Basic Distillation 101

Other discussions for folks new to the wonderful craft of home distilling.

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Basic Distillation 101

Post by GingerBreadMan » Fri Feb 29, 2008 6:31 am

Here is what I know about distilling (I've only been doing it as a hobby for about a year).

Basic Distillation 101

Distillation is a method of separating 2 liquids that have different boiling points by heating the liquid mixture and the liquid with the lowest boiling point will vaporize first. The vapors are then condensed and cooled and the result is one liquid is separated from the other. In our case alcohol has a lower boiling then water so alcohol vaporizes first and that's how we get the alcohol out of the mash and more concentrated.

Now if life were that simple, distilling alcohol wouldn't be that interesting of a hobby.

The problem is when two liquids have a boiling point that is close to each other the liquids don't separate cleanly. This is the case with alcohol and water. When boiled, the alcohol vaporizes as well as some water, so you get a mixture of the two. You'll get more alcohol then water, so the mixture is more concentrated.

Then there is all that wonderful taste and some bad tastes in the mixture that boils off. Some we want, some we don't.


Different types of stills and flavors

When it comes to the different types of stills and flavors there are two extremes. At one end is the pot still. In it's simplest form, it boils the mash, vapors go out a tube, and it's condensed back to a liquid. If you were to take that liquid and run it again through the pot still the concentration of alcohol (or purity) increases. Theorectically if you do this over and over again you'll end up with pure alcohol, no flavor.

At the other end of the extreme is the packed column type of still. It's a tall column (or pipe) that is packed with material such as copper mesh. There is some sort of condenser at the top of the column that cools the vapors so the liquid can pour back down the column through the mesh and re-vaporize again. The idea with this type of still is that it's doing multiple distillations inside the column so the purity of the alcohol (less flavor) is really high at the output. The taller the column, the better the packing, the more purity (less flavor) you will get from this kind of still.

In between these two extremes are all sorts of variations - shorter columns, no packing in the column, using marbles for packing so there is less seperation, different kinds of condensers so there is less reflux, etc. etc. and the list goes on.

Simple guide to which still to use

Pot Still - making whiskey, rum, flavored alcohol

Tall packed column - making pure vodka. A bokabob still seems really popular and easy to make.

Getting good quality flavor with a pot still

This is the art you'll persue as a hobby. Good ingredients is one aspect, but technique in running the still is the other. As the vapors come out of a pot still and are converted back to liquid not only does the alcohol content change over time - the alcohol content is stronger at the beginning of the run and decreases towards the end - but the flavor changes as well.

Good flavor comes into play in knowing what to collect, what to re-distill.

This is what I'm still learning. I've been only doing this for a year and I have much to learn - but it's the fun part of distilling for me which makes this a great hobby.
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Post by As-Ol-Joe » Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:13 pm

Outstanding piece, GBM
You WILL get addicted to this forum.

The Parent site is REQUIRED READING!!!

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Post by HookLine » Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:43 pm

Yup, well done.
Be safe.
Be discreet.
And have fun.

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Post by GingerBreadMan » Sat Mar 01, 2008 7:28 am

I thought I would post a mini-glossary of terms here as well to help the novices read and understand the techniques described here at the forums and the parent site when learning more about the craft of making good spirits.

I tried to keep the terms generic without getting into any specificity (ie. amounts of liquid, taste, etc.). And of course, I hope these are accurate too :)

Listed in chronological order of the distillation process:

Wash - This is the stuff you just fermented.

Lees - The solids (dead yeast) that settle at the bottom of the fermenter.

Beer Stripping or stripping run. This is a quick fast distill of your wash. The purpose is to reduce a large volume of wash to a smaller volume to be run in the Sprit run. The output of the stripping run is called the Low Wines. Note: this step is optional.

Spirit run - This is the distillation run where you'll be making your spirits or alcohol and it will create these liquids:

Foreshots - this is the first stuff that comes out of the still because it has the lowest boiling point temperature. It contains acetone, methanol and other stuff you just don't want. It's considered poisonous. Don't drink it - just toss it away.

Heads - These come out right after the foreshots. They have a high alcohol concentration and full of flavor congeners. These are saved and retained for later use.

Middle run or Hearts - Right after the heads is your alcohol that your making. If your making rum this is rum, if your making whiskey this is whiskey, etc.

Tails - This is the last part that is collected. At some point in the middle run the spirit will start to lose it's flavor, alcohol content, become bitter, harsh, etc. These are collected and saved for later use.

Feints - When you mix your heads with your tails collection this is called the feints. Feints are redistilled in future spirit runs.

Backset - This is the liquid that is left in the boiler after you have finished distilling the wash.

