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Copper or stainless? That is the question. It's answered here!
If your gut feeling is that there is a clear winner, think again. Each material type presents its own set of trade-offs. The bottom line is that copper is better for some things and stainless is better for others. We'll break down all of the differences below.
We'll begin with the most basic and obvious differences.
The reasons that copper is often used for distilling are as follows: it is a great conductor of heat, it will remove sulfur compounds, and is an easy metal to work with.The main drawbacks of copper are higher cost and the fact that they are more difficult to keep clean.
The best features of stainless are, it is less expensive than copper, it is very durable, and also easy to clean. The main drawbacks with stainless steel are it is not the best conductor of heat, and stainless steel won't remove sulfur compounds from the wash.
Stainless / Copper Still
Sometimes the best solution is a compromise. Depending on what you're using the still for and what features you want, a stainless boiler with a copper column might be the best solution. Read on for more details.
How to decide which is best for you?
So, copper or stainless? Well, there is more to consider than solely the material properties. The bottom line is that each type is slightly more appropriate at completing certain tasks. In other words, copper stills are better at doing some things while stainless stills are better at doing others.
To figure out which type of distiller is best for you, all you need to do is ask yourself a few simple questions (below). Read the question, answer it, then click on the links below to read our opinion on which type of still is better for that particular task.
What are you distilling?
What types of features do you want to add?
- Standard components
- Temp gauges
- Copper packing
- Pressure gauge
- Bubble plates
- Electric heating element
Do you want a pre-built still or will you build your own?
What Are You Distilling?
Always use the right tools for the job. Probably heard that one before, right? It definitely applies to distilling. Below is a list of potential uses for stills and direction on which type of still would be best for the job.
This one is essentially a tie. Stainless stills aren't going to distill water any better than copper will, and vise versa. If you're looking to purify water by means of distillation, you can't go wrong either way. Copper and stainless will do the job equally well.
Functionally, stainless and copper stills will do an equal job of distilling essential oils.This one is going to be a tie as well!
OK, this category has a clear winner, assuming that we're comparing a stainless steel still that is completely sealed with mechanical connections (ferrules, tri-clamps, etc.). If this is the case, stainless steel fuel alcohol distillers definitely beat copper.
Fuel alcohol distillers need to have reflux capabilities because the final product needs to be extremely high proof. Because of this, a still with bubble plates should be used and this requires a boiler / column assembly that can withstand a slight amount of pressure. Essentially, all of the parts of such a still need to be clamped, bolted, soldered, or welded together. Old timey copper stills with friction fit parts aren't appropriate for this.
Distilled Spirits (Whiskey, Vodka, Moonshine, Etc.)
Overall, copper is better for distilling spirits because the material removes sulfides from distillate, which produces a better tasting and smelling final product. Copper is definitely the better choice for products like Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, Scotch, and traditional Rum, because of the sulfur reduction, as mentioned above. These spirits are also most commonly distilled in pot stills (no reflux), which allows for lots of flavor to come through from the wash. Copper stills are great for high proof spirits like vodka too. Tito's Vodka, for example, is distilled in a copper pot. However, vodka is best distilled in vessels with a reflux column, as it can be done quicker that way.
This isn't to say that stainless stills can't be used to distill spirits. In fact, a stainless pot with a copper column, or a 100% stainless still packed with copper mesh, are both excellent options for producing spirits.
Odds are that you're going to want to add some additional gauges, functionality, etc. to your still. This section will tell you which material type is better for which features.
In their most simple form, stills consist of a boiler (where the liquid is held), some sort of a cone, cap, or dome (where the vapor initially rises out of the boiler), a lyne arm or a column (where the proof can be altered, depending on the style), and a condenser (where the vapor is turned back into a liquid). It sounds complicated, but stills are much more simple than people realize.
Any vessel with all of these components is capable of distilling. Such a piece of equipment could be used to purify water, concentrate essential oils, and increase the proof of alcohol to make ethanol or distilled spirits like whiskey.
However, there are a few basic add-on's that one should definitely consider building into a still to increase its functionality and the quality of its products.
Temperature gauges can be added to copper or stainless steel stills, but adding ports (if they're not already built into the still) copper is much easier. For example, adding a 1/2" NPT fitting to a copper boiler is as easy as drilling a hole and soldering in a bung. To add the same fitting to stainless, you'd need to have TIG welding equipment and experience.
Copper packing can easily be added to both stainless and copper stills with ease. This one is a tie.
Pressure gauges can be added to copper or stainless. However, just like the temp gauge example above, adding one to a copper still will likely be a bit easier.
Bubble plates and sight glasses should only be added to stills that are able to withstand at least a slight amount of pressure without leaking. This rules out a lot of copper stills. For example, Clawhammer's copper stills use a friction fit connection and rye flour paste to join the boiler with the column. This type of configuration is not compatible with bubble plates, as it could potentially cause vapor to leak out of the seam between the two parts.
Bubble plates will be compatible with almost all stainless steel stills, because all of the parts on stainless stills are joined by mechanical fittings such as tri-clover fittings. So, stainless wins this one.
Electric heating element
Electric heating elements are compatible with both copper and stainless stills. However, once again, they're probably easier to build into a copper still if there isn't a port for one already. Note, Clawhammer's stainless 8 gallon includes a built in fitting for a heating element.
Buy or Build?
This is an important question. If you have strong opinions on whether you want to buy or build a still, this section will definitely push you in one direction or the other.
Buy a still
Obviously buying a still is going to be more expensive up-front, because it takes a lot of time and effort to build a still, which you end up paying for when you buy a still. There are plenty of pre-built copper and stainless options out there. If you're only criteria for purchasing a still is that it needs to be pre-built, you'll have a lot of models to choose from in copper and stainless. For example, Clawhammer Supply sells a pre-built Stainless Steel Still.
If you're looking for more information on pre-built stainless steel stills, make sure to check out our detailed article on stainless steel distillation equipment.
Build a still
If the idea of building one of our DIY copper still kits sounds appealing then copper is going to be the best choice for you. Copper is malleable, meaning that it bends and forms easily. It's relatively soft and is very easy to cut with a sturdy pair of tin snips. It's also easy build bond copper parts to one another and can be soldered with little experience and inexpensive tools.
The hardest part about building a still is going to be fabricating the parts. Our DIY copper moonshine still kits are a great option for folks who like to build and love DIY projects, but don't have the desire or capability to work out the geometry of the parts. The parts are machine cut and fit together perfectly.
It will be hard to go wrong with either type of still. Copper and stainless stills have slightly different properties and each excel at slightly different tasks, but are also versatile enough to not be that different from one another. a stainless or copper still. If you're on the fence, hopefully the list above will point you in the right direction and push you over the edge. At the end of the day either still type will probably work great and you'll most likely be happy with your final decision, whatever it may be.