Beginner's Guide

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Welcome to the Home Distiller's Beginner's Guide. Use this page to begin your journey.

Beginning your journey

Start by reading this page completely and going through the reading list. Then think about what you want to make. For instance whiskey is basically boiled beer minus the hops. If you've never brewed beer before you can try something easier to make like a Rum or Sugarhead. It requires very little equipment. Rum can be as simple as putting some molasses, water, and yeast in a bucket and waiting. Sugarheads are just as easy.

Legality

As a general rule, it is very likely that, in your jurisdiction, distilling spirits at home is not legally allowed. Do your research to know whether distilling spirits at home is within the bounds of legality where you live.

In New Zealand distilling spirits at home is a legal activity. In other countries home distilling is either forbidden or subject to legal constraint: In Hungary, Bulgaria and possibly other EU countries, it is possible to distill at home subject to local regulation, which includes paying a fixed excise tax, which is typically not collected for political reasons; In Austria and Germany the local regulation allows the distillation of spirits with small stills; In Italy and in other EU countries it is legal to distill essential oils at home, subject to regulation; In the Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia common stills exist, which can be operated subject to regional regulation; In the US it is legal in most jurisdictions to distill alcohol as fuel, subject to regulation and obtaining a permit.

Safety

We at Home Distiller take safety extremely seriously. It is easy to be safe but there are pieces that can be harmful if you don't understand the danger.

Setting up and using your Home Distiller Account

The Home Distiller Forums reading lists

Reading list for beginners: As you start your journey you need to read. And read. And read more. This is not a good hobby to just try out without researching. Bad things can happen easily.

What are the different Spirits made with?

What is: Whiskey - Rum - Brandy - Vodka - Gin - Sugarheads - Cordials - and Liqueurs - Other Spirit types

You can also look at flavor profiles here: Spirit Style Guide and Developing a Flavor Profile

Base Flavor Spirits: Whiskey, Rum and Brandy develop their flavors from their base ingredients. Whiskey is made with grains and in essence is distilled beer (minus the hops). It takes the most time and equipment to get to a point of fermentation. Rum is made with molasses or a form of it. Brandy is made with fruit juices.

Vodka and Neutrals: Vodka and Neutrals are made to have very little flavor. They can be made with either grains, sugar or sometime potatoes. They can be drunk straight, as a mixer or used as a base for other spirit types - Gin, Cordials, etc.

Gins and Sugarheads: These are flavored spirits. The main characteristic of this category of flavored spirit is that they are flavored and then redistilled. There are three major types of Gins/Sugarheads:

Vapor Infusion: Using a neutral as a base, botanicals are used to infuse flavor in the vapor path of the still.
Spirit Maceration: Using a neutral spirit as a base, flavoring agents are macerated into the spirit. They can be used as a finished spirit or distilled again.
Wash Maceration: During fermentation flavoring agents are added to the wash. It is then distilled as normal. Genever is an example of this style.

Cordials & Liqueurs: These use a base spirit, generally Vodka/neutral or brandy, and then flavoring and sweetening agents are incorporated. They are not redistilled.

Stills: Types and what they are used to make?

There are two major classes of stills: Pot and reflux. Most stills are some type of hybrid or are able to be modified from one to the other. One key to understand the boiler, where the wash is heated, and the column, where the vapor is guided and then collected. This way you can have one boiler with more than one type of column to produce different spirit types.

Pot stills are the simplest still there is. It's the original still. It's still extremely popular and in common use in distilleries around the world. It the best for use with Base Flavor spirits as it lets the ingredients flavor come over into the distillate. The downside to Pot stills is that they are not super efficient and can only make a high proof spirit after multiple runs.
Reflux Stills stills are more complicated. They employ plates or packing to help yield a higher alcohol content beverage on the first run without the need for second or further runs. The downside is that they reduce the flavor of the base ingredients more than a pot still.
Condenser Controlled Columns A type of relux still. Most commonly setup as CCVM (Condenser Controlled - Vapor Management).
Bokabob A version of CCVM.
Types of Stills - LM, VM, CM Describes in more detail the differences between the still types and how you control the output of the still. As a new distiller this is a bit complex so it's good to revisit this after you've been reading about distilling for a little bit.

