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The Science of Whiskey Barrels

                    

There has been a recent trend in the small, independently brewed liquor makers’ community.  While men and women all over the world have entrusted their palates to fine liquor makers from established distilleries, there has been growing interest among newcomers to the market, and liquor enthusiasts to produce their own spirits.  There can be no mistaking the allure of creating your own concoctions, whether it is whiskey, gin, or any other potent potables.  This is why consumers have looked to our website seeking, for example, a 1 gallon copper moonshine still for sale.  However, what is often forgotten among whiskey makers is the inclusion of an extra phase in this particular drink’s production: barrels. 

While other drinks do not necessarily require the utilization of barrels, such as vodka or white whiskey, the ultimate concoction of a fine whiskey often arises from time spent within barrels.  Barrels, as you may well be aware, can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  If you’ve ever seen a pirate movie, you’ve probably seen barrels of rum or other liquids on the decks of their ships.  If you’ve seen a Jameson commercial, you’ve probably seen the eponymous character making some daring act or other in defense of his precious whiskey.  However, what you may not realize is how specific and, really, how special the construction of these barrels actually is.

The choice of wood for the barrels often varies, with oak being among the preferred wood types.  Because of the alcohol content in whiskey, it acts as a solvent, causing it to break down the compounds contained within the wood of the barrels.  As such, the drink which ultimately is borne from this time within the barrel takes on many of the flavors lying dormant within the staves.  What eventually finds its way into the bottles (where the aging process is ended) comes from the effects of both the distillation process and the aging process within the barrels.  In fact, many independent makers prefer to utilize smaller barrels in an effort to maximize the inner surface of the barrel interacting with the liquid.  If a whiskey enthusiast were to buy 1 gallon copper moonshine still and then produce whiskey to be stored in smaller, well-crafted barrels, they would be very happy with the results of this aging process.

Therefore, it is necessary for anyone interested in distilling whiskey and aging it in barrels to select the right ones for the job.  While many independent confectioners and whiskey hobbyists may be incline to skip the aging step altogether, it should be noted that the aging process is often said to account for as much as 60% of the whiskey’s eventual flavor.  Additionally, the added factors involved with storage location (indoors or outdoors, warm weather or cold weather, rough or still conditions, etc.) will also be primary factors governing the effects upon the finished product. 

While the importance of barrels in making whiskey cannot be ignored, I caution you not to undervalue the still's impact upon the finished product.  A 1 gallon copper moonshine still for sale on our company’s website will no doubt prove to be a versatile tool in creating many different types of liquor, including but not limited to rum, cider, whiskey, and vodka.  However, with the purchase of small and finely constructed barrels, you could even age your own whiskey and, a few years from now, reap the benefits of this patient and thoughtful process.  If you do decide to make the dual investment of time and effort, you cannot go wrong with the decision to buy 1 gallon copper moonshine still which is offered by our company.  This will no doubt be the first step in a glorious road towards your production of the finest spirits possible.

What is a Conical Column Whiskey Still and Why is it a Premium Design?

 

One of the most unique and efficient copper still designs is the “Kentucky” premium design - an 8 gallon moonshine still with a conical column that increases the “reflux” that occurs during your distillation. More reflux means a more finely distilled product, and that is great for certain types of high-quality alcohols, like the alcohol used for fuel. With a Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit you can distill alcohol at home - it won’t be safe for people to consume, but it will be amazing alcohol fuel for your equipment.

Many owners of equipment and machinery that run on ethanol-based fuels are finding the benefits of distilling their own ethanol at home. For anyone looking to distill alcohol at home for years to come, a premium conical column design, like the Kentucky, may be ideal. Especially, the best alcohol stills are copper, so they produce only the best ethanol. Of course, conical column stills make the finest essential oils, spirits, and water as well. Don’t doubt their versatility.

Why is reflux important in distilling?

During distilling “reflux” is when alcohol vapor condenses and is re-vaporized several times before being condensed into alcohol and staying that way. The additional steps create a distillate that is purer and more refined, without you having to put it through multiple distillations - it distills itself multiple times, making the work easier for you

Reflux occurs more in stills that have a conical, or “gooseneck” shape, at the top of their column. Although all still designs allow for some reflux, the farther away from the heat the vapor has to travel (up a conical column), the more likely it will cool enough to drip back into the boiler and need to be turned into vapor again. By the time you have collected all the distillate, you can rest assured that it has been refined multiple times through this reflux process.

