7 Questions to Ask Yourself When Purchasing a Still

Commercial Distillery

When choosing the best configuration for your custom still, the primary tool of your craft, it's best to do your homework and understand what equipment you want, need, and why.

1. What spirits will you be making?

The spirits you're producing are the cornerstone of the still design, but each category of spirit has rules that must be adhered to. With that said, you have many options on how to achieve those desired results. A great example is bourbon whiskey, a focus of many new US craft distilleries, and without getting into all of the detailed requirements from the TTB, it must be distilled from grain only fermentables, of which at least 51% must be corn. Bourbon whiskey must be distilled at 160 proof or below and barreled in new charred oak containers at 125 proof or below. On the other hand, if you decide you'll be making vodka as well, TTB regulations are much simpler, but keep in mind that doesn't mean the production is. Vodka may be distilled from any material at or above 95% ABV (190 proof) and not bottled at less than 80 proof. With these details in mind, you must then decide on your preferred distillation method for each product.

2. What process or processes do you prefer to use in making your spirits?

Continuing with bourbon whiskey and vodka as examples, as they are most often distilled using different processes at the craft scale.  Do you prefer to pot still your bourbon, if so, how many passes? Or perhaps you're fond of doing a single pass through a plated column, or maybe you want to try and catch up to the big guys and use a continuous distilling process? You could do a combination of these processes or use a specific process for different SKUs or products. On the vodka side of the world, pot stilling could be entirely too inefficient, and a batch column or continuous column is a must.

3. What volumes of product will the still need to be capable of and in what timeline?

Desired output is the best metric to decide the size of the equipment needed. This goes for the still and all supporting equipment- mashing, fermentation, storage, blending, bottling, etc. By starting with the desired output and timeline, we can effectively size all the equipment starting with the still, the center of production, and working out both directions from there. Bottlenecks in production can happen anywhere in the supply and process chain, but if the still is undersized it can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome.  

4. What are the space requirement for the still(s) and the supporting equipment?

Now that you've decided what products you're making, how you're making them, and have figured out what size equipment you’ll be needing, the next step is to decide where the still will go. Often the still is considered a beautiful showpiece or the center of attention, but it is also the key component in your production process where accessibility and usability are of the utmost importance. Center of attention is fine, but first it must fit in the space. Do you have the ceiling height to accommodate an 18-foot Vodka Column?

5. What infrastructure needs to be in place to effectively operate the still?

When installing the infrastructure for the still it breaks down into simple categories, heating and cooling. It is paramount to have clear communication between the operator, the facilities contractors, and manufacturers. Make sure everyone is on the same page and the numbers work. First is heating, without applying heat you’re not going to be distilling anything. What will be your heat source, steam, electricity, or some form of direct flame? Each heating system requires different infrastructure, all with a different safety focus. If you’re going to be heating using electricity, does the building have enough power to properly heat the system that you want to procure. No sense in vaporizing the spirit without the ability to condense and collect, how are you going to cool your product? Again, you will have a few options on cooling protocols, crunch the numbers and plan according to your processes. You will most likely be using these same heating and cooling systems for other parts of the process such as mashing and fermentation. All these factors are going to affect your budget, make sure to account for everything and then a little extra.  

6. How important is the still aesthetic to you?

We're all human, we are all consumers whether we like it or not- priorities and preferences will vary greatly. As touched on earlier, the still is often a showpiece or functioning work of art; entire distilleries have been built around the idea of tours and visitor experiences,  in these cases the still is almost always the primary focal point of the experience after the spirits themselves. In these cases, wow factor is a must, on the flip side of the coin, many distilleries see the still as just another tool to be wielded by the distiller. In these cases, a pretty still may mean little or nothing to the operator as long as they can produce the quality and volume the distiller expects.

7. What’s in your budget?

The still is one of the most crucial components of the distillery, and you should purchase a distilling apparatus that best accomplishes your product goals, but don’t forget to factor in financial goals. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to produce and how much of it, you need to factor in other variable costs such as the ingredients and bottles, these numbers can change based on the size of the still you procure. Budgeting doesn’t stop there though, the cost for rent, electric (especially if heating and cooling with electric), and any other overhead should be factored into your budget.

The best piece of advice for anyone thinking about upping their hobby game is to do your research! Research every facet of the what it takes to open a distillery, and keep it running- from what type of spirits you prefer to make, to whether you want a more aesthetically pleasing distillery, to the cost of the water and electricity in the downtown warehouse district. This is one of those times that too much research isn’t possible! If you’ve got more questions, give us a call, we'd be happy to discuss your distillery needs and help you get your still on the right side of the books!

>> Looking to upgrade your still or expand your production floor with new distilling equipment? Contact StillDragon North America for advice.