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, keeping in mind the first spirit you want to make. For example, 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. Rum can be as simple as putting some molasses, water, and yeast in a bucket and waiting for fermentation. Sugarheads are just as easy. Both of these are perfect for beginners.

What exactly is distillation?

Distillation is the process heating a fluid to its boiling point, causing a change of phase from liquid to vapor, and then condensing the vapors collected from the boiling vessel. The boiling vessel, commonly referred to as a boiler, is heated either externally or internally to heat the fluid inside which is often called the boiler charge or wash, adding energy to excite the fluid’s molecules to initiate the phase change. As the fluid vaporizes, the vapors will expand and exit the boiler through an outlet, sometimes called a riser or column, and proceed to a condenser where heat is removed and the vapors are condensed into liquid form.

Legality

It is very likely that home distillation of spirits is not legally allowed in your area. Research whether or not home distillation is legal in your area.

Homedistiller.org is for educational purposes only and shall not be held liable for execution of any illegal activity. Our intent is to promote safety through sharing of knowledge. It is always the responsibility of the reader to seek and understand the laws which pertain to their respective jurisdiction.

In New Zealand distilling spirits at home is a legal activity. In most 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. This 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 Brazil it is legal to distill but not to sell unless you are a registered producer.
In the US it is illegal on a federal level to distill except in an approved Distilled Spirits Plant: CFR 27; Chapter 1; Subchapter A; Part 19; Subpart C; Section 51
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 which can be harmful if you don't understand the danger. These pages should be read and understood.

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.

Here are a few good starting points.

How are various spirits made?

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

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

Know the Definitions of Wash, Mash, Wort, Must and Marc.

Sugar Washes: Spirits created using plain sugar with the end goal being a neutral spirit.

Sugarheads: Spirits created using plain sugar combined with grains or other flavoring agents. These are simple, do not require a lot of specialized equipment, and can make some very high quality spirits which is why they are a great place for beginners to start.

Base Flavor Spirits: Whiskey, rum, brandy and so on develop their flavors from their base ingredients. Whiskey is made from grains and in essence is distilled beer, minus the hops. It takes some time and equipment to get to the point of fermentation. Rum is made with generally made with molasses or sugar cane or sugar. Brandy is made with fruit juices or chopped whole fruit.

Vodka and Neutrals: These are made to have very little flavor other than the taste of ethanol itself. They can be produced from various ingredients including grains, sugar, potatoes and so on. Neutral spirit can be drunk straight, as a mixer or used as a base for other spirit types such as gin and cordials to name a few.

Gin: A spirit which is flavored primarily with juniper berries and then redistilled. There are three major styles of Gin:

  • 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 which is then distilled as normal. Genever is an example of this style.

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

Stills: Types and what they are used to make?

There are two basic types 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 is to understand the difference between the boiler, where the wash is heated, and the column, where the vapor is guided and then collected. You can have one boiler which can use more than one type of column to produce different spirit types.

  • Pot stills The simplest apparatus used for distillation is a “pot still” and accomplishes a single distillation. The pot still includes a boiler and a product condenser, and typically a riser and lyne arm, which is the pipe branch which connects the riser to the product condenser. With its single distillation, the pot still will produce products with flavors respective of the boiler charge. Therefore, a pot still is favored for producing whiskies, brandies, and rums as well as other full-flavored spirits. Typically the product from 2-times pot still distillation is at, or near to cask entry strength, or between 110 to 140 proof (55% to 70% ABV).
This method of distillation allows all available flavors and ethanol components (good and not so good) to be collected, leaving it up to the distiller which to later keep or discard. Today, many smaller and boutique distilleries employ pot stills to batch-produce a spirit of maximum flavor while forfeiting the efficiency and volume of a continuous maximum-capacity still.
  • Reflux stills For the multiple distillations needed to produce a higher purity product, a reflux still generates many cycles of condensation and reboiling in series inside the column during a single run. The reflux action, i.e. repeated condensation and reboiling of the vapors, separates volatile components from the less volatile. Reflux stills can be very versatile, depending on the design and packing of the column. This means that they can produce flavorful brandies, whiskies and so on if the packing is not highly efficient. This can be accomplished with a short section of packing or by running with decreased cooling to the column. Alternatively, some reflux stills can produce high purity products, often with light or delicate flavors typical in neutral spirits and/or vodka. For example, a reflux still with a longer section of packing or run with a lot of cooling to the column will produce a higher proof and thus more pure spirit.
Many types of reflux stills have been developed to produce specific products or to manage operation of the reflux process. Packed columns utilize an assortment of materials in the column to aid in the heat transfer from rising hot vapors to the cool falling condensate. The packing provides a surface onto which the vapors can condense and from which the condensate can re-vaporize. Packing materials can be wire mesh, copper being the preferred material, lava rocks, or even glass marbles.
Another type of reflux column is the plated column, sometimes called a “flute” because its design is reminiscent of the musical instrument. Each plate generates another distillation, or reflux cycle. Typically, the plated column has fewer than 6 or 8 plates and therefore does not produce the high purity capable with a packed column. However, the plated column will produce a more flavorful spirit than a packed column and yet at a proof higher than a simple pot still.
One element common to reflux stills, either a packed column or plated column, is the reflux condenser. The reflux condenser is needed to create the condensation of the vapors rising through the column in order to send it back down the column as needed for the reflux process.”
  • Condenser Controlled Column aka CCVM, a vapor-management reflux still where the reflux coil replaces the physical takeoff valve by positioning it in front of the takeoff arm. Minor adjustments to its position/height allow the distiller to direct a prescribed amount of vapor to be taken off or be returned to the column (reflux ratio) for further distillation. One of the easiest stills to make. Can be built with simple hand tools and purchased parts.

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

Whisky Advocate: Know Your Stills to Know Your Whiskey - video

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 food-grade bucket suitable for fermentation.
  • Boil kettle - The part of the still which contains the wash while it is heated up.
  • Lyne arm - Upper part of a pot still where vapor exits the boiler.
  • Column - The part of a fractionating or reflux still which the vapor passes through on the way 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 your spirits?
  • Bottling - What kind of bottles are you going to use? How will you fill them?

Additional equipment

  • Refractometer - A more accurate upgrade to the hydrometer for determining specific gravity.
  • pH strips or meter - Gives you the pH of a fermenting wash. A great tool for understanding why a ferment is stuck. Not required as it won't be used too often.

For Rums and Sugarheads there is very little equipment needed. A carboy or fermenting bucket, yeast, and an airlock (optional depending on style), and a pH meter is about it. Further down the road you can pick up other tools to measure temp, 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.

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