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Kiwi's Guide To Cuts

All credit to Kiwi

Novice Guide for Cuts (pot still) by kiwistiller » Wed Sep 16, 2009 4:17 pm


The Lazy Stiller's Novice Guide to Cuts and Fractions (pot still)

This guide is aimed at educating a pot still novice about the different fractions in a distillation, and to help them learn how to make cuts between them.

  1. What are cuts and fractions?
  2. An outline of fractions
  3. Cuts and blending the easy way

1. What are cuts and fractions?

Cuts are the points in a distillation run where the stiller separates the distillate into separate fractions (divisions between sections of the run). In order to make good cuts, it is important to understand what the different fractions of a run are, and how to recognise them.

2. An outline of fractions

Once you know your equipment and your mash, fractions are fairly predictable. The ABV% will drop (and temp will rise) over the course of the run, and this is one indicator of cut points that can be used as a crutch to judge with. However, temperature and %ABV are not recommended as a guide for cuts. Vapour temp is directly related to %ABV, just basic physics. If you know the temp you can reliably predict the %abv, and vice versa. They tell you the same information. For example, 20% abv output = 98C. There is a chart for converting temps to %ABV and a more detailed discussion of this here

There is an issue of reading the temp correctly, ie in the right place, at the very top of the vapour path, just where it turns down into the lyne arm / product condenser. But that is a very minor design detail compared to the unreliability of thermometers.

Temp is no worse than %abv for deciding where to make the cuts, but both are rough guides at best. Cuts are (should be) ultimately made by taste and smell, not %abv or vapour temp.

I will provide some ROUGH figures as to where the fractions can be expected. These will be in %ABV as I think the average alcoholmeter / alcometer is probably more accurate than the average thermometer, and many folks don't have thermometers in their pot stills. Fractions normally follow this rough outline:

(1) Foreshots

This fraction is the first part of the distillate collected. A major component of this fraction is acetone, or nail polish remover. But there are other compounds in there as well. In my experience, often the very first drops of foreshots, that can start slowly coming over from around 40-45C, have a wonderful, rich, sweet smell, but you really don't want to be drinking this stuff (headache city ).

On a pot still, the absolute minimum that should be allocated to foreshots is 150ml per 25l of wash. So, for a second distillation of, say, 3 stripped 25l washes (with no cuts made in the first distillation), you would want to discard 450ml of foreshots. This fraction should never be recycled, or used in any way for beverages, but it does have some uses. It's a great solvent, can be saved for cleaning runs of new stilling equipment, and is great for starting charcoal BBQs. Use it around the house / shed in place of methylated spirits (denatured alcohol).

In my still charged with 40% low wines, this fraction reads about 82% on the alcoholmeter / alcometer)

(2) Heads

Heads are a mix of methanol, acetone, ethyl-acetate and ethanol as the main components.

Because a pot still does not separate the different fractions very cleanly, there will be diminishing 'nasty stuff' and increasing hearts (ethanol) throughout this fraction. While not completely awful like the foreshots, heads is generally blamed for hangovers, and a sharp biting taste. Like foreshots, they can smell sometimes smell a little sweet and buttery, but will have a biting, solvent like, alcohol sting to them as well. Many seasoned shiners will start to notice heads in store bought alcohol, especially vodkas. Most people find it desirable to remove the heads from finished product as well as the foreshots. There is however a lot of usable ethanol in the heads fraction, so the standard practice is to save the heads in a separate 'feints' (see later) container for further processing. If you can't be bothered, throw them in with the foreshots.

In my still charged with 40% low wines, this fraction is from about 82 to 80% on the alcoholmeter /alcometer. In our hypothetical still charge of three stripped 25l sugar washes, I would expect to collect roughly 2-3 liters of heads, maybe more (I really don't like them). Some people are more sensitive to the tastes of different fractions than others, so you will have to find your own tolerances. Also, some washes will produce a lot more heads / foreshots than others. Apple brandy, for example, is notorious for having a large proportion of heads, while for a full bodied, sweet rum, you might actually want a touch of heads in your final (at the cost of the headache that follows the next day, probably).

