New Distillers FAQ

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Homedistiller Mini-FAQ Mirror

Version 1.02 February 17, 2008

This FAQ has been compiled and is maintained by the worldwide members of the Homedistiller Forums. This guide has been put together to help people new to the craft of hobby distilling find answers to many of the initial questions they have. This is the “mini” version of the FAQ. It has purposely been written to only touch on a small subset of issues. More detailed information can be found in the New Distiller Reading Lounge.

Is this safe / am I going to get blown up / am I going to go blind?

We as a community, feel that putting the SAFETY question first and foremost, emphasizes its importance. Distilling is not an overly dangerous hobby, but it is certainly NOT risk free either.

Working with a still is not a totally safe operation, but there are some things and procedures which can make it much safer, and there are some things to avoid, things which “can” cause a still to blow up, or you to poison yourself.

  • First: One big thing is to NEVER EVER leave a working still unattended. Always monitor the stills functionality, making sure that it is working properly, and not becoming dangerous (such as if the cooling system fails).
  • Second: ALL stills must be open to the atmosphere. They should NOT be closed. A closed still will build up pressure, and can blow up. An open still, will have part of the still (after the condenser) fully open to the atmosphere. You must design your still, so that there is no pressure buildup, EVER.
  • Third: Alcohol vapor is flammable, and if concentrated enough, it can be explosive. Be sure that the condenser in your still is knocking down all of the vapors when running, and not leaking vapor into the work area. Also, if using a flame to distill, be sure that the collection container is located a ways away from the heat source. Keep a fire extinguisher (or several) VERY handy, just in case.
  • Fourth: Label ALL of your collected distillate. Foreshots (earliest out of the still), can be poisonous, and must be marked clearly so as not to be drunk. 90% (or 95%) ethanol produced from a reflux column still is very dangerous, and must not be drunk without reducing the strength of the ethanol. Label collection containers and bottles clearly, to keep from harming yourself or others.

This hobby is NOT for someone who will not put in the time to monitor what is going on.

Forum thread discussing safety

As for going blind / poisoning yourself or others, if proper distillation techniques are observed, and your still was manufactured using ONLY safe materials, the end product will be as safe as ethanol (which is somewhat of a poison itself), can be. Proper still construction, and proper removal of the unwanted congeners (methanol, ethyl acetate and other higher alcohols) will produce a drink which is as good (and often much better), than commercially produced spirits.

What is distillation?

Distillation of ethanol is the boiling and re-condensing of a mixture of ethanol, water and some trace liquids (congeners, fusel oils and higher alcohols); in an attempt to reduce the percentage of water, while increasing the percentage of ethanol and while removing all or most of the other trace liquids. This happens due to water and ethanol having different boiling points. Ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, and thus, the vapor boiling off of a mixture of water and ethanol will have a higher concentration of ethanol than the liquid from which the vapor came from. Distillation is simply the art of controlling and perfecting this property.

Good resource for distillation theory.

How does one create ethanol?

Ethanol is a natural byproduct of a lowly single celled fungus (yeast) processing and consuming glucose (sugar) in an anaerobic state (without oxygen). Yeast is a living organism, and the process of creation of ethanol is a natural process which has been harnessed by mankind for thousands of years. Yeast can produce only so much ethanol before it poisons itself and dies. Different yeast strains have different tolerances to the ethanol that they create. Thus different strains of yeast can produce different maximal percentages of ethanol.

What is needed for fermentation to work?

Fermentation is simple, but it is not a trivial task. One can not simply dump some sugar into water, dump in some yeast, and end up with much ethanol. Again, yeast is a living organism. It requires several things to survive and thrive. First off, it needs oxygen to reproduce. Thus, there needs to be some dissolved oxygen in the wash (sugar mixture which you are fermenting), when the wash is first started. This will allow the yeast colony to multiply to strong numbers. However, to produce ethanol, you need to have an oxygen free environment. Thus, after this initial starting of the yeast colony, the mash must be kept O2 free. Another thing which yeast needs to thrive is some nutrients. Sugar will not sustain the yeast (the sugar is actually ripped apart by the yeast cells, for the yeast to obtain its supply of oxygen, and part of the waste product of this process is the ethanol). There are many things which you can “feed” your yeast colony with, from commercial concoctions, to cracked grains, to old bread to crushed corn flakes (cereal).

Here are a few good fermentation recipes:

I found this great Turbo ... yeast. It produces 20%. Tell me more.

First thing, if you have not spent your money on the turbo yeast yet, you will be better off not spending the money on it, and using a GOOD neutral wash, such as Birdwatchers recipe listed above (UJSM Uncle Jesse's Simple Sour Mash, or Deathwish wheat germ also can produce a nice neutral).

A turbo is more than just yeast. It will have LOTS of nutrients added, and PH buffers. Turbos can be easy to use, however they do produce quite a lot of off flavors (which can be hard to remove). Turbos can produce acceptable product, if you DO NOT try to push a turbo to the claimed "max" ABV amount. The yeast may be able to do it (its max advertised ABV), but you will end up with a whole LOT of off flavored (i.e. terrible flavored) product, and by the time you clean it up, you may end up with the same (or less) product than if you tried to produce a 12% to 14% ABV wash from the outset. You can use a turbo if you like, however, your product will never be the quality you can get by doing something like birdwatchers recipe, keeping your equipment and methods sanitary.

