Stop Buying the Wrong Vodka Still – Vodka Columns: Single vs Double

Vodka stills come up pretty often around here and we’ve written several articles about them in the past year. Whether you’re using our Crystal Dragon, Stainless Steel, or Copper Column, it’s important to make sure that you’re using the right tool for the job and the best still for vodka. 

The best still for vodka is a matter of some debate but there are a few ground rules. First, you’ll need a lot of plates to consistently pull off product at 95% ABV, the TTB legal requirement for making vodka. Our recommendation here at StillDragon is that at a minimum a commercial system should have around 18 plates in a standard vodka column. It’s important to keep in mind that more plates gives you a wider operating range and you can have up to 30 plates before the math shows diminishing returns. A major benefit of having more plates allows the equipment to do the work and have more separation steps (plates) in the process. By having more separation steps you’re doing the heavy lifting with the equipment itself so you shouldn’t need to run the system in full reflux for nearly as long. This will save you in the long run by lowering your utility demands for both the heat and cooling water demand and save you time during the run.

The amount of plates isn’t a hard and fast rule and sometimes you just aren’t going to have the ceiling height for a 30 plate column in your current space. You can theoretically make a shorter column work but it will be more difficult to consistently pull off 95% ABV spirit but just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. High reflux ratios can drive the proof up but without enough plates collection speeds will be slow. Time is money so it will normally be well worth the investment to get the right tool for the job instead of chaining yourself to a piece of equipment that’s slower than it needs to be.

Speaking of slower than it needs to be, many customers ask about using an all-in-one system versus a system purpose built for vodka. There’s nothing at all wrong with using a system that can do it all, especially if it saves floor space in a tight area. However, just like a Swiss Army Knife is a handy tool to have when you don’t know what you’ll need, it’s not the best tool for most specific jobs. An all-in-one system can save some space but they don’t save time and they make what could be a series of individually pretty short tasks into a potential marathon to make the same spirit. It’s similar to running split columns to save ceiling height, it’s possible to do it but you’re making life more difficult on yourself than you have to. It takes a lot of attention to keep a split column running and it’s almost always not optimal. One column will almost inevitably be starved and not displaying goon plate behavior in these setups. If you absolutely need to save height you may consider running a stripping still and a smaller vessel for your vodka runs. This can actually save you money on equipment and add flexibility to your workflow. 

Vodka stills can be a little tricky to wrap your head around if you’re not used to them but they are not too different to running any other column still. It’s not quite as simple as adding in more plates but it’s also not much more complicated than that. Just like with most things distilling, finding the best fit for you may take some tinkering and experimenting. We’d love to help and use our years of experience to help you not reinvent the wheel when you’re getting started or on your next distillery upgrade. If you have questions or feel lost please give us a call or shoot us an email and we’ll be happy to help!