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As mentioned above, the difference in the boiling points of alcohol and water
is utilized in distillation to separate these liquids from each other. Basic
distillation apparatus consists of three parts: the still or retort, for heating the
liquid; the condenser, for cooling the vapours; and the receiver, for collecting
the distillate.
The pot still
A pot still is a type of still used in distilling spirits such as whisky or brandy.
Heat is applied directly to the pot containing the wash (e.g. for whisky) or
wine (for brandy). This is called a batch distillation (as opposed to a
continuous distillation).
At sea level, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 F) but alcohol boils at
78 degrees Celsius (172 F). During distillation, the vapour is richer in alcohol
than the liquid. When this vapour is condensed, the resulting liquid contains
a higher concentration of alcohol. In the pot still, the alcohol and water
vapour, combined with vapours of the multitude of aroma components such
as esters, alcohols that give the mash or wine its aroma, evaporate and flow
from the still through the condensing coil. There they condense to the first
distillation liquid, the so-called 'low wines', with a strength of about 25-35%
alcohol by volume, which then flows into a second still below. It is then
distilled a second time to produce the colourless spirit, collected at about
70% alcohol by volume. Maturation in an oak aging barrel typically causes
the brown color to develop over time.
The modern pot still is a descendant of the alembic, an earlier distillation
The pot still, used primarily in Scotland and Ireland for whiskey production
and in France for brandies, has had only brief use in distilled spirits
production elsewhere and is gradually becoming obsolete. Even in countries
in which the pot still has long been used, it has been replaced by continuous
distillation for the major portion of alcoholic-liquor production, and its current
use is limited to production of flavouring whiskeys and other flavouring
The flavour profile of a pot-still product is more complex than that of a
continuous-still product of the same alcohol content. This is a result of the
different distillation methods. At a given temperature and pressure, vapours
over a boiling mixture have a composition that is a function of the vapour

pressures of the components of the mixture. In a pot still, the temperature of

the fermentation mixture rises as the lower-boiling-temperature alcohol
vaporizes. Meanwhile, the alcohol content of the distillate drops as the rising
temperature vaporizes more water along with the alcohol. Distillation is
allowed to continue until the alcohol content of the distillate falls to a
predetemined level. Because of the rising temperature encountered in
distilling a single batch, the composition of the first part of the condensate to
leave the pot is different from that of the last part. The composition of the
final product is the average of the composition of the vapours condensed
during the entire run. By contrast, the temperature of the continuous still is
held approximately constant throughout the run. This results in a flavour
profile that is more uniform.
Continuous still
A column still, also called a continuous still, patent still or Coffey still,
is a variety of still consisting of two columns invented in 1826 by Robert
Stein, a Clackmannanshire distiller, and it was first used at the Cameron
Bridge Grain Distillery in Fife, Scotland. The design was enhanced and
patented in 1831 by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey. The first column (called the
analyzer) has steam rising and wash descending through several levels. The
second column (called the rectifier) carries the alcohol from the wash where
it circulates until it can condense at the required strength.
Column stills behave like a series of single pot stills, formed in a long vertical
tube. The tube is filled with either porous packing or bubble plates. The rising
vapour, which is low in alcohol, starts to condense in the cooler, higher level
of the column. The temperature of each successively higher stage is slightly
lower than the previous stage, so the vapour in equilibrium with the liquid at
each stage is progressively more enriched with alcohol. Whereas a single pot
still charged with wine might yield a vapour enriched to 40-50% alcohol, a
column still can achieve a vapour alcohol content of 96%; an azeotropic
mixture of alcohol and water. Further enrichment is only possible by
absorbing the remaining water using other means, such as hydrophilic
chemicals or azeotropic distillation.
A column still is an example of a fractional distillation, in that it yields a
narrow fraction of the distillable components. This technique is frequently
employed in chemical synthesis; in this case, the component of the still
responsible for the separation is a fractionating column.

A continuous still can, as its name suggests, sustain a constant process of

distillation. This, along with the ability to produce a higher concentration of
alcohol in the final distillate, is its main advantage over a pot still, which can
only work in batches. Continuous stills are charged with pre-heated feed
liquor at some point in the column. Heat (usually in the form of steam) is
supplied to the base of the column. Stripped (approximately alcohol-free)
liquid is drawn off at the base, while alcoholic spirits are condensed after
migrating to the top of the column.
Column stills are frequently used in the production of grain whisky and is the
most commonly used type of still in the production of Bourbon Whiskey and
other American whiskeys. Distillation by column still is the traditional method
for production of Armagnac although distillation by pot still is allowed. The
use of column stills for the distillation of Cognac is forbidden. Distillation by
column stills are permitted for Calvados A.O.C. and Calvados Domfrontais.
Calvados Pays d'Auge A.O.C. is required to be distilled by pot still.
The still has two interconnected, copper- lined, vertical columns, one called
the analyser, the other rectifier. Each column is subdivided horizontally by a
number of perforated plates. Both columns are pre heated by steam and the
cool wash is pumped into the top of the rectifier where it descends down the
column by way of a long, serpent like pipe or coil. The heated wash passes
out of the rectifier and is taken into the top of the analyser. The wash is freed
from the coil pipes and as it descends the column it is met by a current of
raw steam which has been introduced into the bottom of the analyser.
The steam strips the wash of its alcohol, and as the alcoholic vapours rise
they are led by a pipe into the bottom of the rectifier. The spent or used
wash is removed from the bottom of the analyser. Meanwhile the alcoholic
vapours and steam start to rise in the rectifier. They meet at certain points
the cold wash which is being carried down by the wash coil in the rectifier.
This causes partial condensation, with the vapours getting cooler and the
wash, on its way to the analyser, getting warmer. When the vapours reach
the top of the rectifier they are condensed on a old radiator or water frame
before being drawn off as alcohol. The foreshots and the feints - the first and
last part of the distillate are full of impurities and are sent to be redistilled.
The middle cut, the portable fraction, is very pure but not completely so. It
retains some congeners and has alcoholic strength of 95%. This is reduced
by water to a maturing strength depending upon the alcoholic beverage

being distilled. Depending upon the spirit being made it will be decided as to
whether the spirit is going to be aged or not.
Spirits produced from the column still at 95% alcohol is referred to as
Neutral Spirit.