HOW MANY TIMES IS AMERICAN WHISKEY DISTILLED?
If you’ve ever visited a distillery in Scotland or Ireland, you’ve likely heard a tour guide talk with pride about how their whisky or whiskey is distilled twice, three times, or, in some odd cases, two-and-a-half times. They might have told you about how double-distilling is one reason Scotch whisky is so rich and full-flavored, or that triple distillation is partially responsible for the deliciously elegant and mellow flavor of that Irish malt whiskey.
They’re not wrong. The number of times a whiskey is distilled does have a big impact on its final flavor. But it’s far from the only important factor–and it’s not always a useful measure in the United States.
So what’s going on stateside? How many times is American whiskey distilled? It’s a bit of a tricky question to answer, simply because there are so many types of American whiskey. Some are double-distilled, some are triple-distilled, and many are made on continuous column stills that don’t use a batch distillation system at all.
Let’s dive into what each style of distilling entails, and how that plays out in the United States.
In the United States, double distillation is probably the most common strategy used by distilleries with pot stills. Pot stills are the simplest, most traditional variety of stills, and they operate on what distillers call a “batch system”–a batch of fermented wash is loaded in, the still gets run, and then it has to be emptied and cleaned before you can start the next batch.
Double distilling is a lot like what it sounds like. Fermented wash is distilled twice on pot stills to concentrate its alcohol content and refine its flavors before being filled into barrels.
It’s the most common method of making single malt whisky in Scotland, although there are some Scotch whiskies that are triple distilled. While the batch-based process is less efficient than continuous distillation, the tradeoff is that it often yields a rich, oily, full-flavored new make spirit. And, in Scotland, at least, it’s also legally required.
The first distillation raises the alcohol level from somewhere around six to 10 percent alcohol to around 25 to 30 percent. The second pass boosts alcohol further. Distillers usually collect the entire run from the first distillation, but make their heads and tails cuts during the second.
At the end, they’re left with a crystal-clear, flavorful new-make whisky somewhere around 72% alcohol. This is what gets filled into oak barrels, rolled away to slumber in a bonded warehouse, and eventually released as Scotch whisky.
Here in the U.S., the most common practitioners of double-distillation are craft whiskey distillers. Pot stills are simpler (and less expensive) than column stills, which makes them a good choice for smaller companies without deep pockets. They’re also quite beautiful, which makes them appealing objects of ogling through tasting room windows.
Triple distilling is most closely associated with Irish whiskey. It’s a lot like double distilling, only–you guessed it–the whiskey gets distilled three times instead of just twice. Why add that third pass? It tends to refine and lighten the whiskey a bit further, resulting in that smooth, almost buttery flavor Irish whiskey fans love.
In the U.S. most distilleries that use triple distillation are craft producers who are directly inspired by Ireland. They might also turn to the Irish tradition of using a little bit of unmalted barley in their mash bills as done in the style called Irish Pot Still whiskey (once called “pure pot still”. That’s a holdover from an old law that taxed malt at a higher rate than raw grain, but it also produces a signature grassy, grainy flavor in whiskey.
Most mainstream American bourbons, ryes, and corn whiskeys, from ultra-premium brands like Pappy Van Winkle to grocery store staples like George Dickel, are made using column stills that operate on a continuous basis, rather than batch-by-batch.
Rather than requiring distillers to run their stills multiple times to produce a good-tasting whiskey, column stills do it all in a single pass, and they’re so efficient that you can also use them to make neutral spirits (although unaged American whiskey is generally far from neutral).
So, on the one hand, you could say that most bourbon is single distilled. On the other hand, you could just as easily describe them as being distilled dozens of times, since the interior of column stills are filled with sometimes dozens of plates, and the liquid inside undergoes a mini-distillation each time it encounters one.
Complicating the picture even more is the use of gear like doublers and thumpers, which can be thought of as a kind of secondary pot still distillation as part of the continuous distillation process. In short, it’s complicated, and it doesn’t neatly fit into the lens of double vs. triple distillation. For more details, check out our other blog posts on the topic.
SO WHAT ABOUT BARRELL CRAFT SPIRITS?
Barrel Craft Spirits sources its distilled spirits from producers around the country and around the world–and whenever we source a spirit, we focus on flavor first and foremost. The number of times a spirit was distilled contributes to that flavor, but it’s just one aspect among many that a good producer has to balance. Each master distiller has their own unique approach to fermentation, distillation, and aging, giving us a beautifully diverse palette of flavors to experiment with in our blends and single barrels.
Most of the straight rye whiskey and straight bourbon whiskey that goes into our small batch bourbon and small batch rye releases was distilled on column stills, although there are a few exceptions. Our rums come from distilleries with pot stills as well as column stills, and the fruit brandy and other spirits that season some of the casks used for our Armida and Seagrass releases come from pot stills, as well as hybrid pot stills, which are sort of like pot stills with a little column on top.