Pot Still vs. Column Still: What's the Difference?

What's the difference between a pot still vs. a column still? Not sure? No need to worry-here, we explain what sets apart these two main types of distillation stills.

By Kinnek Community  |  May 12, 2016

While the basic distillation process is more-or-less the same for various types of alcohol production, it's important to know the difference between a pot still vs. a column still. These two main varieties of distillation stills are used to make virutally every kind of liquor on the market. If you're considering starting or expanding your own craft distillery, it's absolutely vital you select the type of still that best meets the exact specifications of the product you'll be distilling. 

At the heart of the liquor-making process is the distilling equipment, specifically the distillation stills. When it comes to pot stills vs. column stills, there are several distinguishing factors that set these two types of alcohol stills apart. Here's what you need to know:

Pot Still vs. Column Still: What's the Difference Between the Two?

Photo of four copper distillation stills in a distillery />As mentioned above, distillation stills come in two main varieties: pot stills and column stills. A pot still is the more "basic" of the two, as it simply collects and condenses the alcohol vapours emitted from the boiling mash, distilling the liquor only once to create a lower-purity liquor with more flavoring. The column still, on the other hand, enables the distiller (yep, that's you!) to reach ABV levels as high as 96% quite quickly, creating a cleaner, higher-purity, more neutral spirit, like vodka. This is one of the key differences between these two kinds of distillation stills - the fact that column stills are able to produce such high ABV levels is one of the key factors which sets them apart from pot stills, as a pot still is simply not capable of yielding such returns. 

Pot stills are typically used for distillation in smaller quantities, while column stills usually work better for larger-scale distilling operations. This is due to the fact that pot stills operate on a batch-by-batch basis, and must therefore be cleaned-out after a limited amount of production. Column stills, however, function continuously - hence why they're sometimes referred to as "continuous stills" - which allows them to distill liquor for extended periods of time.

The Pot Still - A Flavorful Distillation Device

Pot stills are preferred for making whiskey or rum, where more full-flavored types of spirits are desired. That being said, a pot still can also be used to make a higher purity, less distinct-tasting liquor, although this requires running the distillate through the pot still two times instead of only once. While pot stills do allow the distiller to maintain more control over the alcohol level and flavor, the start-and-stop process used by this type of alcohol still is rather inefficient.

The Column Still - A Pot Still's Flavorless Counterpart 

Column stills are typically set up as two large stacks, with one column acting as a distiller and the other as a condenser, and are made up of a series of plates with holes. As the mash is added from the top of the column still, it moves down through these holes, forcing steam from the bottle and heating the alcohol while separating it from the mash. While the column still is a bit more complex, it generally uses the same basic concept as its pot still counterpart. 

Pot Still vs. Column Still: What's the Difference in Terms of Material?

Photo of a copper distillation still inside of a distillery There are two main types of materials used to make both pot and column stills are copper and stainless steelThe vast majority of stills today are constructed from one of these two materials - so really, what it boils down to is a matter of preference. That being said, it should be noted that while most pot stills are made entirely out of copper, in some instances, column stills can be part stainless steel with the upper portion of the still being copper, as important feature as copper is utilized to help rid the spirit of sulfur. 

While distillation stills made out of stainless steel are certainly durable, easy to clean, and less costly than copper ones, they're also not the best conductors of heat, and won't remove sulfuric compounds from the wash. Sulfur arises naturally in the fermentation process, and often leads to a sour taste in spirits, which is why it's best to remove it - hence why stainless steel is the less preferable of these two types of still materials.

That's where copper comes in. This material is preferred over stainless steel for a number of reasons, which makes it no surprise that copper has been the primary choice of master distillers to use for making distillation stills for centuries now. One major factor is that it improves the flavor of the alcohol by removing sulfur during distillation, preserving your liquor by helping to break down compounds which are absolutely vital in producing a higher-quality, better-tasting spirit. Copper is also a great conductor of heat which, combined with all of its other useful features, makes it superior to stainless steel. For more on the difference between these two types of materials used for distillation stills, check out this Q&A.

Ready to purchase your own distillation stills for your craft distillery? Check out the video below for advice on what it takes to make a world-class spirit on a budget, as we follow Tim Koether, owner of Claremont Distillery in New Jersey, and head distiller Chris DesGasperis on their distilling journey:

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