The Reciprocating Still: New Distilling Technology in the Craft Scene

by
January 25, 2017

The machinery responsible for producing our beloved whiskey has become a recognizable sight for most drinkers. There’s the shining copper pot-stills churning out single malt in Scotland. The massive columns of America’s bourbon behemoths might come to mind. More recently, you may have seen the popular hybrid pot-column stills touring America’s craft distilleries. As with any emerging industry however, new technology and innovation begins to appear. That’s the case with a relatively new creation, the reciprocating still, or more precisely, the Friggin’ Figgins Reciprocator.

HOW THE RECIPROCATING STILL WORKS

My first encounter with it came on a visit to Washington, D.C.’s Republic Restoratives. The female-owned distillery has its own vodka, CIVIC Vodka, with a wheated bourbon and rye whiskey on the way. They also have plans for various brandies and other spirits. (In the meantime, they have a series of sourced, finished whiskey, including Borough Bourbon).

The still itself is the brainchild of Berle “Rusty” Figgins, a distiller, consultant, and engineer who served those roles for Republic Restoratives. The basic concept is similar to that of a hybrid pot-column still, but the main kettle splits into two equal halves. Each kettle can be heated and operated independently, with both feeding to a shared column.

“Based on the modular nature of the system, the distiller can break the still down into a couple of smaller stills that will allow for more flexibility,” says Larry Taylor of StillDragon, a Florida manufacturer who’s built several of these reciprocating stills in conjunction with Figgins. “The distiller could execute their brandy and whiskey program simultaneously without having to clean the still between each type of spirit run.”

ARE TWO KETTLES BETTER THAN ONE?

The nature of the design also leads Figgins to believe that a higher quality of distillate is actually possible if the kettles are used together. He explains that the two colliding streams of vapor from the two kettles would create greater reflux.  This would essentially allow for additional purification of the vapor before it even reached the shared column.

The majority of the still consists of stainless steel, with copper reserved for bubble plates and caps housed in the column. Copper is only needed for that vapor interaction.  As a result, it doesn’t reduce distillate quality to manufacture the still in such a fashion. In fact, many of those aforementioned massive column stills follow the same principle. A newer design of the Figgins Reciprocator has evolved a bit. A separate, small copper head covers each stainless kettle, with both still feeding to a shared column.

Reciprocating StillPhoto Credit: Jake Emen

BENEFITS OF INNOVATION

As Taylor mentioned, the dual nature of the design adds a great deal of convenience and flexibility for the craft distiller, who’s often producing a diverse range of spirits. Logistically, it’s a more efficient system, reducing energy needs as it’s faster to heat two smaller kettles as opposed to one larger kettle. This saves both time and money.

There are myriad other touted benefits as well. Made primarily with stainless steel, it’s more affordable to produce than an all-copper still.  Additionally, it has a longer working life span. The rig can produce spirit up to approximately 160 proof on a single run, once again offering efficiency and flexibility. It also happens to be unique and eye-catching. With new craft distilleries popping up by the day, standing out from the crowd in any fashion isn’t a bad idea.

Other craft distilleries deploying a reciprocating still include Seattle’s Six Spirits. They produce No SIX Bourbon and No SIX Aged Apple Brandy among other products. There’s also Frederick, Maryland’s Dragon Distillery, which produces a lineup of vodkas, gins, rums, and moonshines.

As craft distilleries push the boundaries with different mash bills, barrel types and sizes, and nearly every other facet of whiskey and spirits production, it’s no surprise that innovation is cropping up with the stills as well.

Banner Photo Credit: Republic Restoratives


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