What Kind of Still?
Pot stills were the earliest kind of stills. They simply had a pot to boil the mixture in and an output neck or coil that allowed the vapors passing through it to be condensed into liquid form.
Copper pot stills like these are reputed to have been in use for over 500 years to make some of the finest Irish Whiskey in the world. While the pot still is enormously inefficient, it is uniquely simple and easily adapted for home distillation of everything from essences to whiskey and moonshine.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of using a pot still for distilling is that because it is inefficient, it preserves much of the flavors and body derived from the mash. That is a trademark of a fine whiskey or brandy.
Very little has changed in the design of pot stills over the last 2000 years. You won’t find much difference between the moonshine still shown below and the alembic pots used years in Egyptian times to make perfumes.
The problem with pot stills is that they don’t do a good job at separating out exactly what you want to distill as output. They are usually used to separate compounds whose boiling points are widely separated. When a wash is distilled, lots of things come out, some good, some bad. And because there are no fine controls on this kind of still, the output contains a lot of impurities.
If you are interested in improving the purity of the pot still output, you can always make it better by putting it in the pot again and re-distilling it . Each time you redistill the output, it will come out a bit purer, but you'll also lose a little each time. To make it really pure, you have to distill it so many times that you’ll end up with very little left. But that which is left will be very pure.
Because of this limitation, it also takes a lot longer to produce a reasonably pure finished product using pot stills. I’m told that some of the Irish distilleries still use pot stills to make their whiskey. They take great pride in the fact that they triple distill the whiskey. In times past, the demand for this product was so great, that they built huge pot stills, some holding over 30,000 imperial gallons of wash.
In more modern times though, these huge pot stills cannot provide enough distilling capacity to keep up with the demand. And for that reason most of the distilled spirits today are produced with reflux stills that operate on a continuous basis.
So, while it is tempting to take the easy way out and build a simple pot still, it really wouldn’t meet our goals of producing the very purest spirits, in the most efficient manner. To do that you’ve got to think about a reflux still. And that's what the rest of this guide is all about.