Three Chamber Still

Years ago, Three Chamber Stills were commonly used to produce rye whiskey. The Chamber Still, as it was called, extracts more of the oils from the rye grains than many other stills. Therefore, the resultant whiskey has extra flavor and body. Also, the rye grains used at the time were lower in starch content than they are today. This combination resulted in a very rich and flavorful spirit.
Early American Rye Whiskey

Years ago, Three Chamber Stills were commonly used to produce rye whiskey. First appearing around 1850, they were originally made of wood due to cost constraints. Eventually, they were made of copper. According to an 1890 IRS survey, 81% of rye distilleries were using Three Chamber Stills at the time. Interestingly, bourbon distilleries were not. The Chamber Still, as it was called, extracts more of the oils from the rye grains than many other stills. Therefore, the resultant whiskey has extra flavor and body. Also, the rye grains used at the time were lower in starch content than they are today, and higher in oils and other flavor components. This combination resulted in a very rich and flavorful spirit.

So, how does it work?

A Three Chamber Still has, as its name implies, three separate chambers. Picture them arranged on top of each other in a column. They are referred to as chambers 1, 2, and 3, with chamber 1 at the top. Freshly fermented mash (also known as distiller’s beer) is put into the top chamber. The mash in the top chamber will be heated from steam coming from below. The second chamber is filled with the fermented mash that had been in the first chamber. Initially the third chamber is filled with water, but subsequently will be filled with mash that had been in chamber 2.

Once the still is fully charged and running for the day, the process is as follows. Steam is pumped directly into the mash in the bottom chamber. Since the fermented mash in the bottom chamber has already passed down from the top two chambers, most of the alcohol has been removed from it. So, as the steam passes through the lower chamber’s contents, it is mainly extracting remaining oils and flavor compounds. Those components are now in the steam which then passes up into the fermented mash in the second chamber via pipes. As the steam passes through that fermented mash, it heats it, causing alcohols and other compounds to be extracted.

Onward And Upward

The steam from the second chamber then rises through pipes into the fresh fermented mash in the third chamber, heating its contents and extracting alcohol and other compounds. Finally, as the steam from the top chamber rises up, it is cooled and then sent to the doubler. In the doubler, another distillation takes place where additional alcohols and other components are extracted and the distillate further refined.

After a set amount of time, the contents of each chamber are emptied, and the process starts again. The bottom chamber is emptied and its contents are sent to a stillage tank. The contents of the middle chamber are drained into the bottom chamber, and fresh mash is pumped into the top chamber. Then steam is injected into the bottom chamber and the whole cycle is repeated.

A Fourth Chamber Is Added

Interestingly, the Three Chamber Still evolved to have a fourth chamber, which was used to preheat the distiller’s beer and help cool the final vapor. The fourth chamber sits at the top of the still. The hot alcohol and oil containing steam from chamber 1 immediately below it passes up through the mast within a coiled pipe. This allows the heat from the steam to be transferred to the fresh mash, preheating it, as the vapor itself is cooled.

Even though the fourth chamber was added, the name Three Chamber Still lived on. That is until prohibition, when the it all but disappeared.

Inefficient, Time Consuming & Worth It

Back in its day, using the The Chamber Still was an inefficient, time consuming, low yielding and laborious process. However, the distillers at the time felt that it was worth it due to the quality of the whiskey the Chamber Still produced. The folks at Leopold Bros Distillery feel the same way today. In fact, they felt so strongly that they had their still fabricated for them by Vendome Copper & Brass Works, Inc, of Louisville, KY. Likewise, The West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados also uses a Three Chambered Still. Theirs, in fact, is an original model from back in the day. The Ved Elven Distillery has a small Chamber Still, as well. As far as I know, those are the only Three Chamber Stills in use today.

I hope you have enjoyed this Tidbit about the Three Chambered Still! Today, Leopold Brothers uses theirs to make their aptly called Three Chambered Rye. In addition, they collaborate with George Dickel on a rye which includes this whiskey. Check our our George Dickel – Leopold Bros Collaboration Rye Review to learn more! Cheers!🥃

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References:
1. https://blog.billcarney.com/the-vulcan-still-at-west-indies-rum-distillery/
2. https://www.leopoldbros.com/threechamber
3. https://www.boozewerks.com/2019/04/08-3-chamber-still/
4. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-americas-oldest-whiskey
5. https://www.bostonapothecary.com/the-three-chambered-still-tail-waters-and-rum-oil/#:~:text=The%20three%2Dchamber%20still%20usually,copper%20plates%20into%20three%20compartments

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