Fewer Cuts With a Conical Whiskey Still

It is important, if you are distilling alcohol that people will drink, that you make the right cuts in your alcohol run. If you allow too much methanol into your moonshine or whiskey, it could make people sick. Methanol is poisonous to people. Typically, you will make three cuts during a whiskey or moonshine run, and you will with a conical still also, but you will collect dramatically more hearts and less feints.

If you are distilling alcohol for fuel, it is still important that you cut your run well, but you will probably only need to make 1 cut - after the foreshots. Depending on the machinery that your alcohol will be fueling, it may need ethanol of a certain purity, or certain types of alcohols (such as methanol) may be damaging to the engine. Always be knowledgeable about the specifics of your equipment when you distill alcohol at home to use as fuel in that equipment. After several runs and testing the quality of the alcohol from your conical column still, you may find that you don’t need to separate feints at all. If you do, they will be substantially less than with other moonshine still designs.

Industrial conical column whiskey stills are larger than life
(Photo by Richard Szwejkowski)

Easier Distilling, Purer Product

The bottom line is: a conical column whiskey still will give you a cleaner, purer distillate with less effort on your part, no matter what you’re distilling. This premium moonshine still design can be one of the best for certain types of essential oils, and it produces superior quality distilled water that can be used in situations that require the utmost sterility - like medical facilities and chemistry laboratories. But where it really shines is in producing the purest, most refined ethanol for your alcohol fuel or consumable spirits. When you need the most refined alcohol and a whiskey still that will last, choose a premium design like the Kentucky 8 gallon copper whiskey still.   

 

Article by: Jim Thomas

How Much Alcohol Will My Whiskey Still Make?

Although every copper moonshine still is different, many distillers start with a basic question like “how much moonshine will my still produce?” or “how much will I get out of my 5 gallon whiskey still?”

While there is no definitive answer - you will have to make 2 or 3 batches with your particular whiskey still to understand how it operates most efficiently - we can give you some general guidelines, so that you can adjust your methods if you aren’t producing moonshine efficiently.

Factors that Affect Yield

The alcohol proof of your final product will be based on a variety of factors - the strength of the ingredients in your mash, the chemistry of how those ingredients interact, and the efficiency of your distillation run. These factors contribute to the alcohol by volume of the mash and its alcohol wash, which is then distilled into your whiskey or moonshine. Consider how each of the following will help you make the most of each alcohol run.

Yeast and Sugar

There is a delicate science to combining the yeast and the sugar in your moonshine mash recipe so that the maximum amount of sugar is fermented into alcohol. Generally, more sugar is better, but too much is waste. In addition to finding the right proportion of yeast to sugar in your whiskey mash recipe, you will want to use a distiller’s yeast instead of regular bread yeast. Distiller’s yeast has been bred to withstand higher alcohol concentrations, and so can ferment more sugar in any moonshine mash recipe.

Using a Copper Still

Temperature control is extremely important in distilling alcohol, and copper stills definitely give moonshiners the best temperature control. Ethanol alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, and in a very precise range (typically 174-195 degrees Fahrenheit), so timing your run at this temperature is key. Because copper heats evenly, it is one of the most trusted materials for kitchen and distilling equipment, and using a copper still can help you maximize the amount of time you spend at the precise temperature for distilling the most ethanol.

General Alcohol Yields

You can generally assume that your alcohol still will produce a final batch that is about 20% of the size of your copper still’s pot. For example, the average run in a 5 gallon still can be expected to produce about a gallon or a gallon and a half of moonshine. Of course, the quality of the different batches of moonshine will vary depending on many factors - you may only get ¾ of a gallon in one batch, but with a very high proof and excellent quality. Or, you may run up a batch that ends with more than a gallon, but with more “feints” that will make their way into future runs.

