Planning your first Run
Plan your work, work your plan, clean as you go.
Distilling is dangerous. You need to be alert the entire time. It can take 2-5 hours for a run. Plan your time appropriately. You should never leave your still once you turn it on until you turn it off. Don't do this drunk. Seriously. It's a really bad idea. Late night runs can be bad too. You need your wits about you in case something starts to happen. You should plan your run when you are least likely to be distracted. If you ever need to walk away from your still TURN IT OFF.
Choosing a location
When you are planing your run there's a few things to understand. Safety needs to be key.
- Ethanol vapors are highly flammable. While you should not get any vapors out of the still but you should plan for that regardless. Having a supply of fresh air and moving air around while distilling is a good idea to keep any ethanol vapors below dangerous levels. A small fan near the still will be fine. It does not need to be pointed at the still.
- Distilling creates a lot of heat for a long period of time. You'll want someplace that has a the ability to vent heat so that the room doesn't get too hot. Think of boiling a pot of water for 2-4 hours. That is equivalent to what you'll be doing.
- If you are using a propane burner you will need to be in an area that you can get tons of fresh air. Carbon Monoxide if one the things in distilling that can actually kill you. An open garage door is fine. Outside is best.
- With electric heat you'll be taxing the circuit. If you plan on running anything else on that circuit you may overload it. Since you're working with water it should be GFCI. If it isn't you can get a power strip with an overload breaker. Any extension cords should be heavy duty. For 220v make sure you have enough cord length to reach where you want to put the still. For 220 make sure you have the proper wiring put in place. Swapping out a 30amp breaker for a 50 amp doesn't mean you're ok. You need to have the correct wiring for it.
Cold Water Supply
- You'll need a supply of cool water for the condenser or worm and dephlegmator if you have one. This will vary based on your still size. Most smaller still will need small amounts of water. This water does not need to be potable (drinkable) as it will not touch the distillate. A hose run from any facet is fine.
Hot Water Removal
- A little more complicated is removing the hot water. The water coming out of a condenser will eventually be hot. It can reach 160f-180f. It is not a good idea to put this water directly into a sink or drain. You can drain it into a metal pot or bucket and dump it someplace safe once you collect a couple gallons. If you have two pots/buckets this works well. If you're in the garage you can drain it into the driveway. Be careful with draining it into a yard. That hot of water will kill grass or other plants. Or if you have enough containers you can wait until they cool to ~120f and then dump it in a drain.
- After your run you'll need to deal with what's left in the still. It's going to be hot, fairly acidic, may contain solids like mash, and is generally at least mildly stanky. You can choose to let it sit in the still until it is cooled then dump it. If you have a copper still this isn't a great option. You can also dump it into a metal bucket or pot. Once cooled you can dump it down the drain.
Prep your equipment in place
Put your still where you want to make the run. Assemble it without anything in it. Start hooking up everything. Make adjustments as necessary. Think about all the different piece there are to a run - collection, water on/off, adjusting the heater, charging the still, emptying the still, air flow, etc. Some basic questions:
- Is anything close to where you are flammable or would melt?
- How easy will it be to access everything once the still is too hot to touch like: Will you burn your self trying to get to the water flow?
- Is anything touching the still that will be damaged by the heat?
- Does the hot water have an easy path out? Will it flow easy or will it get backed up?
- Where are you going to put the collection jars/flasks/etc that is SAFE and can handle the weight of the vessel plus the liquid? This is both for when collecting the product as well as before and after.
- When are you going to charge it? Before or after everything is in place?
- How are you going to charge it?
Prepping your still
Clean it up
- Make sure everything is clean. It doesn't need to be sanitary. The heat and high alcohol content will do that. Get any dust or left over grime from previous runs off so that it can't affect the operation of the equipment or negatively affect the flavor.
Ensure the vapor path is open
- The still needs to have an appropriately sized opening. This ensures that pressure does not build up in the still as it is operating, and does not collapse as it is cooling down due to vacuum pressure. Stills operate with very little pressure. It can build up and become dangerous. If left unchecked it can explode.
Hoses and connections
- On the cold water side the hoses you use aren't super important. The hot water side is very important. If you use a standard water hose it can melt. Silicon works well but can be easy to kink. Fittings are not a huge concern. Small amounts of leaking is fine as long as it doesn't get into your distillate. Once hooked up pressure test everything at full pressure. While it is unlikely you'll use full pressure you may accidentally open it to full pressure. If hoses pop off then you will be scrambling to fix it in the middle of a run.
- Put your still together in the location you want to use. Hook everything up as you were going to make your run. Make sure you have all the hoses hooked up. Pressure test everything. Make sure none of the hoses are touching the still.
- Flour Seals, aka Distiller's biscuits, are use to seal any joints against leakage. Ethanol is highly flammable and you'll also lose a lot of product if you don't seal the still up tight. Mix 3 parts Flour to one part water. It should make a nice dryish paste like bread dough. If it's too wet add more flour, if it's too dry as a little more water. Roll it out into a 1/2" log. Once the still starts getting almost too hot to touch add the paste to any joints.
Initial cleaning runs for your still
When you buy or build your still there will likely be remnants of construction materials on it. To clean your still of these contaminates it you should do a vinegar and sacrificial clean runs. Combined the acids and the alcohol will remove anything that would contaminate or taint your spirit.
Vinegar Cleaning Run
Charge your still with a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. If this is your first run on your still it is a good time to check for leaks. This run will not mimic a run with alcohol. Vinegar has a boiling point above water. If you don't have tri-clamp fittings you'll need to Flour Seal any joints to make sure there is ZERO leakage. Hot ethanol vapor is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE at relatively low temps. Make your Flour Seals and put them in place. Once the still gets up to temp check to make sure there are no leaks on any joints. Use this first run to start playing with the condenser/worm. Don't let the condenser overheat. Feel the heat of the condenser tube from the bottom to the top. A well balanced condenser will be cool at the bottom and slightly too hot to touch at the top. If it's cold at the top you're putting too much water through it. If you're getting puffing - where you see steam come out of the condenser, you're overpowering the cooling capacity of the condenser. Lower the power and/or increase the water until there is no more steam. One word of advice - it's going to stink. Make sure you have lots of fresh air for this. Run this for 20-30 minutes after you start producing.
Ferment something cheap like a Birdwatcher's Wash. This will be run through the still to clean it out of the remaining contaminates and residual vinegar. The output from this run will not taste good. Dump it when complete, don't drink it. Prep your still as you did for the cleaning run. Flour Seal your joints well or make sure any clamps are tight. This run is good to learn how your still operates. Treat it like a spirit run. Go to Spirit Run Process and follow the instructions there. Just remember to not drink the output from this run. Once this step is complete your still will be cleaned up and ready to go!