Almost a decade ago, lots of people were talking about where the line between macro- and micro-distilling was going to be drawn, and what we, culturally, were going to decide the term “craft” meant. I had no skin in the game, and my discussions about this topic happened on the sidelines. My contributions were but a chirp next to those who were making a livelihood producing spirits. Many of my friends were presenting in front of government commissions, drafting industry by-laws and arguing around conference tables. But the conversation was unavoidable and ran on a seemingly continuous loop. It was the topic that overtook casual dinner parties and was the reason why my phone often buzzed at all hours of the day.
Right about this time my Half Full colleague David Wondrich published a small article, in which he claimed that there are only two kinds of spirits: those which come off a pot still and those which come off a column still.
That’s exactly what I’d been saying. The only way to segment the industry, I said to everyone who would listen, is to draw a line between the tools used to create the spirit. All other delineations are pretend. At the time, no one, except Dave, agreed.
But I still believe it to be true and the only way to truly differentiate between spirits.
Think of distillation as a form of selection, since after all you have a substance from which you want to isolate certain components. Distillation exploits the properties of those components, so that the distiller can take some but not all, this but not that.
A column still is a tremendously efficient tool for doing this, and after Aeneas Coffey refined the design and patented his eponymous still in 1831, the world has never looked back. But the column still is an industrial device that resembles—nay, is identical to—the column that fractions crude oil into its various parts, including gasoline and heating oil.
Things in the column separate like light refracting into a rainbow and the operator pulls off exactly the fraction of the column that is desired. To continue what I think is a useful metaphor, imagine if you could break that rainbow down into its different parts and take only the red color, or, if you wanted a more varied spectrum, you could crank the dial and make a wider grab to take red with a little bit of the orange and yellow. The former is clear rum, vodka, neutral spirits—just the red, as close to pure ethanol as possible—and the latter is column still whiskey, such as most bourbon, carefully selected with a little wider of a spectrum.
A column still is static, the mash (the mix of fermented base ingredients) is continuously fed into the top of the contraption, and the alcohol is continuously harvested from the bottom. Nonstop. The proof of the resulting spirit is consistent, whatever the operator has set it to is what is produced.
But humans have been making alcohol long before the invention of the column still.
The alchemist Maria the Jewess, who we think lived in the second century C.E., described a three-armed apparatus for distillation. The Islamic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan distilled alcohol from wine in the eighth century, although he didn’t seem to find the flammable vapor he produced very interesting.
Irish monks, however, seem to have seen the potential. A group returned from a Mediterranean trip two hundred years after Hayyan with an apparatus, or plans for one, designed to distill perfume. They put their minds to work and adapted the perfume still for the production of beverage spirits. Uisce beatha—Gaelic for water of life A.K.A. whiskey—was born.
Everything different about how an alembic, or pot still, is run since these early iterations is a refinement, rather than a major change.
To distill in a pot still, one adds the fermented base ingredients—a beer made of barley, for instance—to the bulbous base of the contraption, which is really is just a big teapot. The beer is slowly brought up to temperature until it starts to steam. The steam rises through the conical top and ultimately runs through a cooling coil where it condenses back into a liquid. Because different constituents possess different volatility (and because you are removing those constituents from the original batch) the makeup of the steam changes over the course of the cooking. The first bit, the so-called foreshots, is all volatile stuff that smells like paint thinner and tastes like hydrochloric acid flavored Pop Rocks. Things get better after that.
What I’ve always found most interesting about the contrast between the column still and the pot still is that the running of a pot still is an existential exercise—the spirits that come off a pot still are the product of the passage of time. The differences, however, are not entirely philosophical. The column still is efficient, and that which is harvested from it is cleaner, more direct. (Why anyone would think that a “pot stilled” vodka is a good idea escapes me.) If you want a neutral base for gin, if you want a sparkling, clear as crystal shot of vodka, pull that alcohol off a column. Pot stills, in contrast, find their beauty in inefficiency, in the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, in the perfection found in imperfections. Funky rums, luscious Armagnacs, and robust Irish whiskies are all the products of pot stills. These differences are why a number of distillers have built hybrids that combine a column still and a pot still, which they use to make a range of spirits.
This is also not a new discussion. Testifying before a turn-of-the-century government panel tasked with codifying what whiskey was—and specifically whether spirits made in a column still could be called whiskey—John Talbot Power, of Powers Whiskey, was asked if the products of a column-still had “any of the characteristics of whiskey.” He said “none whatever.” Further, he noted that the spirits obtained from a column “would not be accepted by any Irishman as whiskey.”
If you take a dram of a pot still whiskey, like Redbreast, what you have in your glass is a very different, very specific thing. Consistency, as one can easily imagine, is the product of expertise, an artistic application of science. It is distilled in one go. Its full flavor profile and slick mouthfeel aren’t the product of a column.
History has not sided with Mr. Powers, but common sense does.