This recent article explains the differences between the two types of stills used in Irish Whiskey making. Many of the newer distilleries have popularized the Single Grain style made from Column Stills while they wait for their malted barley to age. Take a look at our IWSA tasting lineup for further discussion and examples.
Precision vs. Character: Are Column Stills Actually Worse than Pot Stills?
When set side by side, a column still and a pot still look like an anthropomorphic, steampunk version of Abbott and Costello. One is tall, slender, and serious, and the other is short, squat, and slightly mischievous — the straight man and the comedic foil. How some people view these stills somewhat extends this analogy: Column stills have a reputation for producing precision-driven spirits that sacrifice uniqueness for predictability. Pot stills carry notoriety for producing better juice with greater character because their production isn’t as structured, something that gives the process repute for being the more “romantic” method of distilling.
It’s a reputation drawn from process. Column stills, also known as Coffey or continuous stills, can operate on a constant basis and allow for greater automation in the distilling process. Pot stills, on the other hand, operate on a batch-by-batch basis, which can require a more personal touch. “A pot still system is much more of a manual, hands-on process,” explains Marlene Holmes, master distiller for Milam and Greene in Blanco, Texas. “Columns have lots of automation that have to be pre-set, although they can be tweaked to certain specifications.”
There’s a difference between reputation and reality. Pot stills aren’t necessarily superior to column stills despite their romanticized perception. Both will produce delicious juice that will find an appropriate audience if done well. There is, however, a preferred method of distilling, and this matter of preference is completely relative depending on the distiller’s goals.
“Both have a place in distilling,” explains Pete Barger, co-founder of the Statesville, N.C., craft contract distillery Southern Distilling Company and the separate craft label Southern Star Spirits. “Both are doing the same thing, but they’re doing it differently, and the results produced will be different. We prefer column stills for our purposes, but if one of our clients loves running on pot stills, we’ll keep them on the pot still all day.”
A Pragmatic Process
Technically speaking, pot stills do offer distillers the opportunity to produce spirits with more distinction. Because it’s a more intimate distilling method, it allows the distiller to make bolder decisions regarding the spirit’s heads, hearts, and tails. The “cuts” of different flavor compounds that are released as the still’s distillate heats up to a vapor and cooled back down to liquid form. While the esters and fusel oils found in the heads and tails can yield unwanted or unpleasant characteristics if left fully unchecked, they can add unique aromas or flavors to the juice in small doses. A skilled distiller can use this to their advantage while building a spirit’s flavor profile. “A pot still will give you more flavor control,” Holmes explains. “It allows for much more craftiness and adjustments based on taste.”
The downside to this method becomes clearer when it’s compared to column distilling. Pot distillation is more susceptible to variances, mistakes, and other forms of distilling weirdness that may knock a batch askew. The enhanced automation of a column still cuts down on these errors, creating a more consistent product. For an operation like Southern Distilling, running juice on a column still makes sense because it allows it greater control and efficiency with creating juice that matches the specifications of a client’s mash bill with greater consistency. This method helps ensure the first bottle of a spirit produced for a client in 2017 tastes exactly like the 10,000th bottle produced by the same brand in 2023, provided that variables such as ingredient specifications stay the same.
Because column stills can run continuously instead of on a per-batch basis like pot stills, they can also be a strategic piece of equipment for contract distillers or big-box labels that are expected to produce a heavy volume of spirits every year, like the heavyweights in Kentucky. This can also be a sign of a smaller distillery’s intentions to upscale over time. “We’ve noticed most craft distillers are still running on pot stills,” Barger says. “We’ve also noticed those that are buying columns tend to have bigger aspirations.”
A Loose Blueprint
There are links between stills and specific spirits. Pot distilling works well for aged spirits such as rum and whiskey because of its ability to produce potentially bigger flavors. Column stills are great for neutral grain or clear spirits like vodka and gin, which aren’t necessarily driven by flavor complexity. The distilling industry constantly breaks these links. This could lead to the creation of intriguing products like Clermont Steep, Jim Beam’s most recent creation. Released in June, Clermont Steep is the famed distillery’s first foray into the burgeoning American single malt whiskey market. The juice is produced via column still.
Then again, it is entirely possible for a distiller to not choose between one still or the other. In Fallon, Nev., Frey Ranch uses a hybrid distilling system to produce its bourbon and rye. Its distillate starts in a column still to achieve a higher alcohol content and create a cleaner spirit, and is then finished off in pot stills. According to Frey Ranch co-founder Colby Frey, the hybrid system allows him and master distiller Russell Wedlake enough leeway with the cuts to manipulate the flavors to their liking, but it also grants them the ability to keep those flavors steady. “A hybrid system like ours allows us to fine-tune our product, but it makes it possible to produce all kinds of whiskey with greater efficiency,” he says. “It gives us the best of both worlds.”
Frey sees the potential for a greater use of hybridized still usage within the industry. He also thinks the increased use of a system that integrates the flavor control of pot distilling with the consistency of column distilling could encourage more envelope-pushing from emerging brands. “We could see more experimentation from newer distilleries trying to differentiate themselves from the big guys,” he says. “What they produce could be good or it could be bad, but finding out is part of the fun.”
Taste, the Ultimate Equalizer
A pot still or a column still can’t claim superiority over the other because there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to their usage. From a distilling standpoint, it all comes down to preference. “It really depends on what you’re used to doing and what flavor you’re looking to create,” says Holmes. From the consumer’s point of view, though, the answer is ultimately arbitrary. If whatever method a distiller uses produces a bottle that entices the palate and elicits joy in the soul, the correct still was used.
Published: July 30, 2023
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