During the distillation process, there are three traditional “sections” of the distillate as it runs off the still. These sections are commonly referred to as the Head, Heart, and Tail.
But what do these sections mean in practical terms? What are they, and what role do they play during the distillation process?
The initial part of the distillate is called the “head,” and within the head is the “foreshot.” The foreshot contains most of the toxic methanol produced as a byproduct of fermentation. Traditional distilleries often have a significant amount of foreshots from their pot stills.
The rest of the head consists of the distillate until the distiller begins collecting ethanol. This portion is known as the “first cut” from the head to the heart.
The heads contain light, ethereal aromas, but they also contain a significant amount of methanol. Therefore, it’s up to the distiller to decide where to make the cut, including as much light aroma as possible while excluding the methanol.
Traditionally, each distillery handles the heads differently. Some distilleries use them in subsequent distillations to extract more flavor and ethanol. Others discard or recycle them in another way. Our distillation process is highly precise, resulting in only a small amount of heads. We store them in one of the tanks beneath the still and redistill them in future distillations.
The “heart” is the main body of the distillate that the distiller keeps. It is the part of the process where most of the ethanol is collected from the still and contains pleasant flavor compounds. Deciding how much of the distillate to keep as the heart before making the “second cut” to start the tail is a creative decision. Heavier, richer flavors develop further along the distillation process, but there are also unwanted water-soluble flavors.
Finally, we have the tail. Once the second cut has been made, the still is stopped, but it takes a long time for the pot to cool down, causing the wash to stop evaporating. The liquid that continues to run off the still is referred to as the “tail.”
For us, the tail consists only of the distillate that has reached the condenser, as the remaining distillate in the column and basket chamber flows back to the wash through pipes.
In conclusion, understanding the Head, Heart, and Tail is crucial for a distiller to perfect their craft. The volumes of heads, hearts, and tails are not equal, so the distiller must closely monitor the distillation process to determine when to make the “heads cut” or the “tails cut.”