Foreshots & Heads

When making the "flavoured" spirits such as whisky, rums, or schanpps, theres always the question of exactly how much of the heads to keep.

Mike raises some questions ...
    ... commercial whiskey distillers make no distinction between "foreshots" and "heads". To them, these are simply different names for the same thing. Similarly, they draw no distinction between "feints" and "tails". Now these guys must surely know what they are doing, as many of them have been distilling whiskey for generations, so I just wondered if we might not be introducing distinctions that really don't matter.

    After almost a week of searching through the internet and browsing through the local library, I've also learned that although whiskey washes contain methanol, resulting from the use of grain, not one drop of foreshots/heads or feints/tails is ever thrown away, but is instead frugally stored in the 'low wines' vat for inclusion in the next batch. It was also interesting to learn that the decision on when the foreshot/heads 'ended' and the feints/tails 'began' was entirely up to the still master, and that many distilleries included a fair proportion these 'cuts' in the middle run as they contain a lot of flavour compounds that they want in the final product. What also surprised me was how little of the foreshots/heads were diverted to the low wines vat, some distilleries starting to collect the main body only 10 to 20 minutes into a run. Considering the size of their batches, that's very little indeed! Perhaps they rely on long periods of maturation to modify the compounds they include?

    The way the still master judges when the foreshots/heads 'finish' and the feints/tails 'begin was also interesting, as it is all done without the benefit of measuring the temperature of the vapor or being able to smell the product. It's all done begind glass in the still safe, and the traditional methods depend on measuring the density of the product (correcting for temperature of the liquid) and what is termed a 'misting' test. Many distilleries now use more sophisticated methods, but these two tests are still widely used. The temperature corrected density seems fairly obvious, but the 'misting' test was new to me, so I had high hopes that perhaps here was a method we could use. Essentially, the 'misting' test involves mixing a sample of the product with distilled water. The presence of foreshots/heads or feints/tails is indicated by the mixture taking on a faint milky cloudiness. Sadly, when I tried it on some heads and tails that I had set aside, I could detect no 'misting' whatsoever, so I reckon that it must be characteristic of whiskey washes that may contain much higher proportions of oils than we encounter with sugar washes. Any thoughts anyone?

    Now, I'm NOT suggesting for one moment that anyone drinks either heads or tails! However, we may have been throwing away a lot of good ethanol when pouring the heads down the sink. Whether those first heads contain methanol or not (depending on the ingredients of the wash), it is apparent that they contain a very high percentage of ethanol. If, instead, we set them aside and added both heads and tails to the next batch — all of them, as the whiskey distilleries do — then we would be in no danger of including them in the results of that next batch as we would again set aside the heads and tails of that. The obvious question can be asked ... would this not mean that the amount of 'nasties' builds up over time as they are repeatedly added to successive batches? Logically, the answer must be 'yes', but this doesn't seem to worry the whiskey distillers, and they are dealing with much bigger quantities than we are.

    As for determining when to start or stop collecting the main body of a run, I believe that the methods we have been using are probably the best there are … measuring the temperature of the vapor and using our sense of smell. They may well be better than the traditional methods used in whiskey distilleries! There is certainly a discernible difference between what we have been calling 'foreshots' and 'heads' … the very first part of the heads is markedly more volatile, so the change to the main body of heads is easily detected by monitoring the vapor temperature. Equally, the slower change in temperature as the main run starts is fairly easily seen if you have a good thermometer in the right place in the column.
Jack likewise adds ...
    In some reading I was doing, I found a spirit where the heads are not separated out at all; Pre-WW2 German Fruit Schnaps. Some may have made a brandy out of a fruit wine and noticed that the heads they were throwing out had a great fruity smell, and it was a shame to throw them out- old style German distillers didn't bother. This is why it has a reputation as a sharp tasting spirit. The trick is to ferment cool, and use no pectic enzyme, and ferment with added sugar no higher than 12%abv- all these things will dramatically increase methanol production. Then, make a note of how much distilled spirit was made out of how much wine, and only drink the amount of spirit that represents one wineglass of the original fruit wine/mash. For example: you have a gallon (4L) of cherry wine/mash, you get 750ml of spirit out of it at about 50% or so. At this rate of concentration, a 3ounce (90ml) serving of the wine equals a half ounce (16.875ml) of the distilled spirit. This (rather anemic) 17ml serving is to be considered one glass of wine. Limiting oneself to a "double" (roughly 30ml of spirit) of this "no heads separated" spirit, will give you a nice (but sharp) fruit schnaps, with little chance of a crippling hangover. Again, this requires a very temperate attitude toward drinking- in the above example, an American "shot" of this schnaps (2oz./60ml) would be equal to 4 glasses of the original wine- say hello to a nasty hangover. If this sounds a bit dangerous, then perhaps throwing out only the most minute bit of the heads could be done- say 5 to 10ml per gallon (4l) of wine- this should remove the bulk of the methanol.


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