Traditional techniques: Keeping alive the "craft" of craft spirits

Traditional techniques: Keeping alive the "craft" of craft spirits

Envy Distilling is all about craft spirits, and we love the personal craft involved in using traditional equipment, operating techniques and distillation methods. It is at our core to love what we do, because we think that makes our spirits an expression of our personal passions and enjoyment. We hope you agree! 

In this blog, we'll describe a few aspects of what this means, behind the scenes.

Traditional Copper Stills

We've selected a series of traditionally made, hand-beaten, imported Portuguese copper stills. We have four stills in total, each serving a different purpose during the production of our spirits and recipes. While we think they look beautiful, we really chose them because they follow the traditional methods of craft distilling, and evoke a sense of distilling history and the wonder of the craft. They produce variable results, and need close attention and care. We're less interested in pumping out perfectly consistent bottled products (on modern industrial stills), and more passionate about the crafting process and embracing something that requires love and skill.

Being made of copper is important for distilling, especially when dealing with the wine distillation we do for brandy. There are small amounts of bad-tasting components that can come through the distillation process, and sulphur compounds are particularly notorious and noticeable. Copper has the ability to react with many of these compounds, turning them into solid particles (copper salts) and preventing them getting into the spirit product - and has been a traditional distilling material for well over a century.

The shape of our still "head" is also a very traditional centuries-old "Alembic" style, looking a bit like a squat onion, with a downwards-pointing swan neck for directing the cooling vapours into the worm tub. This shape promotes both the contact of the free vapours with the copper, helping the above reactions, and also with the cooler metal surface. During the early stages of the process, the vapours will hit the cool metal sides of the Alembic head, causing "reflux" (condensing and dripping back into the pot), which helps refine the distilled spirit.

Worm Tubs

Our stills use old style "worm tubs" for cooling, following the Cognac and Armagnac traditions in France.  This is essentially a drum of water with the hot coil of copper pipe (the "worm") immersed in and through it. When the hot alcohol vapour passes through the cold copper pipe, it turns back into liquid again - and another chance for the copper-sulphur reactions to improve the flavour.  The copper worm coil is only immersed in the cold water, there is no contact between the cooling water and the stuff being distilled.

The worm tub has a cool-water inlet at the bottom, and a warm-water outlet at the top, flowing slowly from bottom-to-top. This promotes layers of heat, which is a gentle way of cooling the vapours as they pass from top-to-bottom.

The Parrot

This little device is quite common in different forms, but we think this version is cute. This is a small vertical tube at the spirits outlet, a bit like the U-bend in your sink, which allows us to float the alcoholmeter throughout the distillation. This makes it super easy to check where we are in the distillation cycle, and make our "three cuts" between Heads, Hearts, and Tails.  Or in the case of brandy, we use four cuts of Head, Hearts, Seconds, and Tails - following the traditions of the Cognac region.

The picture below looks like we were collecting near 65% ABV at this point.

Sealed with bread?

Well, not really, but almost. The connection between the pot and head is metal-to-metal, and can leak vapours if not sealed well.  For this, we use a very traditional technique of applying a flour-and-water paste, basically wet dough, to this junction. This hardens during the distilling heat-up phase and forms a perfect and organic vapour seal. At the end, we have the soak the cooked and hard paste in some water for an hour or so, and it comes right off - and into the composter or paddock!

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