(3) Hearts

The hearts, or 'body' fraction as it is sometimes called is the purest section of the run in ethanol terms. Hearts is very clean tasting and smelling, without the chemical bite of heads, but still with good flavour. When you are blending your fractions, the hearts should be considered the foundation that you build your product on.

Hearts will generally start around 80% abv in a run of 40% low wines, but again, this will vary. A very conservative lower cut for, say, a mild whisky, might be 70%. for a full bodied spirit like rum, you may go quite deep into the tails, even as low as 50%. Some may go even lower. The hearts will probably be the biggest fraction you collect in your run, but this will again depend upon what you are making.

(4) Tails

The tails of a run are signalled by the distinctive and pretty unpleasant smell of wet dog, wet cardboard, damp socks, etc. As well as the change in smell and tastes, and the dropping ABV, the collection rate for a given power input slows as well at the onset of tails, (and continues to fall through the tails).

Tails are rich in fusel oils, which cause unwanted tastes in your product. Some times you can see an oily film on top of the collected tails. Some parts of the tails, if left for a day or so, will start to develop floating crystalline... things. This is all highly undesirable in your product.

As the tails progress, the underlying taste of the product will probably become stronger, and more bitter, cardboardy notes will keep coming through. Late tails generally just tastes of dirty water to me. This will vary substantially depending upon the mash.

The tails still have quite a high proportion of ethanol, however, and some of the deepest flavours of all can be hidden in the tails fraction (see Pugirum for a discussion of this). It is generally desirable to recycle these tails with the heads into the feints container, and add them back to the next run. Alternatively, if storage is not an issue for you, you can save them up and do a all feints run, which will produce a very special, deeply flavourful product. This is highly recommended, for a rum at least. Other flavoured spirits may vary. There is no point doing this for a neutral/ vodka of course.

ASIDE: if you are running an all feints spirit charge, it might be better to do these runs a bit slower than usual for a spirit run.

Tails are normally collected until the distiller decides the abv returned is not worth the time and heat being applied to the still. Personally, I take down to 10%, but many people seem to use 20%.

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Comments

  • edited May 2013

    3. Cuts and blending the easy way

    Some stillers simply just save the hearts cut for drinking, and recycle all the feints back into the next run, or into the feints jar for an all feints run when it is full. Some like to blend small amounts of various fractions from the heads and/or tails back into the hearts, to add particular extra flavours. There is no right and wrong way. Personal preference rules here.

    Being capable of cutting the fractions directly off the still and without a alcoholmeter / alcometer etc is a huge accomplishment for a distiller. But for the novice, this is a daunting art that will take runs (and mistakes) to perfect. There is an easier way, however.

    Procure a good number of small (say 500ml) jars, number them, and get a big ol pot that is big enough to hold everything you'll want to blend. Collect your run in these numbered jars, and leave them to air out for a day or two with a coffee filter or similar over them to keep out the bugs and dust. Some of the more volatile and unwanted components will evaporate off over this time, and you'll be able to make better cuts and blends.

    Now, when the time comes to makes cuts, or do any further blending, you have to remember that the spirit will smell & taste different when watered down. The tails in particular seem to come out with dilution. To get around this, when tasting for blending, dilute a small sample with some very clean water in a clean glass, swirl around and mix well. Aim for a %ABV of between 35-40%. Then have a gentle sniff of each, do it 2-3 times, with all the fractions.

    Then try tasting them in very small amounts. Don't swallow the product, spit it out. Seriously!!! Making cuts/blends when drunk usually leads to a substandard product and many regrets. Rinse your mouth with water between tasting different fractions.

    First make the main cuts between heads-hearts, and hearts-tails. For the novice stiller, it is probably best to just learn this first, before moving onto the more complicated and tricky art of blending.

