Thanks to distilleries like Headframe Spirits, small-batch liquor no longer has to give up quality to gain scale. We take a look at mass market distilling.
By Francine Maroukian
1. The fermented liquid created from the mash, called distiller’s beer, is pumped into the system at a rate of 8 litres per minute. This keeps approximately 150 litres in the still at any moment.
2. A heat source at the bottom of the column heats the distiller’s beer to 100 degrees. The alcohol and water vaporise and rise to the top of the first column, where they are transferred to the second. Any grains or impurities from the distiller’s beer (called tails) remain at the bottom of the column and are removed.
3. The lower temperature in the second column allows impurities to liquefy and fall to the bottom as the alcohol vapour rises and is transferred to the third column.
4. The process continues, with more impurities falling away in the third column as the alcohol vapour continues to the fourth column.
5. In the fourth column, the purified alcohol (hearts) condenses, allowing the toxic methanol vapours (heads) to exit via the top of the system. The alcohol is drained out of the bottom of the still.
In Butte, Montana, hard-rock miners used to lower themselves 500 metres underground to tap out copper ore. They mixed dangerous handwork with rudimentary mechanics. John and Courtney McKee wanted to continue that innovative legacy when they started Headframe.
The distillery is named after the structure that supports the hoisting pulleys over a mine shaft. Each spirit is named after an historic mine claim.
Headframe’s newest spirit, a single-malt Irish-style whiskey being launched in March, took some experimentation. And science. The McKees reverse-engineered existing spirits using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine their ingredients and how they interact. Then they set about making their own product. “The whiskey has to spend two and a half years in a barrel,” McKee says. “We couldn’t wait that long to find out if we got it right.”
At the craft level, traditional pot distilling is done in batches. As fermented liquid is heated, different parts boil off: first the heads, which can be toxic, followed by the hearts, or principal ingredients, and the tails or leftovers. The craft is knowing when the heads finish and the tails begin, and keeping only what comes in the middle. It’s a time-consuming process. In response, major producers developed continuous distillation. Fermented liquid is fed into the system at the same rate that it is boiled off, so it is a rolling process with no need to stop. Those stills “are so expensive and so large we couldn’t even make enough mash to turn one on, let alone run it,” McKee says. A former biodiesel distillation and renewable-fuel expert, McKee enlisted a few friends from his former career and rescaled the technology (above).
Is it still craft?
For Headframe and other distillers around the country who purchase the company’s stills, micro distilling isn’t about being tiny. It reflects its attention to detail. “For us,” McKee says, “craft is not so much about where you make your cuts. It’s about your mash bill (the primary ingredients) and fermenting process. That’s where your spirit gets its essential character. Our goal is bringing innovation back to the community. The fewer challenges presented by the distilling process – the fewer possible failure points – the more successful we become.”
The headframe spirits
Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey
Velvety and mellow
Heavy on the citrus, light on the juniper
100 percent rye white whiskey, earthy with peppery spice, almost like a wheated tequila
Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur
Makes an awesome root beer float. Really.
High Ore Vodka
Super-martini-quality, clean and pure