New Distillers FAQ

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"NEW DISTILLERS" Frequently Asked Questions (Feb'03)

Posted near the 1st of each month, to the NEW_DISTILLERS newsgroup at www.yahoogroups.com

Please email any additions, corrections, clarifications required, etc regarding the FAQ to Tony Ackland (Tony.Ackland@comalco.riotinto.com.au), however please direct any general questions to the newsgroup itself.

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1) Is distilling hard to do ?
2) Is it legal ?
3) Will it make me blind ?
4) Whats the difference between a pot still, reflux still, and fractionating column ?
5) How do I get or make a still ?
6) How do I make a whisky / rum / vodka / gin ?
7) Should I use sugar or grains ?
8) Can I use fruit wine ?
9) How do I make a Turbo-all-sugar wash ?
10) How do I run a Pot still ?
11) How do I run a Reflux still ?
12) Can I use a reflux still to make rum or whisky ?
13) How do I measure the strength of it & dilute it ?
14) How do I get rid of that "off-taste" ?
15) Why do my spirits turn cloudy when diluted ?
16) How do I flavour/turn the vodka's into something else ?
17) What web resources are there ?
18) How do I contact the NEW DISTILLERS news group ?
19) Can I run my car on it ?
20) How do I convert between gallons and litres and ....
21) What is a "Thumper" ?
22) Can methylated spirits be made safe to drink ?

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1) Is distilling hard to do ?

Nope - if you can follow instructions enough to bake scones, then you can sucessfully distil. To distil well however, will require you to understand what you're doing, so read around and get a bit of information under your belt before you begin.

2) Is it legal ?

Probably not. It is only legal in New Zealand, and some European countries turn a blind eye to it, but elsewhere it is illegal, with punishment ranging from fines to imprisonment or floggings. This action against it is usually the result of either religous beliefs (right or wrong), but more generally due to the great revenue base it provides Governements through excise taxes. So if you are going to distil, just be aware of the potential legal ramifications.

3) Will it make me blind ?

Not if you're careful. This pervasive question is due to moonshine lore, which abounds with myths of blindness, but few actual documented cases. The concern is due to the presence of methanol (wood alcohol), an optic nerve poison, which can be present in small amounts when fermenting grains or fruits high in pectin. This methanol comes off first from the still, so it is easily segregated and discarded, and easily observed via changes in the vapour temperature. A simple rule of thumb for this is to throw away the first 50 mL you collect (per 20 L mash used). Probably the greatest risk to your health during distilling is the risk of fire - collecting a flammable liquid near a heat source. So keep a fire extinguisher nearby.

The cases where you do hear about people poisoned by "illict spirits" have been the terrible situations where adulterants such as methanol, antifreeze, battery acid etc have been added to the spirits afterwards by unscrupulous sellers (for what misguided reasons ??). If you have had a healthy fermentation take place, it is infact very difficult to make methanol. The other problems have been lead poisoning when people have used lead-based products (ie lead solder) when constructing their still, instead of something more appropriate for food-grade vessels. The rules should infact be "dont buy spirits from an unknown supplier" - but its very safe to distill for yourself.

4) Whats the difference between a pot still, reflux still, and fractionating column ?

A pot still simply collects and condenses the alcohol vapours that come off the boiling mash. This will result in an alcohol at about 40-60% purity, with plenty of flavour in it. If this distillate were put through the pot still again, it would increase in purity to around 70-85% purity, and lose a bit of its flavour.

A reflux still does these multiple distillations in one single go, by having some packing in a column between the condensor & the pot, and allowing some of the vapour to condense and trickle back down through the packing. This "reflux" of liquid helps clean the rising vapour and increase the % purity. The taller the packed column, and the more reflux liquid, the purer the product will be. The advantage of doing this is that it will result in a clean vodka, with little flavour to it - ideal for mixing with flavours etc.

A fractionating column is a pure form of the reflux still. It will condense all the vapour at the top of the packing, and return about 9/10 back down the column. The column will be quite tall - say 600-1200mm (2-4 foot), and packed with a material high in surface area, but which takes up little space (pot scrubbers are good for this). It will result in an alcohol 95%+ pure (the theoretical limit without using a vacuum is 96.48 %(by volume)), with no other tastes or impurities in it.

5) How do I get or make a still ?

If you're after a pot still, these are generally home made using what-ever you have at hand - say copper tubing and old water heaters or pressure cookers. You don't really need any plans for these - just follow any of the photos about.

