Mixing Heads, Hearts, and Tails

By: Larry Taylor

In a previous blog post, I wrote about Heads, Hearts, and Tails. It was very basic and not a bad place for the inexperienced distiller to get an introductory understanding of how these three transitions are characterized. In a nutshell: Heads = beginning, Hearts = middle, Tails = end

The blog post was intended to make the new distiller aware that the alcohol collected during the run does not remain uniformly consistent with respect to flavor profile. The new distiller is essentially encouraged to identify and isolate each “cut” as precisely as possible, with the message being that the Hearts cut is the most desirable. With more and more experience, the new distiller will ultimately develop enough skill to isolate Hearts very adequately.

Here comes the rub. Notwithstanding the desire to render a fairly neutral spirit for vodka, an all-Hearts cut for a flavored spirit like whiskey, rum, or brandy really does end up rendering a fairly insipid final product. A clean product, yes, but without complexity, and with minimal character and mouth feel. An all-Hearts finished product can often lack those familiar, inviting flavors that make our favorite spirit stand out as a truly well-made, thoughtfully rendered final product.

Finding the Right Mix

So, when mixing Heads, Hearts, and Tails, how much Heads or Tails needs to be added back to the Hearts section in order to produce a finished product that has all the hallmarks of a thoughtfully rendered flavored spirit? Ah, that is part of the secret sauce then isn’t it?! When thinking about flavor profiles, I try and use food analogies to help me get my brain around the concept of adding back what is more often considered the flawed distillate “cuts”.

Too Much? Or Not Enough?

Let’s start with table salt as an example. Not enough salt leaves certain foods lacking and dull. Even premium foods, right? Then, if you add too much salt, the food becomes inedible. But who decides how much salt is too much salt? Why are some foods just better being a bit saltier compared to other foods that seem delicious with little-to-no salt?

Now, let’s use a cut of meat as another example. Take what at one time would have been considered a low-quality, inexpensive cut of meat with maybe too much fat. Something that may have at one time been tossed into the rubbish bin. I always think of pork bellies. On pork bellies, there is usually a bit of a lean section surrounded by a giant blob of fat. As I rule, I generally hate fatty meats. But when cooked down long enough, the fat adds an incredible layer of complexity to finished pork bellies. Slow cooked pork belly is simply amazing! And so, we have a flaw (fat) being rendered down into the finished product, making the finished product better than it would have otherwise been without the addition of the perceived flaw.

I suppose I could probably think of a dozen more food examples that can help create parallels between flavored spirits production and cooking. It really is up to the distiller to decide how far into the Heads or Tails cut they are willing to dip in order to produce the kind of complexity that creates an award-winning flavored spirit.

There are, after all, 150 ways (or more) to make chicken soup. And likely an equal amount of methods for rendering a good, inviting, flavored spirit.

So, if you are a fledgling distiller, first strive to identify and become intimately familiar with Heads, Hearts, and Tails as individual components. Then, slowly circle back to experiment with mixing Heads, Hearts, and Tails by adding back small measures of either “late” Heads or “early” Tails to try and create your own secret sauce. Good luck!

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