Making the cut, part deux.

Approximately a million years ago, I published (yes, that verb was deliberately chosen) a post titled, Making the cut.. In the post, I discussed a my plan to separate the distillate into jars based on volume to really fine tune the end product. Now, 7 months, or one million years, later I have jarred the aged albeit still very young bourbon and I wanted to circle back to that discussion to let you all know how it went.

As I mentioned in my mashing post, the end product actually turned out very well. I mean, I’d be disappointed if I bought that bourbon in a store, but I consider it a victory for fledgling ‘shiners everywhere. My complaints with the batch have nothing to do with the quality…it just that it lacks the big bourbon flavor that comes with proper aging. We can talk a bit about what I did to age it later. I want to stick with a discussion on the cuts for the time being.

So, none of you will be surprised to note that I prepped the jars before the still began warming. For those of you who have operated a still already, you likely have your setup rituals. I can tell you that prepping jars will be a part of my regular ritual for the foreseeable future.

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12 jars all given a number. The labels were kept big so that I could note specific conditions for each jar as they were filled. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did deviate from the plan a bit.

  1. I did not write down the time for each jar. I’d have liked to, but I just didn’t get around to it. I also made a game time decision that order, temp and proof were a sufficient first attempt.
  2. I eyeballed the volume. The cylinder I use to proof test is not graduated. That is to say, it’s still in school and doesn’t have any sort of volume scale on it. I just filled the cylinder up about 80% of the way. Once I dumped that into jar number 1, I used that jar as the model for all others.

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So here we are distilling away. At jar 7 we were just a little bit past half way. Lest you be concerned for my safety, I assure you that I am neither of the two gentlemen in the background. I was the one watching the still.

<parental soap box lecture> I do recommend caution if you distill into small jars. You can see that I actually ran the hose along the top of the clamp on the welding table. This was to minimize pooling in the tube. As the hose gets heavier it tends to move the smaller, empty jars around a bit. Keep an eye out to make sure you don’t (best case) lose your product or (worst case) blow yourself up when the alcohol vapors hit the heating element. </parental soap box lecture>

With the exception of dividing the run, the process was more or less exactly the same as it was last time. Here’s a close up for those who are interested:

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Never mind the nasty rag. There’s nothing to see here.

It was all well and good to put the batch into smaller jars, but the real fun came with the mixing. Once the run was over, the alcohol coming out of the still started to acquire that telltale funk, we called it a day and proceeded to the mixing.

To mix, we simply lined up each jar on the bar.

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We proof tested each jar now that the temperature had cooled down, and made any final adjustments to the jar labels. Once that was done, we smell tested each jar. If the jar passed the smell test, we’d try a little bit of that jar in a glass. No, we didn’t pour full shots. We just wanted to get a sense of the flavor and the smell. The first and last couple of jars never passed the smell test and were, therefore not tasted.

We settled on ditching jars 1-2 and 9-12. We kept jars 3 through 8.

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To be completely honest, I would have trashed Jar 3 as well if I wasn’t being stingy about the volume of booze produced. You can see the results of the spirit run in the large jar on the bar in the picture above. I looked at the contents of 4-8 and it looked so insignificant in the big jar. I thought to myself, how can this be the sum of all my hard work. Jar 3 didn’t smell that bad, after all. It didn’t have the nice, sweeter flavor of the heart, but it wasn’t gutrot either. I’ll reiterate that I’m happy with the product, but I do wonder what it’d have been like if I kept it smaller.

I was also really impressed with the charred oak chips. I haven’t yet filtered it, but the oak did good stuff to the flavor.

And we come to the end of our tale. I consolidated the waste alcohol and kept it around as part of my no distillate left behind policy. I won’t drink it because, well, I choose life…but I will absolutely light it on fire when I get a chance.

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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.