Whiskey Still Pro Shop Blogs

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

What is a Vinegar Run?

When you purchase your copper whiskey still, you will be struck by its beauty, shine, and sturdy design. As striking as it looks, what a copper still was made for is making fine distilled products.

Whiskey and moonshine stills for sale online typically arrive at your home in pieces, ready to be assembled and to begin producing the finest spirits, distilled water, and essential oils. Or so you might think.

After manufacture, copper stills are not always cleaned. In addition, a still may come into contact with dust on the road while being shipped to you, which will contaminate your whiskey production. Even if your still was sterile when made, it is probably not sanitary when it arrives to you. Before you begin using it to produce any consumer products, you will want to thoroughly wash, clean, and prepare your moonshine still.

A thorough initial cleaning

After you order the copper whiskey still that’s the right size and design for your needs, take a trip to the store to pick up some white vinegar. A lot of it. About as many gallons as your still’s capacity - so, buy 10 gallons of white vinegar if you bought a 10 gallon whiskey still. You may not need it all at once, but the investment will be worth it in the long run.

use high quality white vinegar for whiskey still cleaning

Once your whiskey still arrives, and you have checked all the pieces thoroughly for defects or anything questionable, you want to clean each piece before assembling the still.

Mix a solution of 50% hot water and 50% vinegar. Fill the pot still approximately half-way with this mixture, and use a brand-new, never-before-used toilet brush to scrub the inside entirely. Use additional water-vinegar mixture and a carboy cleaning brush to scrub the condenser coil and onion head, as thoroughly as possible. Rinse clean.

After this initial cleaning, set everything aside to dry thoroughly. You are now ready for your vinegar run.

The Vinegar Run

Performing a vinegar run on the still before actually running any product through it is the best way prepare all the inner surfaces of your still. Make sure they are clean and ready for use, or your final distillate will end up with microorganisms and trace materials that cause off-flavors or strange scents.

1. Fill the Pot.

Fill the pot of your still to about 20% capacity with a mixture of 50% white vinegar and 50% clean water. That’s about 1 gallon of the mixture in a 5 gallon still, or 2 gallons in a 10 gallon still. Use distilled water for this mixture, if you have some available.

2. Prepare the Still

Set up your whiskey still on its heat source. Assemble your still as if you were going to make a moonshine or whiskey run. Seal the seams with your flour-paste mixture, so you can observe your paste’s durability and fine-tune that recipe if you need to. This will also help you check your seals for leaks, which you should be prepared to take care of before you start distilling any product. Set up the collection container, although you won’t be keeping any of the liquid from the vinegar run.

For your vinegar run, you do not want to set up your cooling system for the condenser coil. You want the hot vinegar to run through the coil so that it cleans as much of the interior of the coil as possible.

3. Run the Vinegar Water

Turn on the heat and bring the water and vinegar mixture to a boil. Keep an eye on the thermometer and adjust the temperature as needed. You may see steam come out of the condenser coil and liquid begin to collect in the collection cup when the onion head reaches around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. However, you can take the temperature up to a level where the water will boil, when the onion head reads about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keep in mind, at that temperature your copper moonshine still will be extremely hot, and the steam can cause substantial burns. Be sure to always use proper safety equipment.

4. Cut Heat and Cool It

Once the onion head thermometer on your still has been at a temperature over 170 degrees Fahrenheit for about 5 minutes, and hot steam and water-vinegar mixture have been coming out of the condenser coil, you can turn off the heat. Keep a large container available to continue to collect any liquid which drips from the coil, but you should see less as the temperature in the still gradually decreases.

Allow the entire still to cool before disassembling, to avoid serious injury. Empty the water-vinegar mixture and towel-dry the interior of the still’s pot and onion head as much as possible. You might run some cool, clean water through the condenser coil as well, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Your copper moonshine still is now be ready to produce the fine products you have been looking forward to.

When should I do a vinegar run?

You can perform a vinegar run as often as you want, but most distillers use it as a deep-clean on their most used stills about twice per year. Set a date on your calendar to regularly clean your still with a vinegar run if you will be using your still to regularly produce the same product.

If you are using the same still to produce multiple distillates, you might complete a vinegar run before switching between products. So, if your last run was a peach moonshine and your next run is going to be a hearty whiskey, you might do a vinegar run between the two so the flavors don’t get mixed. This is especially important if you will be using your still for multiple essential oils, as the delicate scents and flavors of an oil can be easily affected by residual oils left over from previous runs.

Lastly, consider doing a vinegar run any time you move your still from one location to another, or if it sits out of use for a long time. A still that is used for decoration for years and then put to work may be contaminated with any number of dust particles, pet hair, or insects, and a vinegar run will remove all of that.

