Who’s Afraid of Heads, Hearts, and Tails?

Introduction

Heads, hearts, and tails. Three simple words. But they inspire awe and fear in the hearts of many beginning distillers. Should we be afraid of heads, hearts, and tails? This iStill Blog post aims to answer that question in a few simple steps.

First, let’s investigate what heads, hearts, and tails are. Then, we’ll research their properties. As a third step, let us assess why heads, hearts, and tails are important – and often awe-inspiring. The final part of this blog post will propose a framework for you to manage heads, hearts, and tails cuts.

Heads, Hearts, and Tails: what are they?

Not al alcohol is ethanol and not all alcohol is created equal. Where ethanol is intoxicating without being toxic, when consumed in moderate amounts, some other alcohols are actually quite toxic, even when consumed in very limited amounts.

During distillation – especially in the lower power-input and higher-proof finishing runs – the good alcohol we call ethanol comes over in the middle, during the “heart” of the run. The other alcohols, with high toxicity, come over at the beginning and end of the finishing run. The first part of the run is therefor called “heads”, while the last part is named “tails”.

So basically heads and tails are phases during the distillation run, when overly toxic alcohols come over. Does it start to make sense why they are fear-inducing? Cut too many heads and tails into your hearts and you end up with a toxic spirit.

Okay, the bad news is that heads and tails are really bad. The good news is that they only come over in the beginning and at the end of the run, and the actual amounts are small. But what are their properties? Let’s dive in deeper.

Heads, Hearts, and Tails: what are their properties?

Scientifically, a better name for “heads” is “lower boiling point alcohols”. The alcohols with low boiling points come over early in the run. Think aceton or methanol. A better name for “tails” is “high boiling point alcohols”. Propanol, butanol, and furfural come over late in the run, because they boil off at very high temperatures. Higher than ethanol, and sometimes higher than water.

In general, low boiling point alcohols cause head-aches. High boiling point alcohols create stomach problems. Mnemonic? Heads give head-aches, where tails create tail-end issues.

Floral and fruity flavors come over during the first part of the distillation run. Floral and fruity flavors associate with heads. Rooty, nutty, and earthy flavors come over during the last part of the run and associate with tails. Do you feel a catch 22 coming? Here it is. If you want to cut out all heads, you’ll cut out all floral and fruity flavors as well. Do you want to get rid of tails? Great, stills (or run procedures) can do that for you. But you’ll loose all rooty, nutty, and earthy flavors as well.

Why are heads, hearts, and tails important – and awe-inspiring?

Cut in too many heads and you end up with a spirit that causes head-aches. Cut out too many heads and you end up with a spirit that lost its floral and fruity flavors. Idem for tails. Do you start to see why cutting for heads, hearts, and tails is important – and awe-inspiring at the same time? Good cuts make great product. Poor cuts destroy your product. In a way a good distiller is someone that knows how to make great cuts. In a way a great still is a machine that controls the cut-points for heads, hearts, and tails to perfection. In a way distilling comes down to cutting.

So far, the industry has seen two approaches on how to deal with this issue. Big Alcohol has often been accused to just cut everything in. It explains the morning-afters. It makes for a good amount of profit, since the manufacturer doesn’t have to cut out anything and all alcohols produced end up in a bottle. A bottle being sold to you.

The second school of thought, that started with the birth of craft distillation, aimed to cut out heads and tails all-together. The result? You can guess it, right? Uninteresting spirits.

Our insight, based on science, brought a third way of looking at heads, hearts, and tails to the forefront: the one we shared above, where heads, hearts, and tails have both positive and negative properties. It’s not about cutting them in or out, it is about the flavor profile you want to high-light as a distiller, when producing a certain spirit!

A Framework for Managing Heads, Hearts, and Tails

First, decide what spirit you want to make and what the associated flavor profile is. Some examples? Here you go. Vodka aims for a minimal flavor experience at high purity, so you’ll want to cut out all heads and all tails. Less flavor, more purity, less toxicity. Whisky is flavorful and full bodied. Incorporate late heads and early tails, and only cut out the early heads and late tails. You’ll get all the flavor, while controlling – to an extend – overall toxicity levels. Fruit brandy? Fruity flavors are found in the heads, so cut out all the tails, and cut out only the very first bit of the heads.

Secondly, choose the right type of still. A potstill sucks at compacting heads and tails … and is therefor a great tool for whisky making, where you need both the late heads and early tails to smear into hearts. Bubble cap stills offer great defense against tails smearing, which makes them very well suited for fruit brandy production. iStills, with their elaborate control systems and automated cuts management, can make any spirit to perfection.

Thirdly, please understand that low and high boiling point alcohols (and their associated flavors) are developed during fermentation, not during distillation. Distillation is simply a way to control them. In other words: if you want to create a certain flavor profile, for a certain product, with a certain still, well, it actually all starts with your fermentation protocols! If you ferment in such a way that no flavors and no toxic alcohols are formed, you are already almost at vodka level purity, even before starting-up your still. That is great if vodka was your goal, but not so good when making whisky. The opposite holds true as well: a flavorful ferment is a great base for whisky making, but not for vodka production.

The fourth step should actually be the first step. Learn more about still design, about spirit flavor profiles, about how fermentation influences heads, hearts, and tails production. Learn more about cuts. Where? At the iStill Distilling University. For more information and registration, contact Veronika@iStillmail.com.

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