How do I separate the heads (foreshot), hearts (middle cut) and tails (feint)?

Are you thinking about making your own liqueur, whisky or other moonshine? You have come to the right place. You may have already read a thing or two about the heads, hearts, and tails. You can read about how to distinguish the three below..


When distilling, you should separate, or cut, the heads, hearts, and tails. The head of the distillate is the first portion of the run. You can recognise it by its smell. It has an unpleasant smell like nail polish or methylated spirits. You throw away the heads or you can keep it to use as a fire starter for your BBQ. This is approximately 2% of the first distillation (base spirit) from the initial mash. The distillate from the first distillation is also called base spirit or low wine. Another method to determine when to cut the heads is by determining the alcohol percentage. This percentage is very high at the start of the distillation process, 80% and higher.


When the alcohol percentage falls below about 80%, it is time to cut the heart. The heart is the largest portion of the run. It smells fragrant and tastes good. The heart is the liquid you want.


When the alcohol content has dropped to 50 percent, we proceed to the final cut, or tails. The smell of the tails is difficult to describe, terms such as “plump”, “greasy” and “brownish” are sometimes used. When you rub it between your fingers, it feels oily. The tails should also be discarded.

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Basic theory of distilling

Getting started with distilling

When you have a saucepan of water on the stove, you will see condensed drops on the inside against the cold lid. Try it: they taste like … water. Nothing special. Now suppose you are boiling wine in that same saucepan, and you taste the condensed drops – you will find that they still taste a little like wine, but mostly very much like alcohol. Congratulations, you’ve discovered distilling. A few thousand years too late to apply for a patent, but still very clever.

Distillation is a technique for separating substances in a solution by means of evaporation. In our case, that solution is an alcoholic drink, and those substances are mostly water and alcohol. The trick is in the difference in boiling points (or vapour points) of these substances. Alcohol at boils at around 78 °C, while water, as you know, does not evaporate until it gets to 100 °C. If you gently heat a mixture of water and alcohol, such as wine like in the example above, the alcohol will initially evaporate slightly more than the water and the vapour will contain more alcohol than the original mixture. By removing the vapour and then condensing it, you separate the alcohol from the water: distillation. This method is also used to make petrol from petroleum, for example. Please don’t try the latter with a saucepan on the stove, nor taste it :+) By distilling you can roughly separate the different substances, but this is not a precise separation. If you want a more precise separation, you must repeat the distillation. We usually do this (at least) twice: first distillation and second distillation.

Whisky still | Distillation Supplies

The First Distillation

The first distillation is mainly intended to extract all the alcohol from your mash (base spirit) so you can discard the remainder. A 10- or 20-litre bucket, or those fifty bottles of sour wine, take up a lot of space in your kitchen. Assuming a basic drink of about 15 percent, you can expect an alcohol percentage of around 35% after the first distillation. The rest is water. When you taste the result, you can imagine the naming: you unmistakably recognise the fundamentals of a cognac or whisky, but it is still coarse, unrefined. Let’s say: rough. This is because wine, sugar water or whatever you want to distil, contains more than just water and alcohol. It also contains other volatiles created during fermentation. And not just a handful, but thousands. Fortunately, or every drink would taste like vodka. You want some of those substances in your distillate. They provide flavour and aroma. The difference between whisky and cognac is largely in the different basic products. We prefer not to add other substances because they don’t taste good, cause a hangover or are bad for your health. The most important substances are methanol that drips from your still at the beginning of your distillation process and the so-called ‘fusel’ or ‘fusel oil’. This is a collective name for a series of higher alcohols with complicated names that present themselves at the end of the distillation process.

The Second Distillation

The second distillation produces the potable spirit. Because the unwanted parts of the distillate present themselves at the beginning and end respectively, it allows you to separate them from what we’re really interested in: the alcohol. We do this during the second distillation, where the low wine from the first distillation is distilled again but make a distinction between the unwanted heads and tails of the desired hearts. This second distillation produces the potable spirit. The correct separation of these ‘fractions’, not too soon and not too late, is where skill is required. Pure alcohol is just boring vodka, and minimal amounts of the tails particularly, add flavour to your distillate. The result of this second distillation is usually an alcohol percentage of around 70 to 80%. You can repeat this trick. The higher the final alcohol content, the purer and more refined your distillate, until it eventually just becomes tasteless. Vodka, for example, is distilled up to 90-95%, and then often also stripped of all taste by using carbon, for example, while cognac, for example, contains around 60-80%. You will notice that these are not the percentages you see on your store-bought bottles of spirit (unless you live in Russia). Distilled alcohol is almost always diluted with water after maturing (see below) but before it is bottled.