This is just a mini-glossary - More definitions and terms can be found at the wiki here -


Now if the first question in your head is "How much heads, hearts, tails is going to come off my still" (and it should be the first question), then you're ready to start reading armed with this new glossary of terms. :D
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Post by TryMe » Sat Mar 01, 2008 12:06 pm

In addition to what has already been posted here we should get a list of links together on basic still designs for beginners..Perhaps a link to simple plans for coil/liebig/and reflux condensers as well as types of pots and conversions for them...This sticky could be made into an all round how to start for beginners in one easy to read manual..In the long run it will help new people not have to search through countless pages of post for one thing and maybe cut down on the number of basic questions posted.If I have time later today or tomorrow I will attempt to round up some links and more info to add to this already great thread.Thanks GingerBread for the info you have already worked to put together here.

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Post by Husker » Sat Mar 01, 2008 2:17 pm


there already is the the "New Distillers FAQ" page which lists lots of that information. It is an announcement post here on the novice section. This post post also stands on its own, as there is lots of very good "intro" information contained within it. However, it does not need to become a "second" FAQ page.


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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Husker » Tue May 27, 2008 4:46 am

Here is a very good how to article on making "cuts". Cuts are critical in making GOOD high quality booze. ... hilit=cuts
and ... hilit=cuts

and one with a good post on "blending" different parts of the cut into the main batch ... t=blending

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Piter » Sat Aug 02, 2008 5:59 pm

Great information. Thank you all. I have been visiting the forum for a while and decided to start posting. I still have to get all my equipment together, but my first time is drawing near! :D
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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by seravitae » Wed Sep 03, 2008 5:51 pm

I'd just like to point out that the information is a bit misleading.. Relative proximity of boiling points has nothing to do with with the molar fraction of collected distillate, (at least by distillation theory) so i think it's important that people know that "it's not easy" because a lot of the components in a wash are azeotropic.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by number18fan » Mon Sep 22, 2008 2:36 pm

With technology as it is nowadays would it be to much to ask if someone disguised of course make a start to finish product on U-TUBE or Met-calf and film the whole process start to finish. Reading is a plus but watching and explaining UJSM from the start to the finish product would be a HERO ! It is like reading a how to than watching and listening to a how do project ! It is common sense someone showing and telling as to reading articles,which makes a lot of trial and error. Nobody on utube as the whole process. Plus a show and tell is a lot easier and safer than a read and tell ! Would some one please consider this because a lot of us are in our mid twenties and didn't have the luxury of grandpa to watch ! Thanks guys
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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Hawke » Mon Sep 22, 2008 3:26 pm

Anyone In New Zealand could do it legally. Pretty simple process though.
Dump water, corn and sugar in fermenter, stir like hell and add yeast. Seal the top and wait for the airlock to quit bubbling. Rack the wash off,(add a couple of gallons to the fermenter to keep the yeast happy) let settle for a day or so, then rack into the boiler. On 2nd gen, heat 1.5 gallons of backset and disolve sugar, allow to cool, dump in fermenter, top off with more water and seal it up.
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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by woodenhead » Sun Jun 07, 2009 7:57 am

I am a total greenhorn in the distilling world. This whole distilling process has got this vodka lover worked up into a frienzy.
I have a problem with the other half though. She said her granddad lost his ability to see due to drinking home spirits from a still. So she is havin a fit. I told her that he drank the foreshots of the batches. She said that there is no way to tell that from the rest and the dog is a pet; not for leading my stupid ___ around. I could not tell her there is a way to tell the good from the bad because I don't know enough about it. All I can say is that the fist couple of ounce need to be dicarded. Could someone help me out without discrediting grandpa

I have made wine and beer with great success. I say it's time to move foreward

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by rad14701 » Sun Jun 07, 2009 10:08 am

Have your wife read this site so she can have an educated opinion rather than simply an opinion...

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Hack » Sun Jun 07, 2009 10:58 am

Woodenhead, first comes foreshots, then heads, then hearts, and lastly tails. You throw out an estimated amount of foreshots. This gets the majority of the bad stuff. Then you set aside your heads. For me, I set aside anything I don't like the smell of. To me it smells faintly like paint thinner. Then once I get to samples where I can't smell it I start tasting and set aside what I don't like the taste of. These ones I'm tasting are safe to taste, but would give anasty hangover if just drank. Maybe that will help with the wife. Also consider that if you were to drink a bottle of wine or beer, all this bad stuff we set aside is still in there because it hasn't been distilled which would concentrate it at the beginning of the run. Lastly, there are many accomplished distilling veterans on this site who can still see to type and read here. Promise her you'll read and learn all you can before just jumping in, then if she still doesn't trust you to be smart enough not to hurt yourself, ask her, since she cares so much about you and is obviously smarter, to read up on it and explain it to you in very small words. :D But you absolutely must say all this to her with a straight face.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Dnderhead » Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:27 pm