Reflux stills can be made from plans on the net, or bought from several manufacturers. For reflux still plans see
  • There are 100's of designes in the reflux section, of the forums:
  • The photos section for Offset head, designs and this section for general reflux stills.
  • Alex's designs at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Distillers/files/OFTS/
  • Ian Smileys "Making Pure Corn Whisky" at http://www.home-distilling.com , with full design details.
  • For an excellent book on all aspects of still design, see "The Compleat Distiller" at http://www.amphora-society.com
  • See the list of "web resources" below for links to sites selling ready-made stills.
  • For fuel alcohol stills see the Mother Earth Alcohol Fuel manual at http://journeytoforever.org/biofuel_library/ethanol_motherearth/meToC.html, and the The Manual for the Home and Farm Production of Alcohol Fuel by S.W. Mathewson at http://journeytoforever.org/biofuel_library/ethanol_manual/manual_ToC.html Regarding the choice of heating for the still - if you have 240V available it is usually easiest to control & safer (particularly with internal elements). Gas can be used, but more care is needed to keep the collection container further away and not letting it overfill.

    For more details on design, see Designs and Reflux Design

    6)How do I make a whisky / vodka / rum / gin ?

    Whiskey : Heat 4 kg cracked or crushed malt with 18 L of water to 63-65 °C, and hold there for 1-1.5 hours. Heat to 73-75 °C, then strain off and keep liquid, using 250 mL of hot water to rinse the grains. Cool to below 30 °C (should have an initial specific gravity of 1.050). Add hydrated yeast & leave to ferment (maintain at 26 °C) until airlock stops bubbling and final SG of around 1.010. Let settle for a day, then syphon carefully into a pot still. Discard the first 50 mL's, collect the next 2-3L of distillate or until you start noticing the tails coming through. Many people also have sucess starting with a beer-kit instead of using grains.

    Vodka : dissolve 5 kg of sugar & 60 g of nutrients in 20 L of water, cool to below 30C and add hydrated yeast. Leave to ferment at 25 °C until below an SG of around 0.990, then settle for a day. Syphon into a reflux or fractionating still, and collect as per usual.

    Rum : as per vodka, but use some brown sugar or mollasses, to give an initial specific gravity (SG) of around 1.060 - 1.070. Run through either a pot still, or a de-refluxed reflux still.

    Gin : make a very pure vodka, then add the following essence. Simmer 35 g of juniper berries in 350 mL of 50% vodka for ten minutes with the lid on, let cool overnight, then filter through coffee filters. Use 5-10 mL of this essence per bottle of vodka.

    When doing any fermenting, take a lot of care to ensure that any items used are clean/sterile (soaking them in a water + bleach (10 mL per litre) ), or else the wash can start growing other things. Use a closed fermenter with an airlock too, to let the CO2 out without letting wild yeasts, bugs etc in. For more information about fermenting, see beer or wine homebrewing sites.

    7) Should I use sugar or grains/fruit ?

    It depends on what sort of still you have, and what you are trying to make. If you have a reflux or fractionating still, only use whatever is cheapest (usually sugar), as the refluxing will strip out all the flavours anyhow. If you have a pot still, and are after a bourban or whiskey, then you need to go the grain route, or mollasses if after a rum. If you are trying to make a neutral spirit for flavouring, go for sugar.

    Basic guidelines for using them are ..

    SUGAR. Wine yeast can use no more than 2.5lbs of sugar/1imp gal or 2.2lb/1U.S.gal or 1.25kg/5litres of must. This will produce 14%a.b.v. Honey and liquid malt extract are 80% sugar so you need 1.5kg/5l must or mash. Molasses is 50% sugar so you need 2.5kg/5l must or mash. Maple syrup is 32% sugar. Carob beans are 45% sugar. Sugar beets are 15% sugar Grain malt is 60% sugar (starch converted to sugars) so you need 1.5kg/5l mash. Cooked grain contains 60% convertible starch so you need 1.5kg/5l mash

    FRUIT - Grapes contain the ideal sugar, water, acid balance. A sugar content of 17-23% and a water content of about 80%. 8kg of grapes produces 5l of wine.
    Most common fruits (apples, plums, apricots) contain about 10% sugar and 85% water. Cherries and figs contain 15% sugar. A fruit mash could be 4kg fruit, (400g sugar content), 2l water (3l in pulp already), 800g additional sugar.
    Bananas are 17-24% sugar, 75% water. Acid content 0.3%. A banana mash could be 4kg of cooked bananas, 2l water (3l in pulp already),400g sugar. Add 3lemons/5l for correct pH.
    Dates are 70% sugar, 20% water. Add acid to a date mash.
    Raisins and sultanas have a water content of about 15% and a sugar content of 60%, grapes have a water content of 75% and a sugar content of about 20%, so using 1.5-2kg/5l of water appears about right if we want to reconstitute them.

