Mythbuster: The dawn of wooden whisky stills

Mythbuster: The dawn of wooden whisky stills

There was a time, before the advent of metal distilling apparatus, when wood was the material du jour for distillation

Mythbusters | 28 Apr 2023 | Issue 190 | By Chris Middleton

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As incongruous as it might seem, wooden distilling vessels appeared in the 12th century at the advent of liquor distillation in Europe. This excludes wooden condensers, or flake stands containing metal worms, in use since the early 15th century. Wooden stills remained
a valued and common material in many countries into the 20th century. Until the 1930s, the bulk of grain whisky manufactured in North America and the British Isles used wooden distilling apparatuses.

While wooden pot-style vessels impart an inferior spirit due to limited sulphur-copper contact and retention of fusel oils, they significantly lowered the cost of capital and production, with timber irreplaceably expedient. After the invention of steam boilers wooden stills found popularity, especially in countries mashing rye and corn, notably in Northern Europe and North America, where distilling on the grain was a prerequisite to the British wort-based wash in pot stills.

The first description of wooden stills was reported in Ireland’s 14th-century Red Book of Ossory, describing a wooden lidded ‘clepydra’ as the alembic head, the pot likely of metal or fired earthenware. Until mass-smelted copper became affordable and desirable, early distillers used combinations of glass, alloy metals, pottery and wood for distillation equipment. In America, the first stills manufactured at Jamestowne in 1608 were blown from locally made glass and, in 1630, from fired ceramic. John Owings’ Bourbon Furnace Company began producing the first Kentucky stills in 1797, being of questionable spirit quality as he mounted wooden tops on 50-gallon iron-forged kettles for pioneer farmers.

The seminal distillation publication by Hieronymus Brunschwig in 1512 featured an etching of a wooden bain-marie distilling vessel with six glass moorshead alembics submerged in a wooden tub. The advent of steam boilers would revolutionise the use of wooden stills. Johann Glauber, in 1648, copied Claude Dariot’s 1603 treatise on steam distilling, using copper globe-shaped flasks to inject steam into a wooden cask, with the vapour sent to a second cask for condensation. Glauber moved to Amsterdam, where the Dutch controlled the international copper trade, soon to be supplanted by the British. His technique inspired Giuseppe Saluzzo to improve efficiency with a set of retort ‘eggs’ which, in 1767, Peter Woulfe made into a series of Woulfe bottles. In France, Edouard Adam modified Woulfe’s bottle in 1801 to engineer one of the first continuous batch distillations by connecting a series of ‘eggs’ for sequential distillations. Variations of this semi and continuous batch distilling method appeared in Western Europe and North America, leading to the American ‘doubler’ development by the 1820s.

Brunschwig, Glauber and other German distilling handbooks (Ryff, Gesner, von Hohenheim, Puff, Faithr, et al.) were copied by English authors such as John French writing in 1651: ‘Manner of Distilling in Wooden Vessels’, and ‘Balneum and Boiling vessel made of Wood’. The dissemination of wood distilling knowledge was evident when the Virginia Assembly granted new colonist George Fletcher a 14-year patent to ‘distill and brew in wooden vessels’ in 1652, noting he was not the inventor.

The turning point for steam was in 1698, when Thomas Savery patented the first pump to use steam pressure to force water from flooded copper and tin mines in Devon. Thomas Newcomen patented the first commercially viable steam engine 14 years later, upgraded by James Watt for powering locomotion in 1759. Christopher Colles, an Irish immigrant to America, replicated the Newcomen engine in 1772 to pump water at a Philadelphia distillery.

By 1787, a Boulton and Watt steam engine was installed at Robert Stein’s Kilbagie Distillery in Scotland to pump water. Steam’s next step was to vaporise alcohol.

Britain’s excise laws and manufacturing regulations hampered wooden distillation until Stein and Coffey invented continuous wood-framed stills. The cost of copper and thick mashes in America led to wooden steam charger stills.
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