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Photo by David Buchanan

Making the cut: The heads, hearts, and tails of whiskey making

There are many steps in whiskey production, but one of the first and most talked about is distillation. Distilling is an art, and as with other art forms, the end product can vary based on the maker’s process.

Most craft distillers — including our brand partners — use a pot still, rather than the continuous column stills favored by larger distilleries. Pot stills allow the smaller guys to batch their whiskies and manipulate the cuts they make in the distillate.

During distillation, whiskey comes off the still in three main sections, commonly known as the “heads, hearts, and tails.” Here we discuss what each of these means for the creation of small-batch whiskeys.


During distillation, the mash is heated in the still, causing the liquids to turn to vapor. Because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, the first thing that comes off the still is methanol, commonly referred to as the “foreshots” or the “heads.”

Back when I worked for a moonshine brand, people would ask me, “Doesn’t moonshine make you go blind?” Like all tall tales, there is a bit of truth there. The heads portion of the distillate comprises mostly methanol, and consuming methanol can lead to blindness and even death. So inexperienced whiskey makers can indeed create lethal cocktails — albeit unintentionally.

We have even heard stories about Prohibition-era bootleggers and moonshiners purposefully sending batches of heads to bars that hadn’t paid for their last shipment. The concentrated methanol killed every customer in the bar that day, sending a very serious message to the bar owner. In the world of whiskeys you can legally purchase, the heads section is always cut out.


As the process continues, the “hearts” come off next. This section is the largest section of the distillate, determined by the cuts made by the distiller. The term “cuts” refers to the process of removing sections of the distillate to get rid of impurities. The depth of the cuts and the remaining hearts influence the taste profile of a given batch of whiskey. When distillers use deep cuts, it means they’re looking to use only hearts, ridding the distillate of any and all impurities. This is great for young whiskeys, but it can take out a lot of the compounds that lead to complexity and flavor in aged whiskeys.


At the end of the run, you’re left with the “tails” which contain a lot of fusel oils and other compounds. If the tails remain in the distillate, they interact with the barrel over time and give the whiskey many of its unique flavors.

So how much “other stuff” is left in the distillate? Distillation proof is regulated. (For bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, each batch must be distilled under 160 proof, which means 80% alcohol/20% other compounds.) Most big distillers keep their distillation proof in the high 130s or low 140s, meaning 30-35% of each batch is made up of other compounds.

Whiskey is interesting in that often the impurities and inconsistencies lead to the most coveted flavor profiles. In 2012, a tornado tore off part of the roof on one of Buffalo Trace’s aging houses. Because some of the barrels were exposed to the elements differently, the resulting whiskey from those barrels had a distinct flavor profile. Today, those bottles sell for north of $13,000. Sometimes what makes whiskey weird also makes it valuable.

Author: Robert Davies

Robert is the co-founder and COO of Bootlegger Co. His favorite drink is a rye old fashioned, and he considers adding seltzer water a capital offense.