Standard Yields:

Most standard distillation runs will yield about:

  • 3 - 6 cups of alcohol from a 1 gallon copper still
  • 1/2 - 1 gallon of alcohol from a 2.5 gallon copper still
  • 1 - 2 gallons of alcohol from a 5 gallon copper still
  • 2 - 5 gallons of alcohol from a 10 gallon copper still

Ending the Run

"Barrels" by William Warby

There are many clues that tell you when to end your whiskey run, but you can also guess at the end of a run based on the approximate quantity of moonshine you’ve collected. Most runs will still leave some wash at the “bottom of the barrel,” so don’t worry if you have distilled every last drop. It’s typically not worth running your copper still higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit on your run, so that is a good indication. Generally, a distillation run might only remove 85-90% of the alcohol from the wash, but that is good enough for most moonshiners.

Each distillation run on a copper whiskey still will result in a different amount of moonshine. While there is no exact formula to accurately predict exactly how much you will get out of any run, if you are not reaching numbers close to these, consider how changing some of the factors of your distillation process will allow you to get more product out of your copper moonshine still.


Article by: Jim Thomas

June 19, 2015

Posted in distilling, how to, law, permits, safety tips


The Truth About US Law and Distilling Alcohol at Home

Moonshiners in North Carolina - vintage postcard

Historically, people have distilled grappas, spirits, water, and essential oils in their homes for centuries. The copper stills we have come to know as “whiskey stills” or “moonshine stills” are old designs that have been in use around the world for a long time. It wasn’t really until the late 19th century that they developed their nickname and reputation.

There are many legends, myths, and downright lies about owning a whiskey still, using a still to make non-alcohol products, and distilling moonshine or other alcohols at home. Know your facts about distilling laws, and don’t settle for lies.

US Federal Moonshine Still Laws

Still ownership law is overseen by a department in the US Treasury - the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau. US Federal law states that it is legal for anyone to own a still or distilling equipment if it is used for “legal purposes.” This means that if you are a collector or are interested in having a whiskey still as a decoration, you do not need to apply for any federal licenses or register your still. You may simply continue to use it for legal purposes.

Federal law also sees the distillation of non-alcoholic products as a “legal purpose.” If you are using your still to distill water or essential oils, you also do not need to apply for any federal permit or register the still.

Copper stills are often also used in chemistry laboratories, and for various scientific experiments and procedures. If you own and use a “moonshine still” (any design of distilling equipment) for these purposes, you do not need to register or license your still.

Still Ownership Myth #1:

One of the most common misconceptions is that federal law says that people can’t own stills larger than 1 gallon. But, federal law clearly states that a person can own any size still for a legal purpose.

Still Ownership Myth #2:

Another myth is that if you own a whiskey or moonshine still, you are not allowed to keep it in your home, and must keep it outside or in a special building (like a shed or barn) - even if you never operate the still.

This is also false. Federal distilling law does not place regulations on how you must keep or care for a still that is being used for legal purposes like decoration, collection, or safe distilling of water and botanical oils.

US Federal Moonshine Distilling Law

 
Own whatever size still you like and get permits for any alcohol distilling


Now, owning a moonshine or whiskey still to use for “legal purposes” like decoration and distilling water may not require a permit or licensing, but if you plan to distill, distribute, consume, and sell any alcoholic product from your copper still, you want to have the proper permits beforehand.

There are 2 types of federal distillation permits:

The Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit

With so many ethanol-fuel-powered machines on the market today, some people have chosen to produce their own alcohol-based fuel at home. To do so, apply for the Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit, which is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Moonshine still owners with this permit cannot distill “consumable” alcohol - only alcohol-based fuel.

The Federal Distilled Spirits Permit

One of the most obvious, and popular, reasons for owning a moonshine or whiskey still is to distill some type of alcohol - be it bourbon, vodka, whiskey, grappas, or moonshine.

If you want to distill spirits at home to consume yourself or share with others, you must first apply for a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit. The permit requires a hefty fee, in addition to regulated inspections of your distillation equipment and facility.

If you want to bottle, sell, and market your spirits, you should make sure to read all the preparations you need to consider about your consumer product. Check out the TTB’s helpful guide to Getting Started in the Distilled Spirits Industry.

