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Copper vs. Stainless Steel

Copper vs. Stainless Steel

A question I get asked a lot is, "What is the difference between copper and stainless steel, and why are most of our stills made out of copper"?

I could do this post in a very long manner, like so many other people do, and start with the history of copper.  Where and when it was first mined, and 20 paragraphs later we’re still not into the Iron Age, but I won’t bore you with all that.

Copper is one of the best conductors of heat there is. There’s a reason why some of the best chef’s pots are made out of copper, and that’s because it conducts heat so well and evenly that there are no “hot spots” that will cook the food unevenly, or even burn parts of it. I was lucky enough to buy a set of old French copper pots at an estate sale. These things are amazing. 1/8” thick, heavy but not too heavy, and make absolutely amazing dinners.

If you are heating externally, like with a wood stove, a propane or natural gas burner, there is no comparison in how quickly and evenly a copper still will heat up. You cannot discount the evenly part either! Even heat distribution means that there is much less chance of burned spots. And a burned mash would lead to bad tasting alcohol.

But what about for an electrically heated still? Why use copper for that? Why not use stainless instead?

Stainless is a great metal. It has many, many uses in our modern world. It usually doesn’t rust (this does depend on the quality and grade of stainless used) and is generally easy to clean. It does NOT conduct heat as well as copper. In fact it doesn’t even conduct as well as normal steel. How much better does copper conduct? It depends on the alloys, but roughly TWENTY TIMES better than stainless!

Stainless has a reputation for being very, very clean. It is generally easy to clean, but it is not self-cleaning. You still need to get in there and scrub it.

When used properly, our copper stills are self-cleaning in most circumstances. This is done by using the slight acidity of the beer from alcohol mash, to interact with the copper and clean the still.  Furthermore, copper is already used everywhere in our homes. Almost all water pipes in every home are made out of copper.

One obvious question is that if copper conducts heat so well, won’t it cool down really fast and lose a lot of heat?  Because of this, we offer an option of an insulating jacket on most of our stills. When jacketed, the heat loss is minimal. This makes it much more efficient to heat, and enabling it to heat up to operating temperature even faster.

Another reason to use copper is that in some cases, it is required. Some essential oils, for example, need to come into contact with copper during the distillation process. If you’ve ever made scrambled eggs, you’ll be surprised to know that whisking them in a copper egg beater pot will make them lighter and fluffier than you’ve ever had. The copper interacts with the eggs to make them fluffy and perfect.

Yet another benefit copper has over stainless steel is its antibacterial qualities. Testing has shown that copper kills 99.9% of bacteria within 2 hours of exposure. Stainless does not. In fact hospitals are switching from stainless to brass and copper door handles because of this fact.

The last reason though, is my favorite reason:

Copper is absolutely gorgeous. When polished it shines like nothing else on earth. When allowed to tarnish, it turns a beautiful green that is distinctive and artistic. Copper is the reason that the Statue of Liberty is such a beautiful green.

My family has been working with copper to make distilleries for four generations. I love working with it. I’ve been shaping, heating, welding and polishing it since I was 8 years old. It’s ubiquitous in my home. My house is filled with copper pots, copper utensil holders, copper knife holders, copper toothbrush holders, and custom copper items that my father made.

Copper is also traditional. When you think of a distillery, you think of the old stills from the early 1900s, or from prohibition. Those beautiful old copper stills.

So if copper is so amazing, why aren’t more stills made out of it? 

Copper is much more difficult to weld than stainless. If you go to 1,000 fabrication shops, you’ll find that nearly all of them can weld stainless, and are happy to make whatever you want out of it. Out of those 1,000 shops, maybe one could weld copper. 

Almost all of the copper stills available elsewhere are either riveted, soldered/brazed, or worst of all, have been lead soldered.

All of our stills are solid copper, not copper plated, and are welded by hand, with the exception of a very few places that are soldered with a mixture of silver and copper. Everything is food safe on our copper stills.

My father taught me how to weld copper when I was very young. To my family, it’s easier to weld than any other metal. Because we’ve been dealing almost solely with copper for generations, it’s simple and comes naturally.

That’s why we primarily make copper stills. For the tradition, the utility, and the beauty. For me, it is family.

Trevor Walstad

Columbia Copper Works