Copper stills are devices of utmost importance without which, whisky as we know it, wouldn’t exist in the form it does today. Hundreds of these oddly shaped giant saxophones still exist all across the Scottish mainland, distilling whisky for the world to enjoy but how important are these copper stills? What purpose do their peculiar shapes and sizes serve?
Do the shapes and sizes of these copper stills have an effect on the end product, or are they merely a manifestation of the still-makers’ whimsy? Would altering the shape of a copper still irreversibly alter the very characteristics of a Scotch whisky?
All right let’s take it one at a time and answer all your questions about Scottish Distilleries, Copper Stills, their shapes, sizes and the effect they have on your Scotch, if any.
How important are Copper Stills to making whisky?
Essential. If there are no copper stills, there is no distillation and if there is no distillation, there is no whisky. So that’s how important copper stills are for the entire whisky making exercise.
The bulbous bottoms of copper stills are where the fermented mash (malted barley and/or other grains) are heated. The vapours that escape the heated mash are condensed through these copper stills and the long necks aid in cooling down these vapours.
As the vapours cool down, they take the liquid form and what you get is distilled alcohol, all ready for maturation in Oak barrels.
After distillation, the spirit is filled into fine oak barrels and stored in the warehouse for maturation. (File picture from The Glenlivet Distillery warehouse)
That’s how important copper stills are for making whisky, and each distillery has their own way about it. Not every Scotch whisky brand may have copper stills of the same size or shape which brings us to our next question.
What purpose do the different shapes and sizes of the copper stills serve?
As the fermented mash is heated in the copper still, vapours rise from the bottom of the copper stills and travel through the narrow neck that tapers towards the end. While the bottom of most stills are consistently similar to one another, it’s the necks where the distinction appears.
The Glenlivet, the oldest licensed distillery in the Speyside produce their light, floral single malt whisky courtesy their unique, lantern shaped stills. These stills have been carefully recreated many a times over the years in order to preserve the traditions and fine taste of The Glenlivet single malt. The tall stills are tapered really narrow towards the ends with no boil ball for reflux. The contact with the copper ensures a consistently balanced flavour, as the tall neck ensures a light spirit and the lack of a boil ball helps the rich phenols, fatty acids and esters to add character to the spirit.
The Glenmorangie Distillery in the Highlands is renowned for having the tallest stills in Scotland. The height of the stills coupled with the boil ball at the bottom of the neck do not allow the heavier compounds to travel upwards along with the vapours. This is how the stills at Glenmorangie are different from many other Scotch whisky brands.
While there are some distinctions between the stills at The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, they are well-known for single malts that are light, and crisp; attributes resulting from the shape and size of their stills. The phenols, fatty acids and esters considered undesirable at these distilleries are kept back by the shape of the stills to only capture the lighter, more delicate spirit.
In contrast, distilleries such as Lagavulin, Macallan and Ardmore are known for their rich, complex and intense single malts. This too, is a result of the shape and size of their copper stills. Short, stout and ‘onion-shaped’, the copper stills at these distilleries allow as much rich phenols, esters and fatty acids to travel with the vapours, and the short necks also result in minimum contact with the copper.
Thus, the oily, intense and rich Macallan, Lagavulin, Ardmore and many more single malts distilled through short stills prove that the shape and size of the stills have a huge influence on the end result.
The Macallan Distillery
Would altering the shape and size of the copper stills change the whisky?
Indeed. Any alteration in the shape and size of the copper stills at whisky distillers can alter the taste, texture and consistency of the drink irreversibly.
Distilleries and the craftsmen pay close attention to their equipment for this very reason. If the copper stills at The Glenlivet were not lantern shaped, and were shorter in height, ‘the single malt that started it all’ might not exist in the same manner as we know it. An incredible amount of effort is poured into maintaining the integrity of the Scotch and the identity of the brands that we have come to love and treasure.
The people at The Macallan Distillery pride themselves on their short, onion-shaped stills since they are the reason behind their single malt, and by association, their popularity. Did you know, The Macallan is the third highest selling single malt Scotch whisky worldwide? It is one of the three Speyside giants that dominate the single malt Scotch sales worldwide. The only two brands that outsell The Macallan are The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.
So there we have it, the answer to all your copper still related queries. It is one of the core components that make the existence of whisky possible, and every detail about them including their shape and size are crucial to the end product. Without the individual characteristics of the different copper stills at Scotland’s distilleries, a lot of Scotch whiskies would feel the same.