Distilling alcohol is a complex and nuanced process that requires careful attention to detail. One of the most important steps in the distillation process is separating the spirit’s heads, hearts, and tails. During the distillation, different parts of the distillate will be collected at different times in the process. We categorise the different parts into foreshots, heads, hearts & tails. Being able to identify and separate these allow us to blend different parts in the right quantities.
Understanding the Parts: Heads, Hearts, and Tails.
Before diving into the details of how to separate heads, hearts, and tails, it’s important to understand what each part refers to in the context of distillation. Let’s take a closer look at what each part represents and how they differ from one another.
During distillation, the first component to emerge is known as the heads. This part of the distillate is characterized by its high alcohol content, but it also contains a variety of unwanted compounds such as methanol, acetone, and aldehydes, which can negatively impact the taste and aroma of the final product.
The first 50-200ml of the heads are referred to as the foreshots, they should be discarded, as they contain the highest concentrations of these unwanted compounds. The remainder of the heads may still contain some undesirable flavours and aromas, and as a result, are of lower quality than the hearts, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
It’s worth noting that although the foreshots should be discarded, they are a valuable tool in maintaining a clean distilling environment through their extremely high alcohol content.
The next component to emerge during distillation is the hearts. This is the most important part of the distillate, as it contains the highest concentration of ethanol, the desired alcohol in spirits. The hearts also contain a range of other compounds that contribute to the flavour, aroma, and mouthfeel of the final product, making this part of the distillate the most desirable.
The hearts typically make up the largest volume of the distillate. The specific volume of the hearts can vary depending on the original mixture and the distillation method, but generally, the hearts represent 50-70% of the total volume of the distillate.
The final component of the distillation process is known as the tails. This part of the distillate is characterized by its low alcohol content and high concentration of unwanted compounds such as fusel oils, which can negatively impact the taste and aroma of the final product.
While the tails are of lower quality than the hearts, they still contain some valuable compounds that can contribute to the flavour and aroma of the final product.
How Do We Take Cuts?
Taking cuts refers to the process of collecting the distillate in small portions, typically around 300ml at a time (if you are taking cuts with the T500, other systems/volumes will be different), and storing them in separate jars. By doing so, we can later blend and control exactly how much of each portion makes it to our final spirit, resulting in a product with a unique and consistent flavour and aroma. By carefully selecting and blending the different portions of the distillate, we can create a spirit with a unique taste that reflects our desired characteristics.
We recommend our Distillation Cuts Collection Jar for collecting your distillate and taking cuts.
We now need to differentiate the heads, hearts and tails. There are several ways we can do this and we will cover the options below.
Using Aroma and Flavour
One of the most common methods for separating the different components of the distillate is to number the jars in the order they are collected, and then line them up in order. You can then start by sampling the middle jar, which is typically the heart of the distillate and contains the highest concentration of desired flavour and aroma compounds. By adding a few drops of water to the spirit, you can get a more accurate taste. As you sample jars further away from the middle, you may notice unpleasant or off-putting smells and tastes, which are indicators of the start of the heads and tails. By working backwards from the middle jar and identifying which jars have unpleasant odours or flavours, it’s possible to determine which jars contain the heads and tails, and which jars contain the desired hearts.
When identifying the different portions of the distillate, you may notice that the first parts of the heads have a smell similar to nail varnish remover. These jars can be separated and run through the still again next time. Once you’ve identified which jars contain the heads, hearts, and tails, you can label them accordingly and use them to create a final product with the desired characteristics. This method is a simple and effective way to ensure that the final product is of the highest quality.
By carefully selecting and blending the different portions of the distillate, you can create a spirit with a unique taste that reflects your desired characteristics. The method of separating the heads, hearts, and tails, and taking cuts allow for greater control over the final product and ensures that unwanted compounds and impurities are not carried over from the heads or tails. Whether you choose to use the middle jar method, a hydrometer, or another method for identifying the different portions of the distillate, the key is to take the time to separate the different components and carefully blend them together to create a high-quality final product.
After the distillate has been separated, it’s a good idea to allow the cuts to air out for 24 hours. By allowing the distillate to breathe, some of the unwanted compounds and impurities can evaporate, leaving behind a smoother and more refined final product. Airing out the cuts can also help to balance the flavours and aromas, allowing the different components to blend together more seamlessly. You can either leave the jars in a sterile environment or cover them with a muslin cloth to ensure they are not contaminated.