Heads, Hearts, and Tails

As mentioned in a previous blog post, Heads, Hearts & Tails can be generally defined as the following:

  • Heads: Spirits from the beginning of the run that contain a high percentage of low boiling point alcohols and other compounds such as aldehydes and ethyl acetate.
  • Hearts: The desirable middle alcohols from your run.
  • Tails: A distillate containing a high percentage of fusel oil and little alcohol at the end of the run.

 Let’s take this blog in another direction to further add to the often conflicting advice given to newbie distillers, shall we? You’re welcome.

 So often the new distiller views their skill level based upon his or her ability to know where to make the exact cut between each (heads, hearts, or tails) part of the run. To the fledgling distiller, pinpointing the exact transition between each segment of the run can be interpreted as finding the good alcohol vs the bad alcohol. However, collecting distillate based on the most insipid sensory awareness profiles is what actually happens to many newly minted distillers that read and perhaps misinterpret how making cuts should benefit finished spirits? This strategy of exactitude works really well for those who make alcohol with table sugar only. But soon wears thin with those making an all-grain whiskey or a full-bodied rum/rhum.

And so, as the distiller gains more and more experience making cuts, the distiller ends up being quite good at finding the dead center Hearts cut.  In doing so he/she becomes quite skilled at making a very “smooth” spirit. Yes, very “smooth”. So “smooth”.  The “smoothest”. Nobody makes it “smoother”.  Oy, that sounds suitably forgettable.

 The problem here with this quest for “smooth” is that unless the distiller is trying to render textbook neutral, the finished spirit very much lacks complexity. Further downstream, barrel aging then produces a finished spirit that is ever so one-dimensional. Now if you are the type of consumer that enjoys or prefers a whiskey and coke, or a rum and coke then perhaps this tact suits you just fine? And that’s fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking what you like. Heck, I like ketchup on my eggs, liver & onions and even more, secretly don’t really mind pineapple & Canadian bacon on my pizza.

The evolution of the distiller’s sensory awareness skills eventually progresses to the point where he/she will start to question why his (or her) spirit seems to be lacking. Indeed, nowhere near the tasting notes of whiskey or rums coming out of some of the more well-established distilleries. One even starts to realize that some of the lesser established distilleries are making better spirits as well. That can be a kick in the pills aye?

There are a lot of variables to making a good spirit. Mash bill, yeast strain, fermentation temps, distillation technique, barrel aging, and blending. Each of those steps mentioned also has a subset list of variables, but the distillation technique is definitely a major part of the equation.

The progression continues along, and the distiller slowly starts to gain confidence that dipping his toe into either end of the center cut is ok. An incremental move toward the dark side!

As with many things, less can be more. This is true in cooking, right? Too much sugar. Too much salt, too much pepper can be off-putting. And yet food tastes better when correctly seasoned.  The goal here is to install just enough flavor components to not overwhelm. But rather enhance. The same analogy is true for proper cocktails and therefore also true for spirits. Naturally, the above comment is indeed wide open for interpretation since not everyone has the same tolerance for moving too far North or South of insipid.

Start slowly by adding back small volumes of distillate that typically wouldn’t make the center cut on your old strict way of identifying your keeper, smooth spirit.  As always, utilize your sensory awareness team for feedback. And most importantly it is critical to remember that cut points are not a fixed metric. Not every distiller determines where cuts are made in the same way. Especially when each is running different types of stills and processing different types of beer or wine.

Whether you are making moonshine, vodka, or Armagnac, each process will surely have different cut points according to the interpretation of the distiller. And finally, you have to be willing to admit to yourself when pushing just a bit too far. Don’t get trapped into sunk cost fallacy thinking because you’ve put in so much work, have grown impatient, and just want to get it in the bottle. 

Now I know what you all are thinking. In the first blog about making cuts “you told me to cut clean”. And in this blog “you’re telling me to loosen up and cut a little dirty”. Yes, I know. It can be confusing. But look at it this way, Picasso first learned to draw and paint more anatomically accurate pieces of artwork. As time passed, however, his artwork became less symmetrical, more complex, and more open to interpretation. Does that make sense? Similarly, distilling can be very basic. After all, it’s just evaporation, right? On the other hand, distilling a fine, legacy spirit is one of the most nuanced, artful tasks there is.

Happy distilling, good luck moving forward, and don’t forget to take lots of notes.