Cuts refer to when the distiller makes a decision about the qualities of the incoming spirit and separates the distillate flowing from the still into separate collection vessels. There are numerous ways for a distiller to influence the flavour of their spirit, but the art of “cutting” is, in our opinion, one of the most important parts of the process for them to master.
Most distillers use parameters such as time elapsed since the distillation began, the volume of liquid that has been collected, the ABV of the distillate and the flow rate to help inform their decisions, but almost all will choose to use taste and smell to make the decision for when to make their cuts.
Gin makers have to be very careful about ensuring a slow and steady process to ensure that the full array of compounds are captured. Heat the still too fast and the volatile compounds will all arrive with the heads, while cutting too early will mean the hydrophilic compounds (which tend to be spiced, rooty and nutty) are lost in the tails and the resulting collected hearts lack in complexity and depth.
Mezcal and Scotch producers tend to collect a fair amount of what many would deem as tails because it helps to accentuate the smoke aromas in their distillate. Some Mezcal producers even distil ‘to proof’ essentially forgoing making a tails cut altogether and running the collection for such a prolonged period that no water needs to be added before bottling as the collected distillate is already in-between their desired 40-50% ABV.
In contrast, Bourbon producers often retain some of the heads which can favour certain esters developing further as the spirit ages in barrels, while Cognac producers separate tails into two in order to redistil some and discard the rest.
There’s a lot of science to what’s being collected in each ‘cut’ but ultimately, it’s the distiller’s nose and intention that defines what happens and how they want to shape their spirit.