Introduction: Serious Distilling With Brewcraft, Still Spirits and Grainfather – Part 2 – Alembic VS Reflux
In the previous Serious Distilling episode I introduced the Still Spirits Turbo 500 distilling system.
Today we’re going to look at the differences between the alembic pot distilling configuration and the reflux distilling setup.
Historically, the alembic or pot still came first, so let’s start there.
The alembic setup consists of a copper dome which replaces the existing stainless steel lid on the boiler.
The copper condenser unit attaches to the top of the dome by means of a large threaded nut.
When distilling spirits in an alembic setup, some of the flavor of the mash or wash naturally passes through the process into the end product. In other words, if you distill a mash made from apples, some of the flavor, aroma and characteristics of the original fermented apple juice will end up I the distillate. This is what gives pot distilled drinks their unique taste, aroma and character.
When a mash is pot distilled, the alcohol content of the resulting distillate starts at between 80 and 86 percent ABV and decreases steadily as the distilling run progresses.
Here we can see the condenser attached to the dome. During the run the vapors rise up and exit through the top of the dome. As the vapors travel through the condenser, the cold water running through the cooling sleeve condenses the vapor to liquid which drips from the end of the condenser into a catchment.
And now onto the reflux setup. The reflux column attaches to the stainlees steel lid of the boiler. The column is pre-packed with a layered combination of stainless steel saddles and pure copper saddles. These saddles increase the efficiency of the reflux action by dramatically increasing the surface area inside the column.
A large threaded nut secures the column, and the lid fits onto the boiler as normal.
During a reflux distilling run, the vapors rise up the column and continually condense and run back down the column. Only the lightest vapors escape to the secondary condenser. This is the ethanol. This means that none of the flavors or aromas of the wash will pass on to the end product. Acetone, being the lightest and most volatile compound will pass through first, and this is removed as the foreshot and disposed of. The remaining result of the distilling run will be ethanol with an ABV between 95 and 97 percent purity. The 3 to 5 percent impurity is water that has passed through in the run as a result of the hygroscopic nature of pure alcohol.
The resulting ethanol is then blended with specially formulated flavoring syrup to make a multitude of different drinks. Still Spirits has literally dozens of flavorants to choose from, and these are just a few. You can see these on the Brewcraft website by clicking the link in the description.
Once you have chosen your preferred configuration, whether it be alembic or reflux, you need to understand the dynamics of the yeasts used for each setup. With the reflux setup, you want to produce alcohol. You are not concerned about flavors or aromas. To achieve this you need a robust yeast like the Still Spirits Turbo Yeast range. These will produce a high alcohol sugar wash in anything between 24 and 48 hours. The trade-off for this insanely quick fermentation is that you should use the matching turbo carbon to absorb excess volatiles that are produced in the wash. This is not absolutely necessary, but will lead to an improvement in the quality of the end product.
In addition, it is advisable to clear the wash using the kieselsol and chitosan 2 part clearing agent. This precipitates any left over yeast and particulate in the wash which may lead to off flavors in the distillate if not removed from the wash before distilling.
When it comes to alembic or pot distilling, specially developed yeast are made specifically for this. These yeasts contain enzymes which break down complex sugars into simple consumable sugars resulting in a more consistent fermentation and a more rounded flavor profile. These yeasts have been developed specifically for pot distilling and produce only negligible quantities of acetone and aldehyde during fermentation. These volatiles, however small in quantity, are still removed from the run as foreshots and tails, as they will negatively affect the flavor of the end product. Again, it is advisable to use the 2 part Turbo clearing kit to clear the wash before distilling.
In summary, if you’re after a setup that will produce artisan style products, then the alembic setup will be your choice. If you’re looking for a setup to produce absolutely consistent, high commercial quality drinks, then clearly the reflux setup is for you.
Stay tuned for the next serious distilling episode where were going to put the alembic setup through its paces when we make a batch of corn whiskey from start to finish.