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Charcoal Filtering of Whiskey


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#1 WI Distiller

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 08:39 AM

As I continue working on getting financing together and tweaking my business plan, I have been thinking quite a bit about the whiskeys I want to make. My plan right now has one whiskey in small barrels and two others in larger barrels for longer aging. I still feel this is a good plan, but I want to make sure the small barrel aged whiskey is a high quality product deserving of a premium price.

Criticisms of small barrel aged whiskeys (such as this: http://www.whatdoesj...whiskey-faster/) seem to hinge on young whiskeys being immature and harsh, caused by bad congeners such as fusel oils being present in the final product. These congeners can be mitigated by managing yeast health, controlling fermentation temperature, making your cuts more conservatively at the still, or by aging several years in a charred barrel. Aging in small barrels limits the ability of the barrel to scrub out some of these off flavors because the whiskey is not in the barrel for very long. There are a number of small barrel aged whiskeys I have tasted that are very good (I would point to Koval, New Holland and Tuthilltown), and they obviously have a good handle on the fermentation and distillation to make this happen. To some extent, it seems that a good product going in to the barrel will be a good product coming out. I wonder, however, if adding a charcoal filtration step before barreling could also improve the product.

The process of charcoal filtration is said to also remove fusel oils while leaving desirable congeners in tact, as opposed to activated carbon filtration used in vodka that strips nearly all flavor out of a distillate. It seems like a charcoal filtration could work very well in conjunction with small barrel aging, helping to scrub out some of the conginers that normally would be removed or modified by extended aging.

The obvious connection to this idea is the sugar maple filtration done in Tennessee whiskey. I'm not a huge fan of the Daniels products, but I like George Dickel, especially the Barrel Select.

All of this is, of course, theoretical as I don't have a distillery yet to test this out. Nor do I understand the precise logistics of how Dickel, Daniels or other whiskey makers filter their products through charcoal. Does anyone here charcoal filter their whiskeys, or done any experimentation with charcoal? Is this a terrible idea?

#2 Denver Distiller

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 08:56 AM

We've done a few barrels of Tennessee style whiskey. I think that you might find that it takes a bit longer to age out since you're adding congeners (phenols) rather than pulling them out, and those congeners take a bit of time to oxidize and reduce.

Just my opinion. Your own process may lead to a completely different result.

#3 WI Distiller

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 09:05 AM

We've done a few barrels of Tennessee style whiskey. I think that you might find that it takes a bit longer to age out since you're adding congeners (phenols) rather than pulling them out, and those congeners take a bit of time to oxidize and reduce.

Just my opinion. Your own process may lead to a completely different result.


Just out of curiosity, were you aging those out in full sized barrels? How long did you feel they needed to age?

#4 Paul Tomaszewski

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 09:57 AM

This hits on many factors. After dabbling in this part of things for a while there's a few things to take into account. First of all, how you make your cuts off the still is going to affect congeners/fusel oils, so that's one factor. The next is, of course, how long you age in smaller barrels. We're starting to go for closer to a year vs. 6 months or so as you can definitely taste some difference in smoothness and some of the flavor components that come out. Next there's distillation proof and/or barreling proof, those will also affect how things mellow/mature in flavor. My recommendation is if you make anything with the desire to improve, it's worth at least trying it.

#5 Guest_Rarnold3_*

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 09:57 AM

A big question you'll need to address is how will you filter and maintain consistency. Replicating the process at Jack or George will be difficult on a small scale. They have a large number of charcoal "mellowing vats." Each vat contains charcoal at different stages in its life. The active sites on charcoal responsible for adsorption will eventually become used up and make the charcoal less efficient at removing large congeners. So, if you have just one vat, consistency of your product will suffer as new make filtered through 1 day old charcoal will taste different than new make filtered through 3 month old charcoal. Jack and George have enough vats to where they can simply blend the aggregate of all the vats and then barrel. You can, of course, employ a batch filtration system where each batch uses fresh charcoal.

You also will have to consider how you make the charcoal. Processes like Jack and George create charcoal with more impurities (ie more compounds in the charcoal besides carbon) than using a retort. However, are some of these impurities (wood sugars) desired? That's up to experimentation. Also, be aware that wood charcoal filtration can leave residual color in your new make.

I remember a quote from Jimmy Bedford. It was something along the lines of "The Lincoln County Process won't make a bad whiskey good, but it can make a good whiskey bad." This is a totally different creature than a simple 1 ounce of activated carbon per 100 proof gallons O/N process.

#6 Curtis McMillan

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 10:25 AM

Give me a call. To warn out to type. Number is in my signature

#7 Brian

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Posted 24 July 2011 - 04:52 AM

sorry somehow I managed to edit the original...here is my post "naked"

Black Swan Cooperage out there in Minnesota has a solution for small barrels that has worked pretty well for me. They have small barrels that are simply charred and have small barrels that they have drilled a honey comb pattern into the staves. The TTB has approved my use of the "honeycomb" barrels without needed to declare them as an additional process. Since the goal is to get the whiskey on the market without buying oak futures this process works nicely. You do need to pay attention to your cuts and not be "cheap" and try to get every last molecule of ethanol out...you will be amazed at the quality and the speed of extraction and the generation of vanillin. Will it be smoother with more aging? yeah, sure, but you can always come out with a straight whiskey after you have paid the propane bill and taken your beloved out to breakfast.

#8 cowdery

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 09:22 PM

Everyone just assumes whiskey aged in small barrels will only get better, that the benefits of the small barrel accrue at every age, and I'm not so sure that's right. All the small barrel does is accelerate extraction and there is more tannin in that barrel than anything. Faster tannin absorption means the whiskey may become overaged and bitter sooner. By the time you get the oxidation you're looking for, which only comes in time, you've got too many extractives.

As for the Lincoln County Process, distillers in Kentucky quite routinely and unselfconsciously refer to it as 'charcoal leaching.' They, and their counterparts in Tennessee, usually will accept my characterization of it as jumpstarting the aging process, but many in Kentucky feel it ruins the whiskey by taking out too much flavor.

One drinker's 'smooth' is somebody else's bland.




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