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EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT DISTILLERIES


*** IMPORTANT NOTE ***

It is a federal felony to actually use this information to build your own still and produce alcohol. The information presented here is simply for informative, educational and game-use only. In no way is this document meant to persuade people to actually produce illegal alcohol. It is ill advised to do so, but if you must there are legal ways to do so. It is possible, in special cases, to get a permit to build an experimental still, work on solar power, or power an alcohol gassed automobile. If you decide you want more information, look in the library under fuel alcohol, distillery, or wine making. Have fun but please use discretion.

The following is a large excerpt from a discussion about distilleries with Jesse Duke, Master Bootlegger. Jesse is considered one of the finest moonshiners in the land. Although he operated illegally, many law enforcers overlooked his operations for just a sip of his elixir while others hunted him down because he was considered the prize catch. Now retired, Jesse lives of the riches of his successful career. His love now is telling tales for all who will listen of his many adventures. Many sages have regarded him as an expert on distillation. Unfortunately, nobody can get Jesse to put his knowledge on paper. At least we can listen to him...

"So you want to know about a still do you? Well, I suppose I'm the expert around these parts. Your not with the law are you? Of course, I'm in retirement now and don't distill, except for medicinal reasons.

A still is a very old, very simple concept. It has been postulated that perhaps the reason that people actually started farming was in order to produce an excess of grain from which to produce alcohol. At any rate beer is made simply from fermenting most any grain starch. Whiskey, hard liquor, or other distilled drinks are made by removing water from the base material. If you distill beer you have whiskey, wine wields brandy, potato mash wields vodka. The technology to do this is available among almost any people's that are capable of speech it seems. All that is required is a source of heat, a cooking vessel, and some sort of cooling element.

The principle of the distillery, or still for short, is that water boils (i.e. becomes vapor) at 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). Alcohol (ethyl alcohol that is) on the other hand boils at about 73 degrees Celsius (170 Fahrenheit). If a liquid contains both water and alcohol and is heated to a temperature somewhere between these boiling points then it is possible to drive off the alcohol and leave the water behind. Now all that is left to do is capture these intoxicating vapors to increase the percentage of joy in the drink.

How is this done? The absolute simplest way is to place a freshly fermented, malted drink (beer in the raw) into a container and heat it. Seal the container except for a single tube/pipe/etc. leading away and into a tub of water. At the other end, allow the tube to empty into a cup or jug that has been set in a bed of ice. This is not the safest, or easiest still to run, it is the simplest. Constant care must be taken of the temperature, as there are no safe guards against overheating the beer (thus boiling off a good bit of water too) or an explosion. This can be caused by the careless who don't clean the equipment properly. A build up in the tubing can cause the pot to build up steam, and the you can say "Good night!"

The basic workings of the still are as follows. The pot is the containment vessel for the crude fermented beverage. A heat source is applied to the bottom of this to drive vapor out of the top vent pipe. This then leads more or less directly to the worm. The worm is a coil of tubing which acts to cool the vapor back into a liquid, which will hopefully be noticeably more intoxicating than the original material. A pressure gauge and/or valve can be added to the pot as a safety measure. A thermometer/rheostat can also be added to the pot to more closely control the temperature for optimum performance. However as hundreds of years of backwoods moonshining can attest, there is no need for such extravagances to produce good quality liquor. The worm can be made from almost anything. At one point car radiators were popular, however due to their less than clean nature, this is HIGHLY unrecommendable. The lead used in soldiering at the manufacturer can also easily react with alcohol to produce lead nitrates and other nasties that can permanently relieve you of the necessity of sight. More common, and safer is a quarter inch diameter copper tube, wound into a coil, and submersed in a barrel or bathtub of cold, slowly running water. A heat source should be diffuse if possible, a common trick was to place the pot on a piece of slate, then use a wood fire to heat the slate. This produced an even, slow heat that tended to prevent scorching of the grain sediment and eventually leaving a burnt taste to the end product.

Improvements are constantly being made to this basic design. One of the most revolutionary, and important additions is that of the thumper keg. When this is added to a still, it halves the distilling time and doubles the final proof of the beverage. The thumper keg is nothing more than a second pot which is not directly heated. Hot vapors from the real pot are piped over into the bottom of the thumper keg. The vapors then percolate through the thumper keg's hold of new crude alcohol. As it cools the vapor, water is drawn from the vapor. As the thumper keg's liquid warms, more alcohol is vaporized. Thus, when the vapors finally leave the top of the thumper keg, they have essentially been processed twice. Before the advent of the thumper keg, the crude mash would first be run for "singlings". These singlings would be run through the still a second time to produce the final whiskey. Now it was possible to produce a high quality, high alcohol content liquor on the very first run.