Sounds like "grandpa" was into something besides "moonshine" if you drank everything I doubt you would go blind I'm not saying that it would be good
but some in bygone days "altered" adding stuff that was not supposed to be there to increase the alcohol (or effects)much like they alter drugs today.
what we make on hear is "concentrated" beer or wine (I hope that is what everyone is doing) not adding anything that mite inflict injury.
If you drink equivlent in wine you whould be gitting more menthanol than drinking good moonshine.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by trthskr4 » Tue Jun 09, 2009 3:45 am

What made folks go blind was (as Dnder said) dishonest shiners or peddlers cutting the shine and putting in antifreeze or other chemicals. Also running through stills made of lead and car radiators for condensers etc. Again, there is nothing in good moonshine that isn't in wine or beer already. If fores are tossed out and all precautions are taken from the still being built to the wash being fermented and proper cuts being made, there isn't much danger with the exception of the fact of the flammability of the product and boiling hot liquids.
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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by woodenhead » Tue Jun 09, 2009 10:55 am

I thank everyone for there help in this matter I will not just jump in to this, but I do feel the urge to have to take the plunge. I have been doing all the reading I can (this forum is awsome). It sounds to me like grandps was a little crude in his moonshine making. Beer and wine are a fun hobbies but I can see distilling is where its at. again thanx for the reasurance and I am sure you haven't heard the last of me.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Dnderhead » Tue Jun 09, 2009 12:46 pm

lets not blame all the "old shiners" the knowledge was not available, the materials was not available and the list go on.
Ive seen many on hear that "could have" ended up the same ,,,can I use this,,, with a kick in the pants and a big NO NO NO!
thanks to this site their headed it the right direction,today it is plastics,rubber,glue, aluminum and some of the solders.
before useing/doing anything different first do a search if you cant fiend the info you want THEN ASK.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by blanikdog » Tue Jun 09, 2009 5:52 pm

Bloody well said, dunder.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by DamianRyan » Sun Jun 14, 2009 11:00 pm

This site tickles me pink I tell ya! I'm learning so much it's incredible and all thanks to the generous contributions of so many thanks all of you.
Now if this citrus ferment I'm doing works out I'll let you all know. Damian

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by DestructoMutt » Sun Jul 12, 2009 5:36 pm

good work GB.

i think an adjustment in the definition of "heads" is in order though, as there is no one substance that ccomprises heads. foreshots are the substances before the ethanol and then the body/hearts is the ethanol.

Heads are the transistion from foreshots to body/hearts, and are therefore a combination of foreshots and hearts.

When making nuetral product you can limit the amount of heads through better separation of foreshots and body/hearts by letting your system (if you are running a reflux head still) run in equilibrium until the head temperature drops. it is a natural occurring phenomenon that takes time to happen. the time it takes to occur is dependent on your system/apparatus and your wash.

you can also minimize the amount of heads you get from a pot still by turning down the heat during warm-up. bringing the pot up to boil slowly, will give the foreshots more time to be the first ones liberated from the wash, so to speak.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by DrinkofChoice » Wed Aug 11, 2010 6:21 am

I gotta say, this is, by far, the most useful post that I have seen so far. Of course, I'm a beginner. As time passes, I'm sure that I'll be oo-ing and ah-ing at all the other posts like everyone else has.

Gingerbreadman -- you did a great job at summarizing what distillation is and how it's done. The only thing holding me back are my cruddy memorization skills. Once those kick in, I'll be sure to try out some techniques. Thanks for posting this information in such a "scientific" manner. Very well explained!

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by dallman » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:55 pm

This helps. Thanks

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by singlemaltluv » Thu Feb 24, 2011 9:03 am

This has been a great read I've taken a lot from it. Thanks Guys

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by GuessX » Wed Dec 14, 2011 5:17 pm

Oh wow, thank you guys for this post.

I've been racking my brain to really understand what the difference between the different types of stills are.

Clearly outlined above. Looks like I'll be creating a pot still in the early new year :)

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Xcoasty99 » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:56 pm

Good stuff!

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Post by WhyZed » Tue Mar 27, 2012 10:21 am

GingerBreadMan wrote:More definitions and terms can be found at the wiki here -
I've read this before and I'm still confused. :oops:

Quote from link..
"To make a grain mash for whiskey : Heat 4 kg cracked or crushed malt with 18 L of water to 63-65 &degC, and hold there for 1-1.5 hours. Heat to 73-75 &degC, then strain off and keep liquid, using 250 mL of hot water to rinse the grains. Cool to below 30 &degC (should have an initial specific gravity of 1.050). Add hydrated yeast & leave to ferment."

What do I do with this "kept liquid"?
I'm a power sipper.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by Prairiepiss » Tue Mar 27, 2012 12:12 pm

That's the wort. That's the liquid you are going to ferment.

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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by chris_adams » Sat Jun 02, 2012 8:39 am

Wow. I've learned a lot from this! Superb! Thanks :D
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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Post by zerothrill » Wed Jun 06, 2012 10:03 am

Very useful information. :clap:

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