Vinegar runs are simple, effective ways to keep your copper still performing at its best for years to come. There’s no such thing as too many vinegar runs, so don’t worry about overdoing it. Keeping your whiskey or moonshine still clean and operational shows that you’re serious about the quality of products you make, and that you are always dedicated to making your at-home essential oils, distilled water, or alcohol responsibly.

 

Article by: Jim Thomas

Photo Credit: "Heinz White Vinegar" by Mike Mozart

April 28, 2015

Posted in column still, flip top still, pot still, safety tips


Parts of a Moonshine Still

Becoming an expert at distilling your own alcohol, water, or essential oils at home means that you need to become familiar with every part of your copper still. Moonshiners run into all kinds of problems, and many distillers over the years have had to learn what to do on the go. Take advantage of their wisdom and become familiar with your copper still, so you can avoid making their mistakes.

Types of Moonshine Stills

Whether you call it a “moonshine still”, a “whiskey still,” or just a plain old “still,” you want a copper still. Many stills are made of stainless steel and then offer copper mesh to help filter your spirits, but an all copper still is generally better.

Moonshine stills come in a variety of designs and sizes. The two main designs are the pot still and the column still. Each design is used to distill different products, and a flip top column still might be one of the best stills for sale, because it gives you the versatility to distill practically anything you want.

Parts of a still

  • Pot: Also called the “boiler,” the pot holds your mash, is placed directly over your heat, and attaches to the column or the onion head at the top.
  • Column: A column still includes a cylinder with inner compartments and platforms that distill in a different method than a pot still. These may be solid, split top, or flip top.
  • Onion head: Commonly shaped like an onion, having a thermometer built in is best. It attaches to the condenser coil.
  • Condenser coil:A long thin tube of copper, the coil allows the steam to cool into your distillate
  • Collection cup: Use a glass, metal, or pottery container to collect the distillate at the spout of the condenser coil. Never use plastic containers.

Distilling Accessories

  • Propane burner: Distilling alcohol can produce dangerous flammable vapors. it is always recommended to distill outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Portable propane burners with stable bases can work well as controllable heat sources for distillation.
  • Ice packs or hose: You need a cooling system to keep your condenser coil chilled. Running cool water continuously through a hose or packing the coil in ice can help maintain temperature.
  • Turbo yeast: When making your whiskey or moonshine mash, you will need to control the fermentation in order to produce high quality alcohol.
  • Flour: To seal the seams between parts of your copper still, you can make a paste from flour. You will need to do this with every run, so keep flour on hand.
  • Copper cleaner or lots of vinegar: It is important to clean your whiskey still inside and out after every use, so find a copper cleaner you like, or stock up on white vinegar for a traditional cleaning method.

Distilling Safety Equipment

  • Thermometer: It is important to monitor your still’s temperature. The best stills include a thermometer built into the onion head.
  • Fire extinguisher: Working with flame and flammable vapors includes danger. Always practice fire safety and be prepared.
  • Insulated gloves: Working with heat and hot metals, you can get burned. Protect yourself with gloves that extend to the elbow and that can withstand temperatures up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Eye protection: Working with hot steam and potentially dangerous alcohol vapors can permanently damage your eyes.
  • Towels: In case of spills or leaks, have some extra rags, cloths, or towels handy to help contain any mess.

You will also need a good place to dump out the vinegar, mash, or water that you use in your copper whiskey still pot when cleaning it, making moonshine, or distilling essential oils. Since these materials may be harmful to plant life, choose a site where they won’t do too much damage, or where you aren’t concerned about the damage they cause. Never dump your materials directly down a drain or into an outside water source.


Article by: Jim Thomas

A Beginner’s Guide to Distilling Essential Oils at Home

Humans have a long history with essential oils. Used in cooking, medicine, health and wellness, and beauty for centuries, the distilled liquids of plant materials came to be called “essential oils” during the Renaissance. Theorists at that time believed they were the very essence or spirit of the plant at its most refined.

Where do essential oils come from?

Although some essences and essential oils are created from animal products, such as ambergris or musk, plants are far more productive and varied. Most essential oils are derived of plant materials.

All plants naturally produce between 30 and 100 unique chemical combinations, which gives each plant its individual aroma and flavor. These chemicals can be removed from the plants and the “essence” of that plant captured in an oil, giving its user a heightened experience of the plant’s chemicals. In other words, oil of rose is the rosiness of hundreds of roses in a single bottle; it is rosier than roses.

Plants’ essential oils are harvested through three methods: distillation, expression, and extraction. Distillation of essential oils typically refers to steam distillation.

Sometimes, one plant’s various parts (leaves, stems, flowers, fruits, roots, and bark) can be harvested in each of these three ways to make multiple essential oils. Often, steam distillation cannot be used on delicate plants that cannot withstand the heat.

