What Type of Still Is Best for Whiskey?

By Larry Taylor

Well, here I am again tasked with trying to provide some clarity on a debate that has likely been a thorn in the side of purist whiskey lovers since the 1800s.

Undoubtedly, pot stills do indeed have the oldest pedigree on the planet. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, pot-stilled whiskey is some of the most sought-after spirits on the planet. I’m a big fan to say the least.

The Best Still for Whiskey Is…

Pot stilling is probably what most people think of when they imagine how spirits are produced. However, in Kentucky the column still is very much part of bourbon production. I’m not referring to the tall column stills used to produce very neutral spirits like vodka. I am referring to the fabled bourbon still employed by nearly all of the bigger bourbon makers in Kentucky. This still is not at all designed to remove or clean whiskey up so much that it ends up with the thin, smooth yet dry mouth feel that is often attributed to Irish whiskey or scotch that is traditionally distilled multiple times. No, this still rather installs flavor. Or perhaps better put, it concentrates flavor into the finished spirit.

The technique here is that the grains (no less than 51% corn) are left in the wash to be fermented into distiller’s beer. After fermentation, the grains are still not removed. The grain-in distiller’s beer is then continuously fed into the still on to one of the upper plates. The emphasis is more about liquid hold up giving the alcohol the opportunity to flash, rather than allowing the still to optimally perform many distillation cycles. This technique allows the finished spirit to be pulled off at a lower proof than its Irish or Scottish cousins. The resulting product is rich, with a more complex flavor. The mouth feel is far chewier and even has a bit of an oily finish, giving bourbon its reputation for being a sturdy whiskey that drinks well when served neat or stands up well in a proper cocktail.

An American Bourbon Distiller’s Perspective

To gain more perspective, I had a word with Adam Stumpf, the owner and master distiller at Stumpy’s Spirits Distillery in Columbia, Illinois. Adam and his family operate one of the very few small, family-owned estate distilleries in the country. Adam’s family grows all their own grains used in their spirits. His family has farmed the land for eight generations, and now Adam has added the craft distillery to the family portfolio.

  • Larry: Hi Adam. Can you describe the flavor profile differences the continuous column produces compared to pot-stilled bourbon?
  • Adam: On our particular column versus our 500-gallon pot, we have noticed that the flavor profile of our distillate is overall cleaner and more delicate and nuanced. It seems that the distillate is aging a bit faster, as we recently had a group choose a single barrel to purchase off our column that was 18-months old. In a blind taste test, they chose that barrel over two barrels that were three-years old from our pot still. Obviously, there are many variables that can attribute to those flavor differences, but the white dog off the stills is noticeably different, with my preference being the distillate off the column.
  • Larry: Adam, what are the production speed differences, if any?
  • Adam: The 12-inch column is running about four times the speed of our 500-gallon pot, putting out a higher quality whiskey, with about one third of the utility cost per proof gallon.
  • Larry: Whoa! That is a significant difference. So Adam, besides your own, what bourbons do you find most enjoyable?
  • Adam: It’s different depending on the day! Anything from Heaven Hill that comes out of their Deatsville (old TW Samuels) rickhouse is usually a winner … especially if you can get an Elijah Craig single barrel. I’ve also found myself sipping a fair bit of Wilderness Trail recently.

Right. So, I’m not sure what (if anything) we’ve accomplished here other than bourbon made with a bourbon column still is simply a different spirit than its pot-stilled cousins. All are whiskies to be sure. What still is best for whiskies? The answer is: that depends.

But bourbon is its own uniquely American iteration of whiskey. Unless you don’t like whiskey at all, there is plenty of space on the whiskey enthusiast’s shelf for pot-stilled whiskey and column-made whiskey. Irish whiskey, Scottish whisky, Canadian Whiskey, and – of course – American whiskey … there is room for all. It shouldn’t matter. Our only job is to enjoy or not. And if you can’t enjoy? Well, then there will be more whiskey for me!

> Ready to outfit your craft distillery with a whiskey still? Contact StillDragon for help choosing equipment to meet your preferred flavor profile.