Maturing your distillate

Fresh from the still, your distillate is not yet what it can be. A distillate must mature. There is a reason for paying more for a bottle of twenty-year-old whisky than for a three-year-old whisky. Maturing occurs at approximately 55-65%, not at the 35% that you are used to drinking. It isn’t diluted until just before bottling. Incidentally, maturing does not have to be done on wood at all, nor does it need to take twenty years. Most white drinks such as vodka, gin and eau de vie only mature for a few weeks in glass or oak wooden barrels. Plenty of time for substances to interact and form new combinations. ‘Brown’ drinks such as whisky, cognac and calvados are generally aged in wood. Before bottling spirits, they are diluted to bottle strength, often around 35-40%. In addition, the drink can be pimped, for example by adding caramel for a nice brown colour or by adding a little sugar.

Oak woorden barrel | Distillation Supplies

Oak wooden spirit keg

Source: book “about spririts” Wateetons.

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Making whisky

Whisky is one of the most popular types of distilled alcoholic drinks, made from fermented grains. The preferred grain type varies from region to region, ranging from barley (very popular in Scotland), malted barley, rye, wheat, and corn (which is the main ingredient of American Bourbon). An exception is Indian whisky, which is traditionally made not from fermented grains, but from fermented syrup.

The existence of whisky can be traced back to the ancient times, almost to 2000 BC in the kingdoms of ancient Babylon and Mesopotamia. However, the modern history of whisky began between the 11th and 13th centuries when Christian monks brought the art of distilling to the Northern England areas of Scotland. It was during this time that the art of distilling began to progress, and the regions of Scotland (well suited to produce grain products) became the world’s most popular producers of whisky.

The basic process of whisky production has not changed over the past 200 years. Technological advances allowed brewers to control every aspect of this process, but the fundamentals (use of water, barley and yeast) and local laws meant that the original recipes that gave the original popularity to this fascinating drink were preserved.

The basic processes in making whisky:


The main component of barley responsible for creating alcohol is starch. To take full advantage of this effect, the barley must sprout, often called “malting”. When the brewery has chosen the grain it wants to use, it soaks it in water and spreads it on the floor of the so-called “malting house”. After several days of resting (grain has to be turned regularly to maintain a constant temperature), the malting process is stopped by rapid drying in an oven (Scottish barley is often dried with peat smoke, which gives the final product specific aromas). After the dried malt has been ground in a mill, all the dirt is removed, or “the wheat is separated from the chaff”.


The extraction of the sugar from the grain is done by adding hot water, which allows the sugars to sink to the bottom of the still. The quality and type of the water is important for the end product – natural spring water usually contains a wide variety of minerals. Adding hot water is repeated twice, but the removal of the sugary water from the bottom of the barrel is only done the first two times. The yield from the final removal is not used for whisky production but is used as animal feed.


The fermentation process in whisky making is done in tanks called washbacks. After adding the carefully selected yeast, fermentation begins, and the sugar slowly turns into alcohol. After about two days, fermentation stops, and the liquid will have an alcohol content of only 5-15%.


The distillation process is used to increase the alcohol percentage to 90% and remove unwanted substances (such as methanol) from the mixture. The majority of Scotch whisky is distilled twice, Irish whiskey three times, but some recipes require up to 20 distillations. The process itself is done in traditional Scottish pot stills (best suited for single malts), Coffey stills (which are better suited for grain whisky) or industrial “continuous” distilleries. In any case, the fermented liquid is heated to boiling point (lower than that of the pure water), which causes the alcohol to evaporate and the steam is collected in the condenser. The liquid produced has an alcohol content of 20% and must be reprocessed. After the second distillation, the liquid can reach the maximum allowed percentage of 94.8% alcohol enforced by Scottish and many other countries’ laws.


Before the whisky is matured in oak barrels, many recipes require dilution of the whisky to about 63 to 64% alcohol content. After maturing in barrels for several years (varying in time in different countries – America two years, Scotland and Ireland three years), whisky absorbs different components of the wood, changing the taste and colour. Many of the well-known whisky brands have a very long maturation process, ranging from 3 to 4 times longer than required by law.

Bottling and final whisky making processes

Before whisky is bottled, a few final processes are required. Filtration is done to remove any unwanted acid esters that become visible in the bottle after prolonged exposure to a cold environment. Finally, the colouring of the whisky is done by adding strict amounts of caramel.

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