– Still Alive and Well –

The Old Pot Still at the Midleton Distillery in Cork, Ireland

A Brief History of Stills and How They Came to Be

The whisky still. Heart and soul of an industry. A time honored tradition. But how much time? If we look at stills as we know them today – those magnificent copper works of art, with their arched tops and gleaming components, then we’re talking perhaps six or seven hundred years. If we want to go back to the beginning, though, we can see evidence of the first distilling devices in Mesopotamia (Iraq) almost six thousand years ago.

Among the first stills is this earthern pottery device dating back almost 6000 years.

Jumping forward a couple of thousand years, over in relatively modern Baghdad, alcohol was being discovered in more advanced stills consisting of various types of bags and pots placed over a fireplace. Of course, alcohol changed the distilling world, being used as the basis for many early medicines. The whole premise of heating early wines and capturing the steam, led to consistent techniques and more standardized still designs.

Albemic Stills from the 4th -6th centuries were the basis for modern still design

But we really aren’t exactly into single malt territory. Yet. Around the 10th century, the Turks developed a primitive coil condenser, which cooled the alcohol steam much better than its mud and cow dung predecessors. Probably improved the taste, too. In the 1200’s, the Italians were one of the first to write it all down, giving consistency to turning wine into whisky. Then, in the 1500’s, a Swiss chemist, Paracelsus, made major advances in distillation techniques, followed some time later by the perfection of the pot still in Ireland. The result of this rather boring 5000 year history lesson? The blueprint for the modern still.
So, what are some notable whisky stills, you ask? Let’s start in Ireland, the home of the pot still. Back in ‘the day’ many stills were located outside the distillery because they were huge and took up too much valuable space in the distillery.

The historic stills at the old Kilbeggan Distillery

As well, the giant old style condensers were located outside.

The very cool worm tub condensers at the Dalwhinnie Distillery

In the meantime, what’s been happening across the ocean in the Americas? As in Europe, in the 1600’s, most American stills were being made from copper, along with a series of wooden mash tubs to complete the setup. Not too sophisticated, but more than capable of getting the job done.

As the industry flourished, stills became larger and more complex, and offered up better quality spirits.

An early Kentucky Bourbon Still.

So, what de we rely on today to produce our favorite dram? Other than a few configuration adjustments, most modern stills are pretty similar. Copper. Tapered. High tech cooling. Lots of controls and science. All in an effort to create that unique taste. And we appreciate the effort. Really.

A typical modern still configuration.

The history of stills. Pretty fascinating. But where do we go from here? What’s ahead in the world of distillation? Frankly, with the onset of futuristic column stills, some of the newer distilling floors look more something out of a sci-fi movie.

New Column Stills at the Koval Distillery in Chicago – Wow!

Frankly, I don’t really care what the stills look like, as long as they keep producing a great quality whisky. After 6000 years, still – a great tradition. Cheers!

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