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March 30, 2013

Distillation Column Packing - For Higher Proof

Increase Final Proof by Packing Still Column

Copper Mesh, Raschig Rings, and Glass Beads

distillation column packing - how to increase final proof

Packing a distillation column with copper scrubbers, raschig rings, or glass distilling beads is the easiest way to increase the final proof of moonshine whiskey while making it taste better. The packing material increases final proof by causing a slight natural reflux action in the column. If copper packing material is used, it simultaneously removes sulfur compounds from the vapor, producing a better tasting final product.

As vapor moves up through the column it migrates through network of material that is a slightly lower temperature than the boiler, etc. For example copper mesh forms a thermal bridge between the cooler edges of the column and the center of the column (because it's super conductive). It creates an abundance of surface area that is just slightly below the condensing temperature of water (but ideally above the condensing temp of alcohol), providing opportunity for water vapor to turn back into a liquid while allowing the alcohol vapor to move on.  

As water comes into contact with the packing / mesh material, some of it condenses and drips back down through the column. However, alcohol vapor moves onward due to its lower boiling temperature and ends up making its way all the way to your mason jar. As a result, final proof is much higher than it would have been without the use of packing.

Pot Still vs. Pot With Thumper vs. Packed Column vs. Reflux

Thre are a lot of different still designs out there. Clawhammer stills are essentially simple pot stills with the addition of a column to make the design more versatile. If nothing is done to the column, the our stills will operate just like a pot still and first run proof will start in the range of 100-110 proof and drop from there. If the column is packed, our stills will operate like pot stills with a thumper and first run proof will start as high as 130-150 depending on starting ABV.

We intentionally left the reflux coil out of our design because our stills are made for making sipping whiskey, not fuel alcohol. At a minimum a true reflux still would have a reflux coil at the top of the column. As vapor comes into contact with the coil, much of it condenses and drips back down through the column. Kind of like our moonshine stilldesign...on steroids. Some even have advanced features such as perforated plates for fractioning, needle valves for reflux control and controlled output, etc. This stuff is used to maximize single run proof while simultaneously stripping nearly all of the flavor from the end product, creating a "neutral grain spirit." Again, we don't offer this stuff because we think it simply isn't necessary for making good whiskey. If making high octane racing fuel is the goal, then one should consider a true reflux still. (Warning: shameless self-promotion ahead). Though, if making smooth, flavorful sippin whiskey is the goal, Clawhammer stills are optimal.

Although we don't endorse true reflux technology for the production of traditional whiskey, we wholeheartedly endorse the use of column packing to induce a very slight, natural reflux in the column during distillation runs. This allows the still to work a bit faster, first run proof to be a bit higher, and does all of this without stripping the final product of it's flavor. There's also an added advantage if copper packing is used (described below).

Copper: The Best Column Packing Material

An added advantage of using scrubbers is that they remove sulfides from the distillate. Sulfides are found in some fruits and are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. They tend to get concentrated when products are distilled. This will show up as off flavors and smells in the final product. The best way to get rid of them is to add as much copper to the still as possible.

Sulfur compunds react with copper, precipitating them out of the mixure. This is good, because sulfur tastes and smells bad. There's no place for it in good whiskey. It's likely that this is why commercial distilleries still use copper in their distiller designs. For example, Downslope Distilling in Denver, Colorado uses a 240 gallon, 100% copper still with two large diamond shaped chambers in a column formation made by Col. Vaughn Wilson of Arkansas. The chambers contain trays that are loaded with copper mesh. Downslope's head distiller insists that this is one of the reasons that their whiskey is so good (and they have the medals to prove it). So, even if your still isn't a column still, it's not a bad idea to add as much copper to it as possible. Accordingly, we believe that using copper mesh or copper scrubbers is the best way to pack a column. 

Here's how to pack the column on Clawhammer's Copper Stills:

  • Add 1-2 scrubbers to column of a 1 gallon still.
  • Add 4-8 scrubbers to the column of a 5 gallon still.
  • Add 5-10 scrubbers to the column of an 8 gallon still.
  • Add 7-13 scrubbers to the column of a 10 gallon still.

    Note: you MUST make sure that packing material is 99.9% copper - which can be hard to find. To make it easy on you we've sourced pure copper scrubbers and have them available here for purchase. DO NOT buy copper mesh or scrubbers if the product does not explicitly state, or if you cannot verify, that they are pure copper. Some of copper mesh / scrubbers contain other metals while other products are copper coated steel. Also, if copper scrubbers are purchased, remove steel clasp in center of scrubber.

    Other Packing Material: Glass Beads and Raschig Rings

    Packing a column with glass beads or raschig rings is not optimal for several reasons. First, they don't remove sulfides. This is actually a big strike against both of the materials. Removing sulfides is critically important for crafting top notch spirits. Second, they're difficult to install and secure in the column. Third, (this applies to glass beads only) actual scientific glass distillers beads are significantly more expensive than the other materials. The cost alone makes this option a no-go.

    How to Install Copper Scrubbers / Mesh

    Installing copper packing material in the column is very easy. First, the material goes in the column (not the boiler, not the condenser, etc.). If you're using scrubbers (after removing steel clasp that holds scrubber together) simply push the scrubbers up into the column. The more the better, but do not use force to install them. They should fit in the column loosely and there may even be a tiny bit of space between them. Scrubbers will need to be unraveled before being installed in a 1 gallon kit. Though, they fit very nicely in the 5 and 10 gallon columns.

    Where to Buy Copper Scrubbers / Mesh for Columns

    Pure copper scrubbers are available on our website. Click on the picture BELOW to  purchase. Note: we do NOT recommend, nor do we have a good source for raschig rings or glass beads. 



    • Forgot to mention … Boil the scrubbers in a water vintager mix before using sometimes they still have milling oils left over..!

      Posted by Louisiana distiller on March 14, 2013
    • I use chore boy copper scrubbers almost every run!!! Significant difference!!

      Posted by Louisiana distiller on March 14, 2013
    • Great info. Confusion about this is finally over.
      Thank you.

      Posted by Ric Oestreich on March 13, 2013
    • True story! I am more than happy with my copper moonshine still and I have to say that even the taste of moonshine whiskey is of way better quality now.

      Posted by Jason Stone on March 13, 2013

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