Basic Distillation 101

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Basic Distillation 101

Postby 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.

Mod edit: Original Post: viewtopic.php?f=15&t=6243
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Postby 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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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Postby 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.


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


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Re: Basic Distillation 101

Postby 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

Postby 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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