Exploring Pot Still Bourbon
Why craft bourbon distilleries are using this more complex method to make whiskey
Batch distillation, or that performed on a pot still, is most commonly associated with smaller producers both here in the United States and elsewhere in the world. There is an advantage to pot distillation—spirits that come out of this kind of still are often considered fuller in body and more flavorful. What you gain in mouthfeel, however, you pay for in physical labor and time. Pot stills have to be emptied and recharged at the end of each run, as opposed to columns which can run continuously. The Scots, for instance, have held onto their pot stills for the production of single malt Scotch, but they do use column-distilled spirit in blended Scotch whiskies.
In America, the biggest distillers of our native style of spirit—bourbon—use column stills almost exclusively. Bourbon as a spirits category is fairly mired in tradition and legacy, which is part of the reason why it’s so appealing. The requirements that must be met are common knowledge—a minimum of 51% corn mash; aged in charred, new oak barrels; made in America—and have a significant impact on the overall character of the spirit. Though not mandated by any governing body, most if not all bourbon distillers choose column stills to make their whiskey, but some intrepid few have forged their own path and adopted pot stills instead.
Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York has subverted expectations from the start. They make their straight bourbon from New York corn and UK barley, distilling it twice in custom-built Forsyth copper pot stills before aging it in new charred oak. Many of their barrels are unusually sized, including some as small as five gallons, which is probably why they’ve never underestimated the power of having a full-time blender on staff. Ryan Ciuchta is now the head blender at Kings County (Nicole Austin, now at George Dickel in Tennessee originated the role), and their success is proof that good bourbon need not always be made in conventional ways.
Since its early days, Texas distillery Balcones has made waves with stories of its enigmatic founder and uncompromising whiskeys, including a pot still bourbon. Head distiller Jared Himstedt also uses a Forsyth still at the distillery in Waco. The spirit, which won double gold in the 2019 NY International Spirits Competition, is made from a mash of roasted blue corn (used in their popular Baby Blue), Texas wheat, Texas rye, and malted barley. The palate is soft but not too sweet, and the nose offers kettle corn, vanilla, and graham cracker notes. As a new product that’s aged just two years, Balcones’ Pot Still Bourbon is likely to improve as it sits in barrels for even longer periods of time.
Low Gap Bourbon, produced at Tamar Distillery, is a unique offering in more ways than one. First and foremost, the distiller behind this product, Crispin Cain, doesn’t produce out of his own facility; Low Gap is made at Germain-Robin Distillery in Ukiah, California on an antique Cognac still (their XO brandy won gold in the 2019 NYISC). The spirit is proofed down with filtered rainwater, and the mash bill consists of bourbon, malted barley, and malted rye. Cain apprenticed at Germain-Robin and uses 500-year-old Cognac production methods to make his bourbon, which is reflected in the nuanced aromatics and flavor.
Pot still bourbons offer interesting flavors and unique tasting opportunities. Those who are interested in expanding their drinking horizons would do well to pick up a bottle and explore this full-flavored bourbon variation.