State Laws About Still Ownership

Each state has its own legislation about at-home distillation. Some states (like Missouri) allow citizens over age 21 to distill alcohol at home without any permits or licenses at all, and other states (like Florida) do not even allow citizens to own distilling equipment unless they have obtained the proper state permit.

Federal law takes precedence and overrides any state law that does not agree with it.

For example, Missouri citizens still need to obtain a federal permit in order to distill spirits, but they do not need to obtain additional permits from the state. On the other hand, a Florida citizen who wants to own a still for decoration (but not to distill any alcohol) does not need to obtain a federal permit, but would need to obtain the proper license from the state of Florida.

State laws about owning and using distillation equipment are available on the website for your state’s government. Begin your search with this list of State-by-State Distilling Laws from the Hobby Distiller’s Association. You can also use USA.gov to search for the current information on your state's website.

Local Laws about Distilling at Home

Once you are sure that you have the proper license at the federal level, and you confirm that you are in compliance with your state laws about at-home distilling, you want to also check with your county and city statutes. You never know until you look if your specific county, parish, city, or township may have local certifications, licenses, or permits that are needed to operate your moonshine still at home.

USA.gov can also be used to quickly find information from your local government websites.

Enjoy Legal Alcohol


1920s cops were always on the lookout for illegal moonshiners

The truth about distilling and the law is: It’s easy to stay within the lines of the law when you know what they are. The first step in beginning your alcohol production at home is to do your research about the law and the consequences of breaking it.

Your moonshine still can be enjoyed for a number of things, and should always be enjoyed responsibly.


Article by: Jim Thomas

 


Photo credit:
"The Moonshiners in the Mountains of NC" by Dave
"Tennessee" by WSP
"Precinct No 5" by Seattle Municipal Archives

June 16, 2015

Posted in how to, moonshine mash, recipe, science


Basic Moonshine Mash Recipe

“Moonshine” is distilled from the fermented sugar of a malt grains like oats, cornmeal, or wheat. A strong alcohol, the recipe for moonshine is very basic, which is why it has been popular throughout the years as something that can be made by amateur and professional distillers alike. While there are many successful (and delicious!) recipes for moonshine, here is a basic one that can be altered to fit the ingredients you have available or your taste preferences.

Making Moonshine Mash in 3 Steps

To make moonshine, you will combine your grains in an enclosed chamber with a fermenter, such as sugar or yeast. Add water, and you have a mixture that is called a “mash.” Mashes are used for other alcohols as well, such as whiskey. You’ll leave your mash in the chamber for a limited amount of time, to allow the sugars in the grains to turn into alcohol.

Before distilling, you can filter the solid husks and plant matter out of the mash. If you remove these solid materials, the liquid that is left is often called the moonshine or whiskey “wash.”

Either a mash or a wash can be distilled, so that the alcohol is separated from the water, and you can enjoy your own fine homemade whiskey.

Tips for Moonshine Mashes:

  • Corn meal does not filter well out of a wash, and a cornmeal mash may burn the bottom of a copper still
  • The first product in a distilling batch has the highest alcohol proof
  • Measure your yeast fermentation and the mash’s alcohol content using a hydrometer

Step 1: Research and Purchase Ingredients

Basic Moonshine Mash Recipe

  • 5 gallons of malt grains (rye, barley, or a combination of grains)
  • 1 package of bread yeast
  • 10 pounds sugar (any kind)
  • 5 gallons warm water

Because moonshine has often been made in secret, there are no standardized measurements for the different ingredients in moonshine - it can be a process of trial and error to find a recipe that you like and that works well in your moonshine still.

Most people have used 5-gallon grain buckets to measure grains over the years, and that is often still a typical measurement given, because stills are also measured in gallons

Some recipes call for yeast, while others call for sugar. Ours, however, requires a bit of both. After a few runs, you may find that one type of fermenter over the other is right for you.

It’s best if you can use distilled water to make your moonshine mash, because you know that distilled water will not add any impurities that could throw off the fermentation process, or the flavor or alcohol content of your final product.