    ACID - 5g of citric acid (1tsp)/5l must raises acidity by 0.1%. 3g of calcium carbonate powder lowers acidity by 0.1%. A pH of 5 is 0.4% acidity. Winemakers aim for 0.6% acidity. Most common fruits are about 0.6% acid content. For distilling, a higher acidity in the mash helps to suppress bacteria. A high tannin content doesn't matter as we are not making wine. Meaurements are logarithmic, so a pH of 4 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 5.

    YEAST - Brewers (& possibly baker's yeast) can tolerate only 8% alcohol. A bottom fermenting lager yeast ferments out all the sugars better than a top fermenting ale yeast. A good wine yeast (Champagne, in the right conditions, can tolerate 15%a.b.v. (up to 18%a.b.v. in optimal conditions - no need to use expensive turbos). Wild yeasts vary, but some are very low - this is a risky path. Whisky distillers often use a combination of yeasts - initially a brewer's yeast because they believe it effects the flavor.

    8) Can I use fruit wine ?

    Sure, if you have it available. Again, using a pot still will result in a brandy/grappa/schnapps, whereas a reflux still will just strip it down to neutral spirit.

    9) How do I make a Turbo-all-sugar wash ?

    The first trick is to locate the "Turbo" yeasts - either try the New Zealand sites, or www.brewhaus.com. Then, dissolve 5-6 kg of sugar with 2-3 L of boiling water, top up to 25 L with cold water, wait until its cooled below 24 °C, and then stir the yeast in, and close the lid with an airlock. Keep at 24 °C until the SG has dropped below 1.010 Its then possible to add extra sugar (1 kg at a time, dissolved in a little water) each time the SG has dropped below 1.010. You should be able to add an extra 3-4 kg this way over a week. It should finish around 0.980 - 0.990

    10) How do I run a Pot Still ?

    See How to use a Pot Still for details. A pot still is fairly straight forward to use. Turn it on. Once the temperature is up to about 60 °C turn on the cooling water to the condensor. Make sure you throw away the first 1 00 mL per 20L wash, as this will contain any methanol that might be present. Segregate the distillate into 500 mL lots as it comes off. Only keep (for drinking) that which doesn't contain fusels (smell off) - probably below about 92 ° C, however you should keep distilling past here, untill about 96 ° C, as this fraction, although high in tails and not good for drinking this time, can be added back to the next wash and cleaned up OK then.

    11) How do I run a Reflux / Fractionating Still ?

    See How to Use a Reflux Still for details +/or variations. Also, see this post from the HD forum: LM Still running instructions and a very good how to thread on running an older CM type still is found at: Running a brewshop CM still
    It is best to first equilibriate the column under total reflux for 10 minutes or so. This will concentrate up the foreshots so that they can be removed first. Collect them one drip at a time, for approx 50 mL per 25L wash, and throw away. You can then collect the remaining run at a quicker rate. Adjust the reflux ratio (the ratio of how much of the total vapour is returned as reflux) by varying either the rate of collection or rate of cooling water (depending on still design) to maintain the purity you want. You can judge the purity by measuring the vapour temperature. Target around 78.2 - 78.4 °C . Towards the end of the run it will be hard to get a high enough reflux ratio to maintain the high purity / low temperature. When the temperature has nudged up to around 80 °C quit collecting for drinking, and collect the remainder as tails (for redistillation in the next run) up to around 96 °C .

    12) Can I use a Reflux Still to make Rum or Whisky ?

    Yes you can. To do so, you need to carefully monitor the various transitions between the foreshots, heads, middle run, and tails, and time the collection of the middle run precisely. The reflux still allows you to more precisely judge the changes between the various stages, and hence target them accurately. A typical rum or whisky would be obtained by discarding the foreshots, then collecting the heads, middle run, and then begin the tails, until the purity has dropped to around 58-60% (82 °C). By altering when to start collecting, and how late to time the final "cut", various flavour profiles will result. You'd collect it faster and at a slightly lower reflux ratio than for a neutral spirit, as you want the flavour present.

    13) How do I measure the strength of it & dilute it ?

    You need a hydrometer. This is a wee float, with a scale inside it. The more alcohol that is present, the lighter the density of the liquid, so the hydrometer sinks a bit lower. You then just read off the scale how much alcohol is present. You need a seperate hydrometer for measuring the density of the mash, as this is generally > 1.0, whereas the spirit is < 1.0, and they can't accurately do both ends of the scale.

    14) How do I get rid of that "off-taste" ?