Which type of still (Pot/Reflux) is better?

Both types of stills are better for certain tasks. A pot still is a very versatile still. It is used to produce flavored drinks (such as whiskey, rum, schnapps), or to quickly reduce the volume of a finished wash and remove any suspended yeast cells (called a stripping run). A reflux still, is designed to produce a flavorless, odorless product, such as vodka (neutral). So, the “better” type of still depends upon what you want to produce. If you wish to produce strong neutral ethanol (for flavoring with fruits, essences, or other items), then the type of still you need is the reflux still. Also, for producing fuel ethanol, a column reflux still is a must. However, if you are making whiskey, rum or other flavored drink, then a pot still will perform the task much better. Many hobby distillers have both types of stills. Also, if you are a DIY type, you can even create multiple still heads which can be attached to the same boiler, thus allowing you to choose the proper still for the task at hand.

OK, I want to get into this. What should I build my still out of?

A still should be built out of materials which are safe, and produce safe, non toxic output, and which will hold up under the harsh environment in which distillation takes place. The materials which are tried and tested for making stills are stainless steel, and copper. These materials hold up well in the environment, and produce a product which does not have toxic metals or other toxic chemicals. For joining copper tubing, one must be SURE to use a lead free (and preferably food grade) solder. Using a lead solder should strictly never be done in a still. The lead WILL leach into the resultant distillate, and lead poisoning is a very bad thing.

OK, I have read A7, but what about plastics?

Plastics have no place in the distillation process (other than HDPE containers can be used in the fermentation process). Strong ethanol (especially HOT/BOILING and in vapor), is an extremely strong solvent. It will literally leach chemical out of many plastic products. Many are simply not safe to use, thus this community has simply taken the safe stance of stating “There is no safe usage of plastics in the distillation process”. Also, storage of high proof ethanol in plastic containers is not a good idea either. Some people do this, and even a few lower commercial products are stored in plastic. However, the plastics do leach out, and this community STRONGLY recommends not using plastics. Some places to be cautious (even if your still was commercially manufactured), is using plastic tubing to join the copper tubing, or plastic tubing on the “take off” of the still (i.e. after the vapor has been condensed). This subject seems to always generate lots of heated discussion. But this community is VERY serious about keeping plastics (of ALL kinds) out of the distillation process.

Can you provide simple step-by-step instructions on running my still?

There will be two answers here, as a pot still, and a reflux still require quite different processing steps:

Here are steps for running a reflux still, about the 3rd or 4th post has a very good description of a stripping and spirit run with a reflux still.

Also check out our pages of calculators.

I just ran my pot still to produce my whiskey, and it came out clear. Did I mess something up?

Nope. That is simply what a “raw” whiskey (rum, etc) looks like. This raw whiskey may also be a quite a bit harsher than you would like it to be. Well, the golden brown / amber color of whiskey (or many other flavored drinks), and the smoother flavor, comes from an aging procedure. Aging is frequently done with toasted or charred oak barrels, or using charred or toasted oak sticks. The aging process is a rather complex process. There are numerous threads in the “Flavoring and Aging” section of the Homedistiller Forums.

What can I use to power my still?

Most hobby distilling is done using electric hot plates, electric water heater elements or propane (or natural gas) burners. Other sources can be wood or coal fire, but these heating sources are more difficult to control. Much of the skill in making quality product is being able to maintain the proper power input to the still (and being able to maintain the cooling levels, by controlling the flow of cooling water).

Here are some articles on heat sources:

What is a hydrometer / alcoholometer and when / how are they used?

Both the hydrometer (beer or wine hydrometer), and the alcoholometer are designed to measure specific gravity, but their scale of reading and method of proper usage is very different.

The hydrometer is a tool that measures specific gravity from slightly less dense than water, to about 112% the density of water. A beer/wine hydrometer is used to measure the "potential" alcohol that a wash has, and then when the wash is finished, they hydrometer can determine the actual ABV of the finished wash. See also: Hydrometer

The alcoholometer is a tool that has a scale which is calibrated to measure the percent ABV (or proof) of H2O and ethanol. That is all it is designed for. If there are other substances in the liquid other than ethanol and H2O, then the readings on a alcoholometer are bogus. Thus, you can not measure ABV in highly sugared spirits with an alcoholometer. Also, you can not measure the ABV of mash with one (because there is a LOT more than simply H2O and ethanol in the mash/wash, even when it is "finished". Also see Alcoholometer

Great information, but what additional resources are there for the beginner?

The Homedistiller Forum contains a GREAT wealth of information. There is also a wiki database for this forum. Also the parent web site is a huge repository for hobby distillation, and is frequently viewed as THE source. Within this forum, the forums are grouped into different “categories”, and there is a search capability which allows you to search for specific things, and quickly find them. Another good resource is the yahoo groups “new-distillers” forum. The yahoo forums do get a lot of activity also, but they lack in the category grouping, and are more difficult to read a “thread”. However, there is lots of information to be found there.

Be sure to read the Homedistiller Forum rules

The Rules by Which We Live

A list of good links for the beginning distiller

Good still plans