Step 2: Prepare Mash

Commercial distillery fermentation chamber

In a fermentation chamber, combine approximately 5 pounds of sugar with 1-2 gallons of malt grain. Add warm water until the sugar dissolves - the water should be warm enough to dissolve the sugar but not hot enough that it kills the yeast.

Stir the mixture as the sugar dissolves. Continue stirring as you add the remaining grains, sugar, and water. Keep stirring until all sugar dissolves.

Step 3: Wait for Fermentation

Cover the fermentation container, while still allowing the mash to “breathe.” The mash can take 2 weeks or so for all the yeast to have turned as much sugar into alcohol as possible, if you let this process (called “clearing” the mash) happen naturally. However, you can use a product like Turbo Clear to shorten your fermentation time to as little as 4 days. 

When the bubbles are large and slow to move to the top of the container, you might check to see if your mash is ready to distill. Distill the mash or wash in a clean, high-quality copper still, and your final moonshine should be between 90 and 140 proof, depending on the alcohol by volume of the mash.

Moonshines can be flavored during the mash, and there are hundreds of recipes that describe how to add varying ingredients to achieve different textures, flavors, and potencies of moonshine.

Moonshines can also be flavored after distillation, by having fruit soak in a container of moonshine for a number of days, then straining out the solid materials. Flavored moonshines can be combined into cocktails, and are even used in recipes for stews, desserts, dressings, and more.

There is no end to the uses for this versatile, easy-to-make, and strong-willed alcohol. Enjoy trying different moonshine recipes, and always enjoy your moonshine responsibly.

 

Article by: Jim Thomas

Photo credit: Logan Ingalls, Josh Rubin

How to “Cut” your Alcohol Distilling Run

Alcohol distillation is an ancient process that is both an art and a science. It’s easy, but not as easy as simply turning it on and watching it go. Diligent distillers know that you have to keep an eye on the temperature control when distilling, and you also have to keep an eye on the final product - the distillate - so that you can make the safest and best tasting spirit.

One trick of the experts that makes their product so good is their practiced and precise “cuts” during the still’s run. A “cut” is when you switch the containers that are catching the distillate coming out of the condenser coil. You “cut” the alcohol stream dripping from the condenser coil when switching from a jar which contains distillate to an empty one. But, the timing of when you make these cuts is very, very important in producing a spirit that anyone will want to drink.

The Four Stages of Your Moonshine Run

You may have heard old legends about how moonshine will “make you go blind.” Even though this is an exaggeration, it is true that moonshine that isn’t made well can make you sick. Read our run-down on how to distill whiskey and moonshine, to get an overview of safety measures you should take throughout the run. Be aware of alcohols that are being produced during the different stages of your moonshine run, so that you can avoid earning any reputation for your moonshine as being unsafe. 

You may need more than one container for each stage of the run, so make sure to label each appropriately. If you have multiple containers for each stage of the run, that’s okay. Consider only a change of containers as a “cut” if you are going from one stage of the run to another.

The Foreshots

At each stage of the run, different alcohols are vaporized and make their way into the collection cup. The alcohol that makes fine, high-quality moonshine, is ethanol, which boils at  a temperature of 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Other chemicals and types of alcohols, such as methanol, boil at lower temperatures and will be collected in your cup or jar after being condensed in the coil. These chemicals are poisonous. Not only will they ruin the taste of your moonshine (or whatever alcohol you’re distilling), if they make their way into your final product, they can make people very ill.

Generally, distillers make the first cut in the run when the temperature in the still’s pot reaches approximately 175-180 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the ethanol in the wash will begin to vaporize, and you can be sure that the distillate collected before that point contains most of the methanol and other poisonous compounds. After making the first cut, throw away the contents of your first container.

The contents of this first container of all the distillate collected before your run reaches this temperature are called the “foreshots.” The foreshots should ultimately be about 10% of the final amount of your distilling run. It is always best to make the cut a little later rather than earlier, to be sure that all the poisonous chemicals are tossed out.

The Heads

As the temperature continues to increase, ethanol will boil, and you will be distilling real spirits. But, while the temperature in the still’s pot is climbing through the range of about 175 degrees Fahrenheit to about 185 degrees Fahrenheit, the distillate will still contain many traces of non-ethanol chemicals that can make your final product have a bit more “bite” and flavor if they are added to it.

