In episode 32 of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman tackle the mysterious world of spirits cuts. It turns out these are not so mysterious and experienced distillers use a number of variables to determine “the cuts” … listen in for more details.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher appreciate a well made spirits regardless of where the cuts are made.
If you have any comments or questions about malt vs. koji, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
What are Cuts?
Spirits cuts are the points at which distillers begin to capture and stop capturing distillate for their drinks. Since different liquids have different evaporation points or vapor points (when liquid turns to gas), the component parts of a fermentation will begin evaporating at different temperatures. These temperature breakpoints determine what liquids end up in the distillate.
Since alcohol evaporates at 78 degrees Celsius (172.4 Fahrenheit)and water at 100 degrees Celsius (212 F), you will end up with a higher concentration of ethanol at temperatures between 78 and perhaps 90 degrees. Other alcohols evaporate at even lower temperatures.
The most critical part of distillation cuts is the removal of the foreshots, or the early part of the heads, which contains poisons. Methanol is the most lethal, causing blindness or even death at relatively low concentrations. Fortunately, the boiling point of methanol is 66 degrees Celsius (150.8 F) so as long as the earliest distillate out of the still is discarded, the spirit should be safe for human consumption.
There is plenty of usable alcohol in the heads so once the foreshots are removed, the distiller has a lot of options as to what to do with the heads. Some redistill, some keep and blend, some even turn the heads into other products. The heads are typically high in other alcohols and have more astringent qualities. A common aroma of the heads is acetone, which is used in nail polish remover.
The hearts are where the best spirit lives. Of course, best is relative, but the hearts tend to be high in ethanol and sweet with nice aromas. Some premium spirits are only made with the hearts.
The tails are the end of the distillation run. Depending on the character you want, you may keep more or less of the tails. However, distillers can easily recognize the tails, because the alcohol coming of the still is much lower and the flavors become more bitter. When you really finish the process, “wet dog” aromas appear and that’s when its definitely time to turn of the still.
Much More to Explore
These show notes just scratch the surface, but should serve as a useful aid as you listen to the episode itself. As always, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about cuts.