    That "rough moonshine edge" or "off-taste / wet cardboard smell" is due to impurities such as the higher order alcohols, known as cogeners or fusel oils. These will be present more when using a pot still, less if using a reflux still, and just about absent if using a fractionating column. So one way is to use a taller packed column and increase the amount of reflux occuring. They can also indicate that you've tried to collect too much of the alcohol, and have run into the "tails"; so finish collecting a little bit earlier next time. Soaking tainted alcohol with activated carbon for a week (or even months) will help remove some of this flavour - this is known as "polishing" the spirit. I'm also suspecting that you need a little bit of copper somewhere in the still where it can come in contact with the vapour. The copper helps catalyse some of the sulphur, esters & organic acids, reducing their odour & taste.

    15) Why do my spirits turn cloudy when diluted ?

    With neutral spirits, either you have pushed 'tails' into your product (eg collected too much product from the still - quit earlier next time), or you are using poor tap-water (high in calcium carbonate). If it happens when diluting your gin, sambuca or the like, its because there is too little alcohol/too much oil present and the oils are no longer dissolved. Either drink it cloudy or increase the % alcohol present.

    16) How do I flavour/turn the vodka's into something else ?

    There are now many commercial flavourings available, which turn vodka or neutral alcohol into pretty decent gin or whiskey, or all manor of liqueurs. See the commercial sites, Ray Toms http://moonshine.co.nz/ for details. Or you can soak it with oak chips and make whiskey, or soak fruits in it to make your own liqueurs. There are many websites describing how to make liqueurs - see Liqueurs or http://www.guntheranderson.com for a starting point.

    17) What web resources are there ?

    For more details, see :
    THIS website :)
    user FORUMS. The information filled user interactive Forums for THIS website.
    Biofuels Library

    18) How do I contact the NEW DISTILLERS news group ?

    Both the NEW DISTILLERS and the DISTILLERS news groups are available via YahooGroups, at http://www.yahoogroups.com . NEW DISTILLERS is, as the name suggests, intended for those of you new to distilling and after simple, straight-forward answers to questions, whereas the DISTILLERS group discussions are a bit more advanced, throwing in bits of design philosophy, theory, and alternative ways of achieving the results. Both tend to overlap to some extent.

    19) Can I run my car on it ?

    You can run your car on alcohol over about 80% purity. Because any water present will seperate out in the presence of the gasoline (and become a problem), you either need to exclusively use the alcohol, or dry it right out (eg 99%+ purity) if using it to mix with gasoline. See Steve Spences site for more details, the Mother Earth Alcohol Fuel manual, or the The Manual for the Home and Farm Production of Alcohol Fuel. In addition, in the USA, you can get a "small fuel producer" permit, which allows small scale distilling for "motor fuel" purposes. A nice advantage is that they don't require denaturing for "fuel" used on the premises.

    20) How do I convert between gallons and litres and ....

    To convert between SI & Imperial units, multiply the first unit by the conversion factor to get the second. Divide back to do it in reverse .eg 1L = 0.264 US gal, so 20 L = 20 x 0.264 = 5.28 US gal, and 20 US gal / 0.264 = 75.76 L

    1 L = 0.264 US gal = 0.221 UK gal
    1 L = 1.057 US qt = 0.880 UK qt
    1 kg = 2.204 lbm = 32.15 oz (troy) = 35.27 oz (av)
    deg F = ((9/5) x deg C )+ 32
    1m = 1000 mm = 39.37 inch = 3.28 ft = 1.09 yd

    21) What is a "Thumper" ?

    A "thumper" is an extra chamber sometimes fitted to a pot still. It can be as simple as a glass jar with two holes in the lid. The off-take from the still is fed into it, with the pipe running almost all the way to the bottom of the jar; the jar is half filled with liquid (water or mash or tails) so that the vapour from the still will bubble up through it; then the vapour coming off it is collected & cooled as per normal. It acts as a second distilling chamber using just the heat from the vapour, and lifts the purity from 50-60% to 70-80%, hence improving what might otherwise be a very mediocre design. Don't make the thumper too small, and start it off with liquid already high in alcohol.

    22) Can Methylated Spirits be made safe to Drink ?

    No. Methylated spirits (aka meths) is a mixture of ethanol and (poisonous) methanol, with a denturant added to make it foul tasting. There is no effective way of seperating them, be it by distilling, using carbon, or filtering through bread (old wives tale). Do not add meths to anything you ever intend to distill or drink, and don't try using it in any form - it will still be poisonous. Keep it for cleaning and starting the BBQ with. Likewise, you cant "clean up" antifreeze in your still.

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