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February 11, 2014

How are Commercial Spirits Made?

Distillation equipment is useful for many different applications. For example, one could use a still to purify water, separate essential oils and even distill fuel alcohol. However, in this article we describe the process that a commercial distiller would use to create spirits. How does Jack Daniel's make whiskey? We'll answer that. How does Absolut make Vodka? We'll answer that too. And of course, how does Ole Smoky make Moonshine? We'll answer that as well.

But please remember, distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirit plant permit as well as relevant state permits. Our distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only and the information in this article is for educational purposes only. Do not try this at home! Please read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation.

How Does A Still Work?

Distillation separates chemicals by taking advantage of differences in boiling temperatures. Commercial distillers make high proof alcohol by using distillation to separate alcohol from water. Note, distillation does not produce alcohol; it only concentrates the alcohol that is already present. 

Distillation is actually the last step in the process of making very high proof alcohol. In the first part of the process, commercial distillers essentially make a low proof beer, which gets distilled later. So, how does a commercial distiller like Ole Smoky make moonshine? They complete the following steps:

  1. Make a mash using grains (such as corn) or sugar.

  2. Ferment the mash by adding yeast.

  3. Distill the fermented wash.

How Does Distillation Work?

The specific type of alcohol that commercial distillers seek is called ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is able to be separated from water in a wash because ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water (pure ethanol boils at 172 degrees Fahrenheit, while water does not boil until 212 degrees). In a nutshell, wash is heated up in a still to a temperature above 172 degrees, but below 212 degrees. Ethanol starts to boil and turns into a vapor, separating from the wash water. The vapor is then condensed (turned back into a liquid) and drips out of the still into a mason jar or some other collection vessel.

The overall process of distillation is pretty cut and dry, but it is complicated slightly by the fact that there are several different types of alcohol (as well as many additional chemical compounds) that will be extracted during the distilling process. These are known as congeners (remember this word, it will come up again) and some are desirable in small quantities, while others (such as the foreshots) are not. Like ethanol and water, these compounds have different boiling temperatures.

How does Absolut make vodka? When making vodka, as many congers are removed as possible because it is supposed to be a very pure, flavorless spirit. How does Jack Daniel's make whiskey? When making whiskey, the congeners are desirable because they add flavor and complexity. However, with the good congeners come some of the bad. One of the reasons that whiskey, like Jack Daniel's, is aged is to smooth out the flavorful, but somewhat harsh congeners present in the final product.

Phases of Distillation

Because the various alcohols and chemical compounds in a wash separate at different boiling temperatures, there are several phases of each distillation run: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails. During the different phases of a run, a commercial distiller will notice that the taste and smell may vary considerably. Generally, only the "hearts" portion is kept for commercial distribution. The tails are set aside to be distilled again in the future.

1- Foreshots

The foreshots are the first vapors to boil off during distillation. These contain the most volatile alcohols and should not be ingested, as they contain methanol and other undesirables. Commercial distillers always discard the foreshots and never consume them. This portion makes up roughly 5% or less of all liquid collected during the distillation process. For more info on foreshots, read this article on methanol blindness.

2- Heads

The heads contain "lighter" compounds such as Acetone, Acetaldehyde, and Acetate. A commercial distiller will notice that these compounds taste bad and they smell like solvent. Additionally they are said to be the primary culprits in causing hangovers. There is little to no sweetness in this part of the run and it is far from smooth. The heads are not worth keeping for commercial distribution and should be set aside. In general, roughly 20-30% of the liquid collected during a distillation run will be heads.

3- Hearts

The hearts primarily contain ethanol and it is the most desirable part of the spirit run. A commercial distiller can tell when a still starts producing hearts because the harshness of the heads has dissipated and the smell is no longer harsh. This is the “sweet spot," which isn't just a metaphor. The whiskey produced during this phase is very flavorful, but also very smooth and, (depending on the recipe) slightly sweet. It is by far the best tasting alcohol a commercial distiller produces during a spirit run. The skill of the commercial distiller comes into play as they must recognize the beginning and the end of the hearts portion of the run. However, in general, this phase will make up around 30-40% of all spirits collected during the entire distillation process.

4- Tails

The tails start once alcohols with lower boiling points have all evaporated. This portion of the run contains fusel oils such as propanol, butanol, and amyl alcohols. The tails are not very good tasting and are mostly water, proteins, carbohydrates and less volatile alcohols with higher boiling points. There are several ways that one can tell when heads end and tails begin. First, the flavor profile of the distillate will change significantly. The rich flavors present during the hearts will start to fade, as will the sweetness. Spirits collected during this phase will taste somewhat "thin." Additionally, the fusel compounds will create an ever so slight oily sheen on top of the distillate, which can be viewed at an angle in the right light (just as gasoline can be seen floating on top of water). The distillate will also be slightly slippery to the touch when rubbed together between a finger and a thumb. Tails make up the final 20-30 percent of liquid collected during a spirit run.

When the Distillation Process Ends

Experienced commercial distillers generally run their stills until the alcohol from the wash has reduced to somewhere around 10-20 proof. It is not worth the time and energy to distill further to separate the little remaining alcohol from the water.

When Distillation Cuts Are Made

An experienced commercial distiller knows when to make a "cut" from the heads to the hearts and also from the hearts to the tails. In distilling a "cut" is when a commercial distiller stops collecting in one jar and starts collecting in a new jar. This is a skill that is learned over time and requires a bit of practice.

If the spirits will be aged, often times a small percentage of the heads and tails will be kept, along with all of the hearts, and added to the barrel. These congeners, along with flavors extracted from the wood, provide the flavor and body of the final product.

Cuts can have a dramatic impact on the final product. Commercial distillers will say that it is best to make the head cut late and collect a bit of the hearts with the heads than to make the cut early and have heads mix with the hearts. Along the same note, it is better to make tails cut early and have a bit of hearts in the tails than vise versa. 

Feints

The tails that have been saved from a run and kept for future use are called feints. Commercial distillers sometimes add them to the wash of the next distillation run or they'll collect enough to make an all feints run, which is called "the queens share" by some folks.

Disclaimer

The information, data and references, set forth above, are provided for informational purposes only are not intended to be relied upon by any person, or entity, as a legal basis for any act or decision whatsoever. None of the information provided above is intended to give specific scientific or legal advice to any person, or entity.

  • what stainless still ( Complete ) would I buy as a beginner that I wouldn’t have to upgrade that would remain good enough for years to come ( I’M 60 ) . Also do you guys have a system in place to finance?

    Thank you
    Kirby Fitch

    Posted by Kirby Fitch on November 13, 2021
  • Some good stuff

    Posted by Ralph Jones on November 13, 2021

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