The one piece of equipment that defines the distilling industry is the still. The still has been around for a long time. There are two very interesting papers written on the subject of distillation that discuss the origin of distillation. In 1935, A.J. V. Underwood, presented a paper titled “The Historical Development of Distilling Plant” at the Hotel Victoria in London for the Institute of Chemical Engineers.  In 1956, Schenley chemist, A. J. Liebmann, wrote a paper titled “History of Distillation’ for the Journal of Chemical Education. Both papers state that the exact origin of the still is unknown. It could be Egyptian in origin where it was commonly used to make perfumes, or it could be a Chinese invention, as the Chinese knew about distilled alcohol.

These stills were simple pots with a neck and were not very efficient. However the next improvement to the distillation process came out of Germany in the 16th century in the addition of the “worm” to the pot still. It allowed the distiller to make a higher proof alcohol. These stills and worms were made of copper because it is a durable material, yet easy to shape and transfers heat very well. Distillers realized that copper was instrumental in removing sulfurous flavors from distilled spirits. Copper is still the metal of choice for whiskey distillation. Many distilleries are using stainless steel columns because of their durability, but these stills will still be partially made of copper.  They were making alcohol from fruit and grain. These stills were heated using wood fires.

When America first started distilling alcohol in 1640, copper pot stills were being used. As people moved west into western Pennsylvania and Kentucky in the 18th century, they took copper pot stills with them. Not every pioneer could afford a copper pot still and some made their stills out of hollowed-out logs, but they needed to distill excess grain and fruits to use as barter. Distilled spirits were also easier to take to market than the grains or fruits themselves. 

Steam heating of the stills was the next improvement in distillation technology. In Kentucky, the Hope Distillery, built about 1818, was the first to use steam power to heat their stills and power their mills. The distillery had two huge copper pot stills and made a lot of whiskey, but evidently could not sell it. After a couple of years the business went bankrupt. The smaller, farmer-distillers, using copper pots and wood fire were making the whiskey everyone wanted. After the American Civil War, most distillers were advertising their whiskey as “Old Fashioned, Fire Copper, Pot Still Whiskey”. But that soon changed.

In Ireland, in the year 1830, Aeneas Coffey, developed his still, an early version of the column still. This still allowed the distiller to make a lot of alcohol inexpensively and to reach higher proof levels than could easily be done in a pot still. It was a continuous still fired by steam from a boiler which meant it took a lot of beer to feed the still and take full advantage of the process. The column still and boiler were also very expensive pieces of equipment compared to a simple pot still. The use of the column still was slow to take off in America at first for these reasons. After the American Civil War, however, distilleries were getting larger, and demand for whiskey was great. Steam power in the form of the railroad, allowed for grain to be brought to the distillery from far away and the distillery was not dependent upon the local farmers alone to provide the huge amounts of grain needed to make the beer to feed a column still. Alcohol production increased dramatically by the end of the 19th century.

The column still with a pot still doubler became the standard equipment for larger-scale distillation. Column stills made today’s large brands, selling multiple millions of cases, possible. Even Johnny Walker Scotch is dependent upon a column still to make the grain spirits used in their blends. Column stills and pot stills make different styles of whiskey. I would not say either is superior, they are just different. They each have their role in the distilling business. Today, the technology has changed again and the hybrid still – a pot still with a small rectifying column attached, is popular with many small distilleries being opened in the 21st century

The still is a vital part of making distilled spirits. Technology continues to improve the stills, but the basic process is the same as that used by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese all those thousands of years ago.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller