The mysteries of distillation

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The image above is on the distillery door at Delord in Armagnac. It shows the working of an alambic a continuous still used to make the spirit. Continuous in that the wine is constantly pumped in (where it says vin) and spirit comes out where it says ‘60%’ (alcohol that is) rather than made in batches as with a pot still. Most are built from copper to 19th century specification by a firm in Condom. To my eye they look like something from Victorian science fiction. 

Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic

Some producers such as Janneau make some spirit in pot stills. The cellarmaster, Philippe Sourbes told me that the alambic produces a spirit with  ‘more personality’ whereas the pot still makes ‘a lighter spirit that needs less ageing.’ This is the exact opposite of what whisky distillers will tell you. Pot-distilled whisky is highly prized. Many Irish whiskies make much of being pot-distilled. Malt whiskey in Scotland can only be made in pots. The cheaper Lowland whiskies with less personality are made in a continuous still not dissimilar to an alambic

How do you explain this discrepancy? I don’t actually know. So as far as I can surmise, continuous stills used in Armagnac work less efficiently than those used in Scotland and Ireland. Certainly they are much smaller and the Analyzer, the column on the left, has less stages in Armagnac than in whisky production. Also the stills in Armagnac work at a lower temperature so that the spirit that comes out at the end will be lower in alcohol therefore it contains more impurities. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Gins to Try Before you Die, put it more succintly

“Fewer plates = less reflux = more impurity = more flavour. Also they use pretty short columns and don’t distil to a particularly high strength so will retain more character.
Base is wine so more inherent flavour complexity than beer base seen in whisky.”
A bit of a nerdy post but I find this sort of thing fascinating. I’d assumed that pot stills always produced a more flavourful spirit. In fact there’s a chapter in my forthcoming book, Empire of Booze, about the difference between Highland and Lowland whiskies, which looks at the two processes and pronounces confidently that pot spirit has more character. It makes you realise that it’s not the process that matters so much as the intention. In Armagnac they are looking for flavour above all from their traditional stills. Seek and ye shall find!

You can read more about my adventures in Armagnac here

 

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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