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Where tradition meets innovation

Whisk(e)y distillers in Scotland and the United States are bound by tight legal restrictions and regulations, more often than not amortizing innovation. On top of that they have to deal with organizations representing their interests, most notably the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). The first one really is a watchdog where the preservation of old traditions is concerned. The SWA once even tried — in vain — to reserve the word “glen” for Scotch whisky only, when a Canadian distiller from Nova Scotia launched a single malt called Glen Breton.

This is not to say that innovation does not take place in the whiskey world. On the contrary, the resulting product may fall out of the official whiskey category, but the market is enriched with interesting potions, spearheaded by Darek Bell’s Corsair distillery. In his book Fire Water — Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, published in 2013, you can find a whole range of examples.

But let’s turn to the European continent. On the one hand take a fine distillery like Belgian Owl who decided to invest in the old stills from Caperdonich (1897-2010), when they were challenged to produce more whiskey, since the demand started to outstrip the production. A traditional step forward, so to speak.

On the other hand there is a company near Amsterdam that thrives on innovation and designed a totally new kind of still, called the iStill. When asked about the name, owner and designer Edwin van Eijk (Odin for friends) refers to the fact that so many neat product names start with an i. Remarkable, since he tells in a video that he was inspired not only by Apple but also by Dell Computers.

iStill claims a lot of improvements on the age-old craft of distilling liquids, with its equipment containing no less than 40 patents. The most amazing things about the still are its shape, the material it is made from, its versatility, its efficiency and its running costs.

The shape is not round but square and the iStill is built from stainless steel. Inside copper waffles take care of the catalyzation needed for the spirit to get rid of unwanted sulphurs. A column is built on top of the square base and does not contain plates but a kind of dense mat woven out of copper thread. Connected to the column is a robot that separates heads, tails and middle cut. The entire still is completely computer-operated. Up to 50 different spirit run schedules can be entered in the system, based on temperature, taste profile and purity level. The only thing the operator has to do is key in the program for the distillate that is to be made at the moment.

The square shape triggers counter movements in the liquid/vapor vortex as opposed to using a round still. The result is a more efficient particle distribution of the contents, which should enhance the taste of the spirit. Where in a traditional column still the distiller has to deal with at least four factors — ambient temperature, water temperature, water pressure and air pressure, Odin claims he only has to deal with the latter in his column, which makes it far more efficient to operate. He adds direct firing mechanisms to it (either electrical or gas-fed) and the distillates are made faster, should have more taste and are less costly to produce.

Odin gives an example of a vodka producer who wanted to distil more efficiently and cost-effectively. Said producer ran a traditional German-plated still with a capacity of 2,000 liters with which he could produce 220 bottles of clear vodka. Oil costs alone set him back 650 Euro for one run, which comes down to about three euro per bottle. The iStill 2000 did the same job, produced 250 bottles and ran up an electricity bill of only 48 (forty-eight!) euro, which converts to 20 cents of fuel costs per bottle.

The iStill is a compact machine with well-integrated body parts — pot, column and computer, which helps save maintenance costs. The operating screen is where the distiller can key in everything … column or pot use, cut points, temperatures up to hundredth of a degree and the run time. The robot inside the column decides when to switch from foreshots, to heart and to feints. The first and last parts will be redistilled in the column, since they are caught in a mat of copper thread and do not descend to the bottom of the still, again saving energy.

And it gets even better: The iStill can also be used as a mash tun and a fermenter. No wonder Odin has many friends in the craft distilling world and on the company’s website a whole community of customers exchange their experiences. Odin regularly adds tips in his own blog about improving production.

This all may sound like science fiction or too good to be true. However, the success of iStill speaks for itself. Worldwide over 500 installations from 250 liters up to 5,000 liters capacity units have been installed, from Alaska to Australia. Due to the modular system it is relatively easy for a distiller to increase production capacity when needed.

Due to the thorough automatization of the iStill, maintenance can be done remotely from Amsterdam via an internet connection. Built-in software makes it possible to read out results, modify the process from a distance and correct errors in production schedules. Odin says, “We can even see when the still is used and when not. It made me think of a new way of selling our product: based on actual use.”

iStill may not conquer the existing traditional distilling world yet but is potentially a very attractive model for craft distillers who consider creating all kinds of different spirits. That does not mean they will turn their backs on old and trusted methods, which is illustrated by Dornoch Distillery in Northern Scotland. Its owners Phil and Simon Thompson installed an iStill next to a copper pot still.

That’s where tradition truly meets innovation.

Slante mhath,

The Whisky Couple

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