Whiskey is produced through a distillation process in devices known as stills. There are two main types of stills used to produce whiskey: the pot still and the reflux still. Pot stills are used in smaller-batch distillation, while reflux stills are used primarily in larger-scale production of spirits. The distillation of whiskey is a time-honored tradition, and modern still designs haven't changed much from ones moonshiners used generations ago.
The turnip still is a type of pot still that dates back centuries, named for its turnip-shaped copper pot or boiler. Mash barrels or wooden boxes were filled with some type of ground grain (corn, rye or wheat, depending on the type of whiskey being produced). Water, barley malt, yeast and sugar was added and the fermentation process would begin, with bacteria eating the sugar and excreting alcohol. This process took anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. During fermentation, a foam "cap" formed; when the foam disappeared, the mixture was poured into the turnip-shaped pot, which was heated by a fire while being stirred. When the liquid mash began to boil, the metal cap was secured to the top of the pot. Attached to the pot was a "worm," or tube. The alcohol vapors produced by the heat condensed into liquid form and trickled out the end of the worm. The resulting liquid was called the singlings and was typically distilled at least once more to mellow the taste.
Blackpot Submarine Still
The blackpot submarine still was a favorite of moonshiners up until the 1920s. The distillation process was the same as that in a turnip-pot still, but the blackpot submarine still could yield a significantly larger batch of whiskey in a single run. The pot, which was typically constructed from lumber boards and metal sheets of steel or copper, could hold 800 or more gallons of mash. When the singlings emerged from the worm, they traveled directly into a second, smaller still called a doubler, thus saving the moonshiner from having to run the singlings through the still a second time. The whiskey from blackpot submarine stills were not as high in quality as that produced from a turnip pot still, but did allow moonshiners to produce larger batches of whiskey.
Although not as common as the other stills, steam stills were occasionally used. Steam stills came in a variety of designs, but the basic mechanics were the same: a boiler was filled with water and then fire-heated, with the steam produced released into the mash or piped through it. This steam would cause the mash to boil and produce alcohol vapor that would pass through a worm that was cooled with water in some fashion. The advantage of a steam still is that the water is under direct heat, not the mash. Thus, the mash wouldn't be susceptible to scorching -- which could ruin an entire batch -- and made stirring the mash unnecessary.
Reflux stills are used in modern large-scale distillation, using a similar process to that used in refining petroleum products, offering increased yields of high-quality whiskey. Mash is placed in a large boiler and heated, with the alcohol vapor processed through a fractionating column, usually a large copper vessel packed with glass beads. As the alcohol boils, it condenses and then reboils through the column, which reduces the number of distillations that would be necessary when using a pot still. The temperature can be tightly controlled to allow the distilled elements to pass through to a secondary container, with those elements that require further distillation returning down to the boiler.
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