Thursday, February 14, 2013

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An Old Distiller's Trick Revived in Oregon

In Hillsboro, Oregon, west of Portland, the Imbrie family erected a granary barn around 1855, a few years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. With a handful of repairs here and there and a new concrete floor, it remains standing today. Inside, distiller Bart Hance makes whiskey and brandy on a still that's almost as old as the building itself.

Look closely: that's a metal can dangling in the middle.
The still is a French model, known in Cognac as an alambic Chartentais, typically used to make brandy and popular on the American west coast. This one was found in an old barn in France and shipped to Oregon where it stayed boxed for years before being installed in the granary. Other than a few brass fittings, the pot still is entirely copper and has a graceful, curving neck through which alcohol-rich vapor rises on its way to the condenser. At 160 gallons, it's not the biggest still one will find in the United States, but it is one of the more venerable. Unlike some modern stills, it has no sight glasses, no thermometers, no computerized reports indicating what's happening inside. On an old still like this, to know what's happening on the other side of the copper at any given moment, one must relies on sight, smell...and sound.

Sure, there's the sound of the gas fire. The intensity of that sound will indicate broadly how much heat is directed at the bottom of the pot. If the sound of the fire dies away unexpectedly, trouble — dangerous trouble — may be brewing. But attendees of a brandy distilling workshop sponsored by the American Distilling Institute learned from Hance to listen for another sound: the jarring clang of falling metal.

See, it takes a long time for wine or beer to heat up in the boiler of a pot still, especially if it's at the frosty room temperature of an old wooden barn. A distiller can't just sit there like a plate of biscuits waiting for the wash inside the pot to warm. There are forms to be completed, barrels to move, and a dozen other tasks involved in running a distillery. So, lacking readouts and internal thermometers common in some modern stills, Hance deploys an old French trick well-known to Cognac makers that allows him to do those other jobs while the still heats. He attaches a large, empty metal can to a string, then loosely wraps the string around the still's neck. With a dab of wax, the string stays in place.

And then the distiller walks away.

As the wash heats and vapor begins to rise, the copper (an excellent heat conductor) grows warm. Eventually, the neck grows warm enough to melt that dab of wax and — CLANG — the can drops and clatters onto the bricks below, sounds loud enough to be heard anywhere in the barn. That's the signal that Hance has perhaps ten minutes before liquids start trickling from the condenser and to wrap up whatever he's doing; there are cuts to be made.

Hats off, Hance; that right there is some old school merde.

Goes well with:

  • A visit to Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and Imbrie Hall. The former Imbrie homestead is now owned by McMenimins who were instrumental in getting the property listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The whiskeys, brandies, and other spirits made at Cornelius Pass and at the company's Edgefield distillery are not for sale in liquor stores, but are entirely for internal use at the various bars, hotels, and restaurants under the McMenamins banner. Imbrie Hall, however, offers a selection of bottles for take out.

1 comment:

CognacTasting said...

Nice to discover such a still that can be used... far away from the vineyards of Cognac
Want to visit other stills under operation, have a look here :