOP Q: I have a degree in chemical engineer- ing and have been involved in producing rum as well as brandy using fractional stills. I have never been able to comprehend why fractional distillation is not exclusively used in the production of alcoholic beverages rather than the antiquated pot stills. Steve Thompson, a former President of Brown Forman who founded custom facility Kentucky Artisan Distillery in 2013, explains that pot stills and column stills "are both fractional distillation devices" designed to capture various alcohols from the base liquid—each alcohol vaporizing at a different tem- perature. "Most large U.S. producers use continuous stills," says Thompson, "because column stills are more efficient at making plain old alcohol." Pot stills, on the other hand, "are more of an art," according to Thompson. "Operated correctly, a pot still will give you better flavor." The problem? "It's hard to find anyone great at distilling with a pot still." Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder and Spiritsmaker at Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles, says, "We're big fans of fractional [i.e., column] distillation. We bought the country's first commercial- scale continuous, infinitely fractionat- ing column still four years ago. It's fairly basic and we've improved it over the years, but we love it for its ability to help us find and capture any flavor more precisely than would be possible on even the fanciest pot still. We also own a traditional pot still, which is how we get started and which we now use strictly for re-distillation. The differ- ence between the two is stark and has everything to do with basic chemistry: pot stills capture flavor like fishing nets, whereas continuous fractionating stills capture them like fishing lines. With more control, we can make spirits with more personality and finesse by making not just one but two, three, ten or 50 heart cuts. As craft distilling matures and distillers seek to make spirits that reflect their house styles more precisely, I think we'll start to see these types of stills gaining in popular- ity. They're very expensive and tricky to run, but scalable craft distilleries will find them to be essential tools soon." At Boston's Bully Boy Distillers, Head Distiller Dave Willis operates a hybrid pot-column still. "Both pot and fraction- ing stills are 'antiquated,'" he says. "The Coffey still, the precursor to the modern continuous column still, was created in the 1820s; the pot still is even older. Nonetheless, the short answer is: It's less about the still and more about the person doing the distilling. Personally, I prefer a pot because it gives me access to a fuller variety of flavors, whereas the column tends to isolate individual flavors and aromas. Put another way, the arc of a pot distillation is more nuanced and pronounced. It's a fuller palette to play with." Rob Dietrich, Head Distiller at Stranahan's Whiskey in Denver, also uses a hybrid still and calls it "a highly efficient method of making whiskey. The unique design of our still combines the two technologies, providing a high-quality, flavorful distillate. A reflux column still is easy to control and dial in efficiently. Ultimately, the difference boils down to the flavor profile created by the different methods of distillation. New technology and old methods do a great whiskey make!" WHICH DISTILLATION METHOD IS BETTER? Our readers occasionally have questions and concerns that we are happy to address. Here's a recent inquiry along with responses from several experts. Pot versus Column PHOTO COURTESY OF BULLY BOY DISTILLERS Best of both worlds: the hybrid pot-column still at Boston's Bully Boy Distillers. PHOTO COURTESY OF BULLY BOY DISTILLERS

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