The Modern Art of Distilling

February 18, 2019by Rachel Jimenez

Take a tour of The Distillery of Modern Art, and you will find our Detroit Stillworks Hot Rod and our Continuous Still by Vendome Copper & Brass Works running around the clock, 365 days a year. To understand what’s happening inside each gleaming copper still and their maze of coils, you may want a little primer on the process of making alcohol.

Distillation is, at its simplest form, the use of unique boiling points of different substances to separate them from one another; purification through boiling. For example, alcohol boils at 173 F, while water does not boil until it reaches 212 F. Therefore, if you have a mixture of alcohol and water – commonly referred to as the wash or the mash — and you raise the temperature to more than 173 F, but less than 212 F, the ethanol alcohol will turn into steam and rise, as it boils out of the solution. Methanol, meanwhile, is what gives moonshine its “make you go blind” reputation and it boils off at 148.5 F; so, distillers must discard the substances separated as the temperature of the still rises from 148.5 F to a number above 173 F. Separating the parts is all about temperature control, timing and old fashioned know-how.

A still is built to create, capture and separate that evaporated alcohol by collecting the vapor into tubes to redirect it from the main pot into a separate container, and then cool the vapor back into liquid. There are two main methods of distilling alcohol:

Pot distilling, which is the more ancient and mystical of the methods, involves a kettle-shaped still, where the fermented liquid (called a wash, or a mash) is heated. The ethanol evaporates before the water and is taken through a cooling tube and back into a second vessel for condensation. The thing about this process is that certain flavor components are brought with the steamy ethanol, like esters, tannins, fusel alcohols, and methanol. The real art of pot distilling is in ensuring you get just the right amount of alcohol and the desired congeners in just the right balance.

The second and more modern distillation technique is called column distilling, and it’s our methodology here at the Distillery of Modern Art.  Our custom-built Detroit Stillworks Hot Rod produces 2,000 gallons per day of custom gin and flavored vodkas while our Vendome continuous still creates modified whiskeys – really the options are endless.

Column distilling is an offshoot of the methodologies set forth by old pot distilling techniques. Because the pot still had to be washed after every batch, the column distillation technique was born to allow the mash to be continuously injected into columns with steam rising to meet it. The steam heats and strips the alcohol from the wash and leaves the rest behind as it rises. Instead of one big pile of wash boiled in a batch, only a bit is ever exposed to heat at once, which allows the alcohol vapors to continuously flow and refine through the columns.

In short, column distillations result in more neutral, stronger ABV. Some spirits are distilled once, others pass through the distillation process dozens of times. It’s the art of the process, how flavors and ethanol comingle and purify in unique ways to make each distillery’s products a work of art all its own.