    If you want to blend some of the other fractions in, start with the cleanest section of hearts, and work up and down the line, adding heads and tails into your blending pot one by one. Only add very small amounts at a time. If in doubt, be conservative and blend a small amount first in a trial glass, then you haven't made an awful mistake if it doesn't taste good. Depending on your tastes and the recipe, you can expect to keep around 30 to 50% of the total volume collected in the blended product, and the rest will be feints.

    If you mess up the cuts or blending, for whatever reason, you can just throw it all back into the still, except for the foreshots, then add some water to dilute it a bit (or the backset from the run), and run it all over again. It is a good learning experience.

    After you have finished your blend, everything remaining can be treated as feints and reused or stored for an all feints run.

    The first time you make cuts, and especially blends, it will probably be quite difficult to pick the often subtle but important differences in smells and tastes, and you may not be happy with the result. But do not be discouraged, this skill improves a lot with practice, and in many ways it is the most important skill of all for a stiller to develop. So be patient, and just keep practicing!

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    Full thread with original discussion here.

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  • This should be required reading for anyone operating a still.

    Even experienced distillers can pick up a few good pointers.

  • @punkin

    Excellent, I've seen that one on the other forum, but of course it's better to have that very important info available here first handed. I hope you don't mind me having beautified your postings and moved as Announcement to General (it's not really a recipe).

    Your Place to be >>> www.StillDragon.org <<< Home of the StillDragon® Community Forum

  • I don't mind at all, thank you.

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  • Very nice. I'll try to remember not to drink while blending. I didn't want to waste it \m/

  • Still the most difficult part fot me. can´t understand that some people can separate straight from the still. I know that airing 2-3 day´s help. I read about the ugly smell in the beginning, but my fores shots smell so good that it is difficult not to drink it #-o

  • @moscca said: Still the most difficult part fot me. can´t understand that some people can separate straight from the still. ... but my fores shots smell so good that it is difficult not to drink it

    It's like being cast under a spell. Honestly, I'm only tasting purely for my own research & experience. It's much different once separated into containers though

  • @Philter said: It's like being cast under a spell. Honestly, I'm only tasting purely for my own research & experience. It's much different once separated into containers though

    Professional tasting, means you are flushing your mouth and spitting it out, right? :D

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  • @Moonshine said: Professional tasting, means you are flushing your mouth and spitting it out, right? :D

    And eating a cracker to help clear the palate? I'm with Moonshine on this one but am really confused as to spit or swallow.

    It has to be really bad off the still for me to spit. Don't ever happen.

  • @Moonshine said: Professional tasting, means you are flushing your mouth and spitting it out, right? :D

    Almost Moonshine. I believe they could gather more product information as the product transcends the back of the throat. However, I can't seem to control my reflex to swallow :))

    @Lloyd said: It has to be really bad off the still for me to spit. Don't ever happen.

    I agree Lloyd. Another professional product tester ;) Save the crackers for smoked salmon & cheese.

  • edited June 2013

    @Lloyd said: but am really confused as to spit or swallow.

    =)) =)) Sorry Lloyd I almost fell off my chair when I read that!!!

    Not sure if crackers are needed during a run, but they are definitely necessary during a beer comp :D

  • After what seems a bajillion runs and keeping in 500ml jars for 24hr or so to air out, I've pretty much come to the conclusion that my cuts are; 250ml fores, then heads down to 79%, then heart is from 79% down to 69% then tails start and I take it to 20% (or so). I've never yet made cuts this way as it seems that would be my luck the first time I try it I'd screw it up, but marking my jars and doing my cuts then looking at the abv on the side of the jar it's pretty consistent.

    I guess that and if I did it just by abv it would seem to...."commercial" blech! LOL!

