A Still used to distill liquor is a simple device. The basic components of a distillation system include: a heat source, a still pot, a still column, a condenser and a collection vessel. Like all parts of a still the heat source can be make of using an array of parts and in a variety of ways. Traditional drinking stills used wood and a few distilleries continue to use wood for their heat source. But given the smoke, weight and need for a dry source, most distilleries have switched from wood to gas or electric heat sources.
The still pot is often made of stainless steel or copper however, there are a few distilleries that use wooded casks for a pot. Stainless steel is easy to clean, durable and available. It is difficult to weld and counter to popular belief can be damaged and decay if not properly cared for. Copper is another good choice for a still pot. When distillers “wash” or “beer” and distilled vapors come in contact with copper, undesirable flavor compounds such as sulfur are removed from the to be liquor. For this reason, most modern stills are lined with copper or use copper at some point in the distillation apparatus.
The still column sits atop the still pot. This is where the vapors from the wash find there way up from the liquid in the pot. These vapors contain a vast number of chemicals. The most dominant ones are ethel alcohol and water. The column diameter, length and material all effect the resulting liquor. The diameter has a major impact on the amount of vapor that can be moved thru the system. The length has a major impact on the purity of the vapor. The material, especially copper, influences the flavor as well as the speed the vapor can travel thru the system.
The condenser is located past, or in some cases inside, the column. The condenser does just that, condenses the vapor back into liquid. This is a critical step. If the vapor is not condensed the liquor can not be produced. Condensing is usually done with a liquid that is cooler than the vapor, often water. The cooler water and hotter vapor collide and the vapor is “knocked down” into a liquid. The vapor must be knocked down quickly so that a mixture of vapor and liquid to not escape the condenser and vapor is lost. But the condenser can’t be too cold or the vapor will not make it out of the column. It will just condense in the column and fall back into the still pot.
The final step is capturing the liquid. The collection vessel is often a small tight neck container that can be used to safely hold the liquid. This container is small to allow for testing increments of the contents as they come out of the still. The distiller wants to know what amounts of what substances are in the liquor as it comes out of the still. A small container allows for a review of small amounts of the product. The collection vessel is tight necked to reduce the exposure of the contents to the air. The distiller wants to keep all of the contents in the collection vessel for use and for safety. When the distillate comes out of the still it is very high in alcohol and can be volatile if not cared for properly.