It is important to always research for the oil you plan to make. You want to make sure you have the right kind of still, the right materials, and are using the part of the plant that will produce the essential oil you want.

What are essential oils used for?

As far back as the ancient Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, people have been using essential oils when cooking, in cosmetics, and in medicines. Recently, they’ve become popular in aromatherapy and homeopathic remedies as well.

Many essential oils have antibacterial or antifungal properties, which could be part of the plant’s own defense mechanism. Research over the last few decades shows an increase in the knowledge and use of essential oils to relieve gastrointestinal issues, skin disorders, and stress.

You can find essential oils used in beauty products, household cleaners, perfumes, candles, foods, and almost anything that has a scent.

Why distill your own essential oils?

If you have an ongoing condition or use a great deal of essential oil on a regular basis, you may find that it becomes expensive very quickly. Depending on the oil, it can cost you hundreds of dollars per gallon. It may be well worth it to purchase a still and make your own oils at home. If you can grow your own herbs and plants used in the distillation, you may save even more.

How to distill your own essential oils

#1: Get a copper still

Copper is widely recognized as the best material for distilling. It has natural antibacterial properties and helps filter impurities out of your final product (the “distillate.”) Copper ions bind with elements like sulfur, which affect your distillate. If you’re distilling essential oils, this is important because it means you will achieve the purest scent of the plant in your oil. Copper also has the most even heating temperature and is very easy to clean.

If you plan to distill water or alcohol in addition to essential oils, you want to consider two separate stills for these products, so the scent or flavor of one does not contaminate the other. Or, consider a flip top column still that is designed to allow you the versatility to make any of them. 

#2: Get your plants

Growing your own plants gives you maximum control over their quality and harvest. Plants harvested at the right time produce the best oils. If purchasing plants, choose the healthiest you can find, especially those grown organically without pesticides, if possible. You need a lot of plant material for a little oil, so buy as much high quality material as you can.

#3: Prepare your plants

Depending on the oil you are creating, you may or may not need to wash the plants first. Some essential oil recipes call for using dried plants, so you may need to dry your plant materials first. However, drying them can reduce the essential oils, and it can be very easy to over-dry plants. Never try to re-moisten them after drying, and never use powdered plant materials or plants you don’t dry yourself. Research how to prepare the plants for the specific essential oils you want to make.

#4: Prepare your equipment

Thoroughly clean and decontaminate all the parts of your still and the containers for the essential oils. Have a clean funnel and several cheesecloths on hand as well, for separating oils from the hydrosol.

#5: Distill your oils

Always distill outdoors or in a well-ventilated area, and have gloves, eye-protection, and a fire extinguisher handy.

Place your still over the heat source, but do not begin heating yet. Using filtered or distilled water, fill your still’s pot to the recommended capacity for the oil you’re producing. Generally between 35% and 50%. Secure the column on the top of the pot, and pack your plant material into the column. Do not be shy about how much you use, and do not be surprised if a run of some essential oils yields as little as 1 millimeter of oil in your collection platform.

When you can fit no more plant material in the column, secure the onion bulb at the top of the column and attach the condenser coil. Don’t forget to set up a collection cup of metal, glass, or high-temperature cookware. Never use plastic to collect material from a heated still.

Prepare a cooling process for the condenser coil using ice packs or cold flowing water. Begin to cool the condenser as you simultaneously heat the pot to boiling. When 1-2 drops per second are flowing from the condenser into the collection cup, lower the heat to continue the flow at that rate. When no more hydrosol is being collected, you can turn off the heat. Allow all parts of the still to cool before disassembling it to collect your oils and clean the still.

#6: Collect your essential oil and hydrosol

Different types of column stills will allow you to empty your essential oil from the still in different ways. Make sure you read the owners recommendations for the still you purchase. You should be able to simply filter the hydrosol from the collection cup through a clean cheesecloth before using a clean funnel to funnel it into its final containers.

It can take a huge amount of plant material to harvest a substantial amount of essential oil. Don’t be surprised if you have as little as 1 millimeter of oil after a single run.

#7: Preserve, Store, and Enjoy

Store essential oils in stainless steel or dark glass containers for the best results. Store them away from direct sunlight, and make sure to use a cork or a screw-cap to prevent them from evaporating. Some essential oils lose potency very quickly in open air.

While most essential oils can last for more than two years, they are concentrated and can use some dilution to achieve their ideal effect. Combine your essential oil with a carrier oil like grape seed or almond oil to increase its shelf-life and prevent it from being overpowering.

 

While many essential oils have been synthesized, there may be nothing quite like the natural oils, depending on your purpose for them. To scent perfume or other beauty products, synthetics will do nicely, however for cooking, healthcare, or true aromatherapy, the best results come from natural essential oils. And if you’re using essential oils often and want the best, there’s nothing like making them yourself.