  • Oh as to the question of spit or swallow? Always give a sharp "pat" on the back and say thanks and they seem to have swallowed! hehehe

    As far as while it's coming off the still? Never, I just wet my lip and then lick my lip with my tongue/ breath in through the mouth. I'm not going to do cuts like that, I'm just remembering the taste! hehe

  • Rule of thum if you feel like shit the next day to much heads.

  • Time for some awareness that this discussion exists!

    Moved to Beginner's Talk and pinned.

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  • I Have a 40 gallon fermenter barrel that I make 30 gallon batches of mash. My still boiler is only 15 gallons so I get 2 good still fulls per barrel. The first 15 gallon run I take off the first 8 oz and collect the rest until the temp gets up to 200 degrees F. The second 15 gallons I do the same thing. I get about 6 gallons of crystal clear 70% ABV from both runs. I throw out the tails, rinse out my still and wipe the boiler dry and put this 6 gallons in the still for the second run. From this I take off the first 4 oz or 1/2 cup and collect the rest until it gets to 200 degrees F again. Usually I end up with 4 to 4 & 1/2 gallons of 85% to 90% ABV. The stuff left in the still is pretty much pure water and tails. Sometimes when I don't get that good of a fermentation the second run only produces about 3 gallons of 85% to 90% ABV, The temp climes up to 200 degrees when my collection jug is only 3 gallons full. Before this when I was pretty much just running a pot still before I got my rectifier column, I would take of the same amount but I would have to run it 3 times to get the 85 to 90% ABV. 1st run take of 1cup. 2nd run take off 1/2 cup. 3rd run take off 2 oz. It took me about a good 10 hours one night but I manager to drink an entire 750 ML bottle of the stuff and the next day I had no hangover sickness at all. Other people that have tried it say the same thing, the most you will get from drinking too much is waking up the next day still drunk. The only bad side effect is sometimes you will wake up the next day and have no idea what you did last night.

  • You drank 750ml by yourself?

    Hank Williams Jr, is that you????

  • Glad it's you drinking it and not me. If you follow the advice in this thread you will improve your spirit 1000%.

    Keep a bottle iof the stuff you are currently drinking, try some cuts and compare a bottle of hearts against the heads and tails you are drinking now and you'll be amazed at the difference.

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  • 70% is pretty high for a spirit run.

    “Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?”

  • @Thomasedwin said: I Have a 40 gallon fermenter barrel that I make 30 gallon batches of mash. My still boiler is only 15 gallons so I get 2 good still fulls per barrel. The first 15 gallon run I take off the first 8 oz and collect the rest until the temp gets up to 200 degrees F. The second 15 gallons I do the same thing. I get about 6 gallons of crystal clear 70% ABV from both runs. I throw out the tails, rinse out my still and wipe the boiler dry and put this 6 gallons in the still for the second run. From this I take off the first 4 oz or 1/2 cup and collect the rest until it gets to 200 degrees F again. Usually I end up with 4 to 4 & 1/2 gallons of 85% to 90% ABV. The stuff left in the still is pretty much pure water and tails. Sometimes when I don't get that good of a fermentation the second run only produces about 3 gallons of 85% to 90% ABV, The temp climes up to 200 degrees when my collection jug is only 3 gallons full. Before this when I was pretty much just running a pot still before I got my rectifier column, I would take of the same amount but I would have to run it 3 times to get the 85 to 90% ABV. 1st run take of 1cup. 2nd run take off 1/2 cup. 3rd run take off 2 oz. It took me about a good 10 hours one night but I manager to drink an entire 750 ML bottle of the stuff and the next day I had no hangover sickness at all. Other people that have tried it say the same thing, the most you will get from drinking too much is waking up the next day still drunk. The only bad side effect is sometimes you will wake up the next day and have no idea what you did last night.

    add a 7 gallon 1/2 keg thumper to that set up

    and do like you do. only charge the thumper with a gallon of your feints, run the thumper on your 2nd run

  • I am confused a common fault of mine do you have to make cuts with a bubbler???

  • Yep, you make cuts.

  • Can often times be a bit easier with the plated column is all.

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