An additional attachment was invented long before the thumper keg, but is attached after it in the normal sequence of the still. This is the dry box. Simply said, it is a air-sealed box that takes the vapors from the thumper keg (or the pot, if a thumper keg is not used) and sends the vapors out the other side. In the mean time, the vapors have cooled slightly and water has condensed on the inside of the box. (Please note that this box is empty, thus "dry", except for the vapors passing through it.) The box is so angled that any water condensing inside runs through a pipe back to the thumper keg or pot. There should be three pipes attached to this dry box. One leads out of the box towards the worm, one leads out of the box into the thumper keg, and one from the thumper keg to the dry box. The reason there are two pipes between the dry box and thumper keg is to prevent a back log of liquid and a build up of pressure in the dry box. The pipe meant for the return of water to the thumper keg should be visibly lower to gravity than the pipe meant primarily for transportation of steam/alcohol vapor. Water from the dry box can be alternatively bled out onto the ground, or into a nearby stream, but it may still contain some alcohol, and for this reason it is often simply cycled back into the still.

The worm is probably the most important piece of the still, as far as final quality goes. All the careful care in the world can be put into making sure that the pot doesn't get too hot, the still can be clean as a whistle every time you run it, and if the worm is nothing more than gunky, disgusting, rusty piece of metal, your liquor will suck. Besides, that's not how they did it in the good old days, right? They used wooden kegs for the pot and thumper keg, and chances are that they used a can in place of a coil. A can is a sort of sleeve that has an input opening in one side for the vapor, and an output port for the leaving liquor. Basically it looked like a very thick walled can without the top or bottom. This allowed the cooling water to flow over a lot of surface area. It isn't easy to make something like this. It would involve a good bit of soldering with plumbers solder (i.e. no lead) and two large, closely matched cans. Perhaps a better way is to use copper tubing, coiled and submerged in a contained of water. (The can has to be submerged in cold water too by the way.) This coil of copper tubing is what is most commonly referred to as the worm.

That is the basics of the hardware. There are other nifty little adaptations that can be added but each requires a bit more technology than the last, so we'll keep it simple. Next is needed the knowledge of how to actually take field corn and produce drinkable white lightening from it. The true artists will insist that it be done with grain, and grain alone, while the pragmatist will say that adding sugar really doesn't affect taste that much and greatly increases the yield. You can decide for yourself whether sugar should be used or not. First you need starter stock. Take 10% of whatever amount of corn your going to work with and place it in a warm damp spot for about a week. Perhaps you will keep it in jars behind the stoves (don't allow the seeds to become submerged, they can drown believe it or not) in a burlap sack buried in a manure pile (please, please wash them VERY well) or whatever. After they have sprouted with 3-4 inch growths (and preferably before the leaves break free of their casings) grind them up. For small batches a sharp knife and cutting may work. Larger batches may require a meat grinder or something. This will act as an enzyme to start breaking starch down into sugar. Next thing that needs done (and should be down simultaneously with making the starter) is to grind up the other 90% of your corn. You might try buying ready round corn meal, maybe use that meat grinder again, perhaps soak the corn in water then try to grind them up. Whatever works for you. Then mix the ground corn with water to make a mix that won't quite hold a spoon straight up. About a gallon of mashed corn to three gallons of water, or less if you have already soaked the corn in water prior to grinding.

Now heat this grain/water till it is almost boiling, keep it simmering for 10 to 30 minutes. Then let it slowly cool, when you can comfortably put a finger in it, mix in the starter. Stir this around for another 20 to 30 minutes. Keep it warm during this time. If you desire (and it is a good idea to do this) yeast can be added at this point. Best thing to do is get brewer's yeast at a store that sells supplies for making wine, and then culturing the yeast in sugar water as per instructions with the package (if any). Otherwise you can use regular baker's yeast, or not use any, and trust wild yeast to do the work (keep your fingers crossed here). Watch the mix carefully, as without sensitive equipment it is hard to tell when the yeast have stopped working. The yeast will form a foam or crust as they work. As they finish, the foam will break up and disappear. The proper time to run it through the still is when the foam is pretty well gone, but not totally, there should be a film of it left with some holes poking through. Wait to long and you will have wood alcohol rather than grain, it is not possible, no matter who tells you different to return wood alcohol back to grain alcohol. I cannot possibly emphasize enough the number of injuries and fatalities occurring from attempts to "purify" wood alcohol. Run it too early and you won't get a good yield of anything but corn starch and water. It is better to run it too early, trust me.

The next major thing to know is how to know when to stop collecting the distillate. One easy way is to collect a small amount of the end product, splash it on the pot, and light it with a match or lighter. It should burst into blue flame. If it doesn't, there is too much water in it. Either turn down the heat on the pot if you are just starting, or stop collecting if its been going a while. By this time you have as much of the alcohol as you'll be able to get. Another, better way, is too watch the distillate as it pours out of the worm. It will sputter at first, slowly develop into a ready stream (hopefully), then at a certain point it will sputter a bit again, and then the twist to the stream will change very slightly as the content changes from mostly grain alcohol to mostly water. These are very hard changes to catch, and it takes practice to learn. It is however the most accurate means by which to gauge the distillate without high tech equipment.

That is about all there is to it. There are many, many other details that have been discovered in the many years of distilling, but these are the basics needed to build a simple still. Now, don't go off half-cocked kid. Distilling is illegal in this country without an official permit from the High Court. And of course, permits are only issued to the rich merchants that can put some gold pieces in important people's pockets. But of course, you young adventuring types try everything at least once, more until you get a sword in your face."

-- Jesse Duke
Master Bootlegger
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