For a more in depth understand read Stills and rgreen's How to choose the right still.

Some still diagrams: Diagrams and Plans Thread

Once you have a still learn how to clean it and prep it for your first run: Cleaning a new still

What kind of equipment do I need?

Basic

Fermentation vessel - can be as simple as a carboy or fermentation bucket.
Boil Kettle - As a part of the still, the part that holds the wash when it is heated up.
Column - The part of the still that the vapor goes through to the Condenser.
Condenser - The part of the still that cools the vapor recondensing it into a liquid.
Cooling water - The water used to cool the condenser. Will you be using tap water or a closed loop cooling system? Learn about valves to control water flow.
Heat source - How will you heat up the boil kettle?
Bulk Spirit Storage - Once you're done with the run and before you bottle it, where will you store the spirit, be it low or high wines?
Bottling - What kind of bottles are you going to use? How will you fill them?

Additional equipment

Hydrometer - SG & Spirit - While not required equipment, these two are next to it. Reading the SG of a wash lets you know how much longer it has to go or if it's stuck. Spirit hydrometers give you the ABV or Proof of a spirit.
Refractometer - SG & Spirit Thermometer - An upgrade to the hydometer, give you the same results will less product required.
pH strips or meter - Gives you the pH of a ferment. A great tool for understanding why a ferment is stuck. Not required as it won't be used too often.
Gin Basket or Carterhead - Used in Vapor Infusion of botanicals for gin, absinthe, etc. Not needed unless you are making something that requires it.

For Rums and Sugarheads there is very little equipment needed. A carboy or fermenting bucket, yeast, and an airlock (optional depending on style) is about it. Further down the road you can pick up other tools to measure temp, pH, temp control, etc. Sugarheads are especially good for beginners as you can mimic other styles with little effort.

For Brandy you'll just need fruit juice and yeast to make the base wine. Again a carboy and airlock is all you need for equipment. If you want to mash the fruit you'll need crushing equipment. Brandies require a little more effort than Rums/Sugarheads but not a lot.

For Whiskeys you can go one of two ways: Extract or All Grain. For extracts it's simple. Just mix extract, water & yeast in a carboy. That's about it. For All Grain it requires some pretty involved equipment - Grain mill (if not buying pre-crushed grains), a mash tun, hot liquor tank as well as a carboy/fermentation bucket. It can be expensive depending on how large a batch you are making. Learn about how different grains taste as a spirit: Grain Flavor Profiles. As a special note to former homebrewers: During Saccharification distillers want to convert all starches to fermentable sugars. Learn how to check for complete conversion here: Iodine starch test. Unfermenatable sugars have no effect on the spirit flavor. We keep our conversion temps to the mid or low 140s f. This also increases alcohol yield.

Vodka/neutrals can be made from a sugar base or grains. A sugar base will be as simple as a Sugarhead. Grain based will be similar to whiskey. Potato vodka is somewhere in between.

Distilling

All of this leads us to why you're here: Learning how to distill. The full details are here: Distillation.

Understanding Fractions & Cuts

Distilling separates the fractions. Read these links below to understand what that means.

Blending, Dilution, Aging, Flavoring

Congrats, you now have your product! At this point you can drink it as is or process it more.

Learn about aging in Barrels and Oaking
Try different Woods for aging

Starting Out

Before you start anything you should have a good basic understanding of the above topics. Now it's time to start planning your first spirit. For complete newbies and for sacrificial runs Wineo's Plain Sugar Wash is a very cheap way to create a high alcohol wash. Wineo's recipe will create a neutral/vodka spirit. It can be drunk straight, as a mixer or used as a base for a Liqueur or Cordial. After 3-6 times runs on your still you'll likely have a good understanding of how to run your still. At that point you can move on to something more expensive or complicated without as much fear of ruining it.

Moving on from the basics

Once you get the hang of things you can start to make it your own: Developing a Flavor Profile. Use this chart to find what flavors you like/dislike in a spirit and figure out to enhance or remove those flavors, learn how to mimic a commercial spirit or go off on a new path.

External Links