For a product like whiskey or Scotch, this might be ideal, because the complexity of those alcohols comes from the combination of trace chemicals. However, for a product like moonshine or vodka, which are ideally flavorless, trace chemicals alter and affect the taste of your product negatively.

The second cut you will make in your run will be around the 185 - 190 degree temperature range. The distillate collected after the foreshots and before the second cut is called the “heads” of the run. Set the heads aside for further distillation, or to combine the right amount with your final distillate to flavor the alcohol the way you like.

The heads should total about 20-30%% of the final amount of your run. It’s always best to make this cut a little later, rather than earlier, and collect some of the hearts with your heads, instead of the other way around.

The Hearts

The best part of the run is the distillate that contains the most ethanol. This is called the “hearts” section of your run. Many professionals and long-time distillers agree that this is the portion of the run from about 190 degrees Fahrenheit to about 200 or 205 degrees. Of course, it depends on the still.

Although the boiling point of ethanol is 175 degrees Fahrenheit, the mash in your still is not pure ethanol. Depending on the ingredients and other factors, you should expect that most of the pure ethanol in your run is boiling off when the still’s pot shows higher temperature than 175.

The hearts will probably total to 30% or so of the final amount of your alcohol run. It is always better to make this cut early, to keep the hearts as pure as possible. It’s better to mix some hearts into your tails, than some tails into your hearts.

The Tails

After the run reaches about 205 degrees Fahrenheit or so, there may be more steam that makes its way into your distillate. There may also be other chemicals that burn at a higher temperature than ethanol, which can give this portion of the distillate a flavor that isn’t quite what you’re after. This part of the run is called the “tails” and can total as much as 20-30% of your run. Set the tails aside to be further distilled.

At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, water boils. When the temperature in the pot of your still reaches 212 degrees, you can go ahead and turn off the heat source for your still. The temperature inside should maintain itself for a little while longer, then the temperature at the top of the column (the “onion head”) should suddenly drop, signalling the end of your run.

You can keep collecting whatever distillate comes out of the condenser coil, but it’s not worth boiling the water to get every drop of alcohol out of the alcohol wash. You’ll end up with a lot of water in your tails, which will just be distilled out again anyhow.

Allow your still to cool before disassembling, cleaning, and storing it for your next run.


Colored mason jars for whiskey distilling

Mason jars are the traditional containers for moonshine distilling

The “Feints”

The containers of heads and tails that you set aside are referred to as the “feints.” You have two options for these: you can add them into the wash with your next run, or you can distill them by themselves. If you don’t want to mix different recipes or flavors from various mashes, you might distill the feints in a smaller-size still after each alcohol run. Some people collect their feints for several runs, then do an all-feints run in a larger still; this is called the “queen’s share.” Just to be safe, you still throw out the foreshots in a queen’s share run.

It may take some practice before you learn the unique characteristics of your still that will tell you when to cut your alcohol run. During each run, take notes on the temperature of the still when you make your cut, you might also note observations like the color, clarity, flavor, and texture of the distillate during the different stages of a run, which can help you repeat successful runs and figure out where you went wrong in a batch that isn’t up to your standards.

Always enjoy your alcohol distilled at home safely and responsibly. Follow the law, practice safe distilling, and learn to maximize the hearts in each run, and you’ll be able to enjoy your moonshine with a smile.


Article by: Jim Thomas

Photo credit: Luann Snider Photography

June 10, 2015

Posted in distilling, how to, safety tips


How to Distill Whiskey and Moonshine

There are a few methods of distilling, but the most common include pot boiling and steam distillation. The most common thing distilled around the world is water - which is used in medical facilities, laboratories, and other situations where clean water is of the utmost importance. And many types of bottled water are distilled to improve taste. However, the next most distilled thing is alcohol, or spirits. Although if you plan to distill spirits in your home in the US, you need the right permits and licenses, but anyone can own a distill and enjoy it distilling water or essential oils.

Essential oils are often distilled by steam, since their delicate plant matters cannot withstand direct boiling. And there are many botanicals that are too delicate even for steam distillation.

