SIZE First off, let’s put this argument to rest right now: size does matter. The size of your still has a number of effects on your distillery and product quality. First is that the size of your still is a major determinant of how much output you can produce. You’re not going to be distilling 100,000 9 L cases a year on a 100 gallon still. Second, and arguably just as important, the size of your still determines if you have a balanced system. What is a balanced system, you ask? A balanced system is when you have a whole number ratio of wash to spirit distillations. Let me explain. If we start out with 3000 L of wash (yeah, I use metric — what of it?) then ideally I would have a wash still that was sized for 3000 L. That 3000 L will distil to a bit more than 1000 L of low wines. This means that we need a spirit still of about 1000 L capacity so that for every one wash distillation we do one spirit distillation. This gives us a system balance ratio of 1:1. A ratio of 2:1 is also balanced as it would take 2 wash distillations to make enough low wines for one spirit distillation. A ratio of 1:2, however, is not balanced. Here you’re talking about one wash distillation yielding two spirit distillations. Why is this important? Well in the latter case of having more spirit distillations, this creates a potential bottleneck in the distillery production process which isn’t something that we want. The only
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bottleneck you want is that of the glass variety, preferably one containing a tasty beverage with your label on it. Size determines a few other things as well. Obviously the larger the still, the more space it will take up in the distillery. Coming from working in DC at an urban distillery downtown, I can attest to the pain that is a large still in a tiny space. It can destroy your workflow and subsequently your overall productivity. If you are only purchasing one still and using that still for wash and low wines distillation then your sizing should be based on your fermenter size. For instance, let’s say you have a 3000 L fermenter. You still size should be a working volume of 3000 L. That’s a sizable still for a craft distiller and not everyone is going to be able fit one of those guys in their distillery. So another option would be (though we’re slowing our overall plant efficiency by doing it) to cut the size down into even fractions of 3000 L, preferably into thirds. As described above, (depending on your techniques and recipes) you’ll likely wind up with a little over 1000 L of low wines from the stripping of 3000 L of 8% abv wash. Splitting the stripping distillation up into three parts makes life easier. You could purchase a 1500 L still and do two stripping runs but you’ll still only wind up with around 1000 L of low wines for your second distillation, meaning that 500 L of still space is not being used — not the end of the world, but not ideal either.
NEXT TIME ON STILLS IN OUR LIVES… For this round I’ve discussed two simple questions you have to ask yourself when purchasing a still: should your still be batch or continuous and what size should it be? Due to space and time, there’s no way to get into all the finer details required to fully understand the consequences of all these things. However, I hope this has provided the reader with some nourishing food for thought when they are considering their next still purchase. Talk to as many distillery equipment companies and manufacturers as you can. Too much information never hurt anyone, except for that time when your parents told you about how you were conceived. In the next installment, I’m going to dive into the bizarre world of still geometry, talk a bit about worm tubs, and why copper does much more than give your still a pretty face.
Matt Strickland is the Master Distiller (I hate that title) for Distillerie Cote des Saints in Quebec where he focuses on single malt production. He has a Master's in Oeonology and Viticulture from Oregon State, is a faculty member at Moonshine University, and is the only American to sit on the Board of Examiners for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in the UK. His spirit spirit is Peruvian pisco and he does not believe that listening to Journey has to be done ironically.
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