Posted on

Pot Stills for Our German Single Malt Distillery

Stills

The road to building our distillery in Berlin will be a long one, and we’re actually preparing to launch Das Cask without a proper distillery yet, so that people can already enjoy it while we’re battling one obstacle after another to earn the right to produce spirit in Berlin. (Note for self: next time, start a business that only needs a computer and lots of coffee!) Still, the planning is far along, and I thought I could share some of the thinking behind our choice of stills.

German Distilling Tradition

Stills can have all shapes and sizes
Stills can have all shapes and sizes

Our distillery will feature two copper pot stills, which is quite unusual in Germany. To explain why this is unusual, I need to take a quick detour through German distilling tradition.

Just like Scotland, Germany has a long and rich distilling tradition. The Germans have historically specialized in two dominant types of distilled spirits. One is “Korn”, the traditional grain spirit from the north of Germany. It is a highly rectified (i.e. pure) spirit, distilled in very tall column stills. Korn sits somewhere in between the almost neutral vodka and the powerful new malt spirit, perhaps closer to the former. Sadly, only a handful of Korn distilleries are left in Germany.

In the south, where fruit grows plentifully, the Germans have perfected the art of distilling fruit brandies. In fact, distilling is pervasive there, with some 30.000 distillers making spirit from what fruit grown in their orchards and elsewhere. (According to the national association representing their interests. Whatever that tells us about the “rise of craft distilling” these days…)

The Right Still for the Job

If malt spirit is the aromatic equivalent of a big slab of concrete, fruit brandies more closely resemble delicate glass sculptures. A pear or apricot brandy contains delicate aromatic compounds that completely go unnoticed in a rough spirit as it comes out of the traditional Scottish pot still. It’s no wonder that Jean Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal’s invention, the pot/column still hybrid, found widespread adoption there, as it allows for efficient rectification of the alcohol, yielding a very clean spirit that doesn’t overpower those delicate esters. There are thousands of these stills hiding in the cellars and barns all over Germany.

Eventually, German distillers noticed how popular whisky had become and started making some themselves. Not surprisingly, they used the equipment that they knew and had available, and the spirit they produced was very light style. That’s why German whiskies are usually not as full-bodied and powerful as their Scottish cousins. However, many find them eminently drinkable even at a very young age, since the highly rectified spirit doesn’t need to be tamed by years as much.

And that is in a sense why two pot stills is an odd choice for a German distillery. Occasionally, you’ll hear a distiller defend their brandy still by saying that they are a German distillery and don’t need to copy the Scots. I guess there is some merit to that argument, though I always find it slightly unconvincing, since they’ve already taken their inspiration from Scotland for what to produce. The truth is, we prefer heavier whiskies, and we love Scotch. And so we’ll make it using pot stills, and won’t apologize for it.

Pot Stills Made in Germany

At Kothe, stills are made by hand
At Kothe, stills are made by hand

Forsyths of Rothes, you ask? To which I’ll answer: Zoll. Don’t look it up in the ADI’s Distiller’s Resource Directory, you won’t find them under the “Distilling Equipment (Large)” category. “Zoll” is the German word for “Customs”, they are in charge of collecting the duty due on alcohol. In Germany, the regulations pertaining to distillation equipment are very specific about how to secure the spirit before the Zoll has assessed the amount of pure alcohol produced. Getting a still built abroad to comply with those requirements is an adventure in red-tape-land, I hear.

And why should I bother? Germany has not one but four still manufacturers counting among the best in the world. German equipment is in high demand, and they know how to build it to the Zoll’s satisfaction. The manufacturers even help with the permits. So our pot stills will be custom made for us right here in Germany, and I’m happy to say that it will be top-of-the-line equipment.

Size Matters

The wash still will be 1000 liter in capacity, the spirit still 500 liter. Usually in Scotland, the wash still isn’t quite twice the size of the spirit still. In our case, though, we intend to distill on the grain, which adds to the volume of wash. Distilling on the grain is an element of German distilling tradition that we’re keen on adopting. It will give the spirit even more character, which is important if we’re going to put it into those small 30-liter casks. Of course, our stills will be built for that, with indirect heating and an agitator, to avoid burning the solids.

As for me, I can’t wait to show you those copper beauties at the distillery. The wait will be long, but it’ll be worth it.

Artist's rendition of our copper pot stills
Artist’s rendition of our pot stills