You should make sure to do your research on essential oils before you attempt to distill, so that you are sure to use the right method to extract the essential oil you need. Check out our beginner’s guide to essential oils to get you started.

Distilling whiskey, moonshine, or other spirits is not necessarily an easy process, but it is not difficult either. Follow a few essential steps, add your own style, and you can develop a fine distilling operation with a little practice.

Step 1: Purchase and Prepare Your Still

First time distillers often make the mistake of purchasing the wrong still for their plans, and are stuck with a still they can’t use. Do a little research first and learn why the best stills are copper, and what type of still you should use. Although you will become very familiar with all the parts of your copper still once you have your hands on it and are cleaning and using it, it can be helpful to become familiar with the parts of a still before you get your hands on one.

After your copper still arrives, you will need to fully clean and prepare it for its first use. Cleaning a copper still inside and out is as simple as using a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and warm water, and a lot of elbow grease. You will want to rinse it well with hot water after scrubbing all parts with a new, unused toilet brush or carboy brush, and dry all parts thoroughly.

Lastly, you will perform a vinegar run to thoroughly cleanse and sterilize all parts of the copper still. While making sure to safely set up your still on its heat source, fill the pot to 20% capacity with a mix of clean water and white vinegar. Heat the still without cooling the condenser coil so that the hot vinegar and steam come out of the coil into the collection cup. Once you have reached that temperature, you know that the entire interior of the still has been thoroughly cleaned.

Allow the copper still to cool before rinsing with hot water, drying, disassembling, and storing. It is not ready to distill whatever you want.

Step 2: Make Your Mash

The plant materials that are fermented to produce the final alcoholic product you are looking for is called the “mash.” If you don’t have a trusted mash recipe when you buy your still, you can choose from one of the hundreds available.

Whiskey and moonshine mashes are composed of a grain - such as oats, barley, or wheat - and something to turn the natural sugar in the grain into alcohol. Yeast, sugar, and water are often the only other ingredients. Mashes often need to sit and be mixed for 14-30 days, in a separate and sealed and vented container.

You can infuse a mash with flavors from the beginning, and some alcohols are so exclusive to their recipes that if you don’t follow the recipe exactly, you can’t call it that drink.

Scotch, for example, has to be 100% from Scotland, made in Scotland using Scottish ingredients. It also includes a recipe where the oats are dried and smoked over an open peat-moss fire - that is what gives Scotch its unique flavor and uniquely qualifies a drink as true Scotch.

Step 3: Prep for Safety

When you’re getting ready to distill alcohol, water, or essential oils at home, you need to be aware of the safety concerns, and the risks of working with high heat and alcohol vapor, and the importance of never using plastic tools and materials.

Basic Safety Tips

You might want to consider having a fire extinguisher at hand. You definitely need plenty of cold water or ice packs for your condenser coil, and make sure to have at least one thermometer to help you control the temperature of your distillation. You will also want to have thermal gloves, and might even consider eye protection. See our list of 7 Safety Tips for Distilling at Home for more.

Make Your Flour Paste

You will make a flour paste to keep the alcohol vapor in your still from escaping through the seams during the distillation process. This is a huge safety concern, because alcohol vapors can be flammable and you can create a potentially explosive environment if they escape. It is also a huge concern for maintaining the quality of your final distillate. In order to keep your final whiskey or moonshine at its best quality, you want all the seams to be sealed shut. See our recipe for an easy do-it-yourself flour rye flour paste that will help you run all your distillations at peak performance.

Step 4: The Distillation “Run” in 6 Parts

The day you perform your actual distillation run has come and you’re ready to make some moonshine. Grab your mash, and follow these instructions:

Part 1: Set Up Your Still

Begin by setting your clean still equipment up on your heat source in a well ventilated area, with all your safety tools at hand. Make sure your still is secure and your condenser coil prepped with a coolant system of packed ice, running cold water, or frozen water bottles. You want your collection container on a flat surface, if possible, and you never want to use plastic. Mason jars, ceramic or metal containers are all traditional collection cups for moonshine distilling.

