Making the cut.

Most folks who have done any research into running a still have probably heard of cutting, and there’s certainly a lot of info on the web about how and when and why to make your cuts. For example, anyone who has survived their first batch knows that you need to make a cut at the beginning to make sure that the methanol that heralds the coming of the “good stuff” or you’ll go blind, turn yellow, and probably die. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. What many people don’t necessarily understand is that there are more cuts to be made. Knowing when and how to make the cuts will provide you and your comrades with a superior product. Remember that while ethanol may be considered the “active ingredient” in an alcoholic beverage, it’s certainly not the only thing that’s in there. Whiskey for example relies on flavors from what are called key congeners. These include esthers, other alcohols and “fusel oils”. In a nutshell, making the cuts properly will give you the flavor you want without the chemicals (including water) that you don’t.

So, let’s get some terminology straight. The fluid flowing from the still is divided into 4 categories:

  1. Foreshots – This stuff is the absolute garbage that comes out at the beginning of the run.
  2. Heads – This is where the ethanol starts to come out. It’s early on in the process, and the heads will still contain the aforementioned congeners.
  3. Hearts – The hearts is where you’ll find the majority of the ethanol.
  4. Tails – The ethanol tapers off into water and a few other chemicals

But how do you know where and when to make your cuts? That’s a very good question, and one that I can’t answer for you. Cutting is not simply a favorite past time for emotionally repressed teens, it’s also what turns the science of distillation into an art. That politically incorrect sentence is the perfect segue into the experiment I mentioned a couple posts back. Here’s how it will work.

1. I’m going to perform a stripping run. That’s right. I’m going to operate the still (fully clothed, get your minds out of the gutter…pervs) and just separate the alcohol(s) from the wash. I’m not going to toss the methanol, or try to make it good initially. I’m just going to strip the signal from the noise. Allegedly, the guideline here is to strip it until the liquid coming from the hose at the end of the still is the same ABV as the ABV of the wash going into the still. I’ll have to have my tester ready.

2. I’m going to cool everything down, toss the remaining wash from the still, give it a good rinse and get it ready to go for, as my wife would say, “realsies.”

3. I’m going to put about a gallon of water in the still so I don’t boil it dry, and then start over again.

Now, this is where it’s going to get interesting. I’m going to take 16 jars and label each of them. I will leave extra space so I can note the time, temperature at the top of the column, and proof for each jar. In order to make this happen I will, of course, have to proof test the product before dropping it in the jar. I should be able to fill about 16 jars with 150mL each.

Why the change in protocol you ask? Simple, I want to be able to easily split up the foreshots, heads, hearts and tails. I want to be able to experience each of them uniquely (proof, smell, etc.). Once I understand how everything seems, I will mix jars into a final product. The log of times, temps and proofs can start a large table that will track my batches. I can capture the information I use against the recipe and begin building my very own moonshining database. I know, it’s exciting.

The moral of the story here is that you should stay tuned. The next one will be more structured than previous runs and should give us some interesting things. On a very related note, this methodology was taken from a book called The Kings County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining. It’s a great read if you’re interested.

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