The only way to get it in your head is to walk it through, from still to still.” This was then Bushmills master distiller Daryl McNally’s advice on an apparently simple, yet complex distilling process.
Following the mass tangle of pipes round the Bushmills still house, talking cut points, temperatures and ABVs, the process started to take shape in my mind. The main goal – refining the spirit, ironing out impurities left after a double distillation – to create something smooth and relatively refined.
It is easy to point to Ireland as the home of triple distillation, there is no greater concentration of distilleries using this process, from Tullamore DEW and Walsh Distillery, to Bushmills and Midleton, with many others in between.
Worldwide examples include malt whiskies in Scotland; Auchentoshan and Hazelburn, a Bourbon in the USA; Woodford Reserve, and now the Australian Shene Distillery in Tasmania.
The question has to be, why invest in the extra layer and all the associated costs and what opportunities does triple distilling offer to influence the character of the new make spirit?
Triple distilling typically means using a set of stills each dedicated to one particular distillation, with the first distillation in a wash still, the second in a feints still, and the third in a spirit still.
The wash still is ‘charged’ with the wash, which typically has an alcoholic strength of around 8-10% ABV. Once distilled this results in low wines, with a strength of around 25% ABV or higher.
Distilling the low wines in the feints still entails three distinct phases. The first and final phases, known as the heads and tails respectively, are of an unsuitable character and quality, and are collected to be redistilled in the next distillation run within the feints still. The middle phase of the distillation run, known as the ‘spirit cut,’ is collected separately, and typically has an alcoholic strength of around 70% ABV.
"The only way to get it in your head is to walk it through, from still to still.” This was then Bushmills master distiller Daryl McNally’s advice on an apparently simple, yet complex distilling process.
“This distillate has quite a full-bodied character, with fruit, cereal and spicy notes. Distilling it for a third time means a longer production schedule and higher production costs compared to double distilling, but it produces the style of spirit that we want,” says David Quinn, master of Whiskey Science, Irish Distillers, owners of Midleton Distillery.
The third distillation repeats the same process as the second, with heads and tails collected separately, to be redistilled in the next distillation run within the spirit still. The middle phase of the distillation yields another ‘spirit cut,’ collected separately as new make spirit with a strength of around 80% ABV, or higher. This is effectively a spirit cut from a previous spirit cut, allowing the distiller to further refine the profile of the new make spirit, by retaining certain characteristics and either reducing or removing others.
“The third distillation produces new make spirit which has a summer fruit character, with peaches and pears. These fruit notes are present all the way through, but are masked by heavier notes until the third distillation separates the fruit notes and leaves behind the heavier character,” says Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller.
Relative newcomer in distillery terms, Walsh Whiskey Distillery owners chose this route to stand out.
Bernard Walsh explains, “Triple distillation is the traditional way of making Irish whiskey and it is driven by its taste profile; being a palatable smooth finish spirit that consumers find approachable either neat or in cocktails. There is as much flexibility afforded by triple-distillation as double-distillation. Distilling different grain types and innovating in terms of finish, with a wide variety of woods and casks, allow us to stand out from the crowd.”
“We remove corn notes during the second distillation. As these are quite earthy with a farm note, there’s an element of unmasking the lighter notes, and in the third distillation we capture amazing floral aromas"
Across in the USA reducing some of the heavier cereal notes is a key factor for Woodford Reserve Bourbon, which is distilled from a mash bill comprising corn, rye and malted barley.
“We remove corn notes during the second distillation. As these are quite earthy with a farm note, there’s an element of unmasking the lighter notes, and in the third distillation we capture amazing floral aromas that would otherwise not show in the spirit. We also get a wonderful spicy character and fruit notes such as grapefruit and lemon,” says Chris Morris, master distiller, Woodford Reserve.
The higher the strength of new make, the greater the proportion of lighter notes. The lower the strength, the greater the proportion of richer, heavier characteristics such as grain and cereal notes, and the fuller-bodied the spirit.
“Even a difference of 2-3% ABV in the strength of new make can significantly change the character, and adjusting the strength is one way that we can produce various styles of new make spirit, either more elegant or fuller-bodied, using the same set of stills,” adds David Quinn.
While distilling three times provides certain opportunities, it’s important to see the regime in a broader context.
“We can’t give all the credit to the number of distillations, as we wouldn’t get the result we want without the other aspects of production also playing their part. Choice of yeast, for example, helps promote a particular range of characteristics during fermentation. This creates a large canvas of flavours to choose from during distillation,” adds Chris Morris.
The spirit safe and pipework at Bushmills Distillery