Pour the mash into the pot of the still, leaving space at the top. We recommend about 4 inches for a 10 gallon copper still. You will not need to apply flour paste yet, but have it ready. Pour your mash into your copper moonshine still, leaving space at the top.

Part 2: Heat Your Mash

Turn on the heat source and increase until you can hear the mash boiling or the pipe connecting the still’s onion head and condenser is hot to the touch. When the temperature reaches about 100 degrees in the still pot and the copper has begun to get warm to the touch, apply the flour paste to the seams between the pot, the column, and the condenser coil (if there is one). If you notice any other small leaks you might try using some flour paste to seal them, but if there are any large cracks or problems with steam and escaping, stop distilling immediately and have the still inspected by a coppersmith.

Many old-time moonshiners know when the still has reached the right temperature by watching the amount of the distillate. You want to see a steady flow into the collection cup - not a stream or a slow drip, but a steady drip of 1-2 drops every second or two. It is most helpful to have two thermometers to monitor the temperature in both the still pot and at the top of the column or in the onion head, just before the condenser coil. You can monitor the temperature of the condenser coil by touch - it should always be cool while the still is running. If the coil reaches room temperature or gets warm, immediately cool it with cold running water or ice packs. If it gets hot to the touch, stop distilling immediately.

Start applying high heat to your copper whiskey still, Lower the heat, and monitor the temperature at the top of the onion head. Keep it between 174 Fahrenheit and 190 Fahrenheit by adjusting your heat source.

Part 3: Monitor Your Distillate

In addition to taking note of the temperature of your run in order to tell about its different stages, you will also want to pay attention to the look, feel, and smell of your moonshine or other final product. Using a notebook or other recording device to document what the distillate was like at different temperatures in the run can help you know how to make better cuts in the future, as well as get more familiar with what a “successful” run looks like for your still. (Each still has its own personality, and it may take a few times of using it before you realize any peculiarities in its temperament. Like a fine car or a well-loved tool, be patient and you will be able to learn what you need to know to make each run successful.)

Continually check the still for vapor leaks and patch your flour paste as needed. Be careful not to burn yourself on the hot metal or any steam from the condenser coil or unsealed seams.

Part 4: Cut Your Run

For safety reasons, as well as practical ones, you can’t collect everything from your moonshine run into one container. Make sure you become familiar with what it means to “cut” your run while distilling, so that you can produce high-quality, enjoyable moonshine and whiskey.

The most important cut in your run is the first one - always collect the “foreshots” in a separate container. Because methanol boils off at a lower temperature there is a lot of it in the early part of your run. Methanol is poisonous and should not be consumed by people. By collecting all the foreshots in one container, you can be sure to keep the methanol out of your moonshine, keeping it safe for anyone who drinks it. Always throw out the foreshots once you have made your first cut.

Part 5: Know When to End

There is no reason to heat a still over 212 degrees Fahrenheit, as that is the temperature that water boils. When the still reaches 212 degrees you can turn off your heat source. At this tail-end part of your run, the distillate will have more distilled water in it than earlier in the run, and the hotter you run the still, the more water will end up in your run’s tails.

When the run is over, the temperature in the onion head will suddenly drop, and the condenser will stop dripping alcohol. Although there may still be some alcohol left in the mash in the still pot, the effort that it would take to get the alcohol out isn’t worth it. You can run the still a little longer, but all the portions of your tails will be added to a future distilling run so you can further purify them and turn them into hearts.

Part 6: Cool Down and Clean-Up

After the run is complete, let your still cool completely before disassembling and cleaning it. You should be able to chip the dried flour paste off the seams easily, but it will dissolve fully once the still is washed.You will want to empty the mash carefully outdoors - choose a spot in your yard where you don’t mind if the grass turns brown, as the mash will likely kill it quickly.

To wash and fully clean your copper still, use a mixture of hot water and white vinegar, and make sure to scrub all surface areas on the interior. Rinse the still and dry it before storing for your next distillation.


Making alcohol can be both fun and challenging, and there are several ways to get the formula right. Whether distilling whiskey, moonshine, vodka, or some other spirit, a good distillation run always results in a toast to a job well done.

 

Article by: Jim Thomas

Photo credits: Leslie Kalohi

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