Article by: Jim Thomas

 

Photo credit: "Rose Noblesse" by T. Kiya

Photo credit: "Antique glass bottles" by Nancy

April 14, 2015

Posted in column still, flip top still, pot still


Pot Still vs Flip Top Still

What type of still should I use?

Distilling separates different plant materials using heat, water, and steam. It is a process of steaming what you want to distill, then cooling that steam back into a liquid and condensing it into a container. Distilling has been used throughout the centuries to purify water, to make different alcohols, and to refine plants for their essential oils. Because it is a process that has many uses, different types of stills have been developed to tackle these tasks.

Today, two of the most common still types are the pot still and the flip top column still.

What is the difference between a pot still and a flip top column still?

In short, the difference is the method with which each still uses steam to remove the desired material (the “distillate”) from the plants.

In a pot still the materials are placed directly in the water, which is boiled. The distillate travels with the steam, through the coil, and into the collection cup. This is the method of distilling usually used to make water and alcohols, although some types of essential oil are produced this way.

In a flip top column still the materials are placed in the column above the boiling water. As steam passes through the plants, they drip the distillate into the perforated platforms that attach to the column’s interior. At the top of the column, the steam condenses down the coil and into a collection cup. This is the method of distilling usually used to make essential oils and hydrosols - or “essence waters,” like “rose water” or “lavender water.”

The design of the flip top still makes it usable with the column attached to the pot and the onion head, or with the column rotated on the hinge so it is out of the way, and the onion head attached directly to the pot. Although this can make the flip top more versatile, it is also additional pieces to clean and maintain.

#1: The Pot Still

A pot still can be made of several different materials, but the best is a copper pot still. Because copper has antibacterial and antifungal properties, it will help to purify whatever you’re distilling - whether essential oils, alcohol, or water.

Parts of the still

The pot: A solid, round, enclosed tub which is placed over the heat source

The onion head: The narrowing bulb at the top of the pot, which resembles an onion

The condenser coil: The long copper tubing that attaches at the top of the onion head and slopes downward to an open spout

The collection cup: The container you place under the spout to catch your distillation. You can use metal, glass, or certain pottery, but you should never use plastic to collect distilled materials.


How to use a pot still

After thoroughly cleaning the parts of the copper still, you will place the pot over your heat source. (Always distill alcohol outdoors or in a well-ventilated area). You will pour the water, alcohol mash, or combination of water and plant materials into the pot. Assemble the onion head and condenser coil in place, sealing them with a flour paste mixture. Set up your cooling system for your condenser coil and get your collection cup in place. Turn on the heat and begin your distillation run. When the run is over, turn off the heat and allow all parts of the still to cool before disassembling and cleaning.


#2: The Flip Top Still

A flip top still can be made of several materials, but the best is copper. Because flip top stills are often used for essential oil distillation, the scent of the still’s material can be very important. Stainless steel stills may trap certain toxins and hold scents that taint the final essential oil. However, copper has antibacterial and antifungal properties, so it will help to purify the scents of the essential oils.

Parts of the still

The pot: A solid, round, enclosed tub which is placed over the heat source

The column: A cylindrical tube that is fixed to the top of the pot with an attached hinge. The top attaches to the onion head. Inside the column will be one or two levels of sieves, and one or two platforms with perforated holes, which allow steam to rise through the plants and the oil to drip down and collect on the platforms.

The onion head: The narrowing bulb at the top of the pot, which resembles an onion.

The condenser coil: The long copper tubing that attaches at the top of the onion head and slopes downward to an open spout.

The collection cup: The container you place under the spout to catch your distillation. You can use metal, glass, or certain pottery, but you should never use plastic to collect distilled materials.

How to use a flip top still

Thoroughly clean the parts of your copper flip top still, then set the pot over your heat source. (Consider distilling outside or in a well ventilated area for safety). Fill the pot 35-50% with water, and put the column in place. Pack your plant materials into the sieve or top platform, and don’t be shy about getting as much of it in there as you can.

Attach the onion top and condenser coil and seal the seams with a homemade flour paste, if necessary. Set up the cooling system for your condenser coil and put your steam-collection cup in place. This distilled, essence-infused steam becomes the hydrosol. Turn on your heat and begin your run. When the run is over, cut the heat and leave all copper still parts to cool before disassembling, collecting your oil, and cleaning.

Which still is better: pot still or flip top column still?

There is no real answer here - it depends on what you want to distill. If you think you will need a column occasionally but will use a pot still design most of the time, the flip top still design gives you that versatility. However, if you plan to only distill liquids that can be distilled in pot stills, the column on a flip top may just be unnecessary.

Whether you’re making spirits, purifying water, or creating essential oils, you should choose a copper still that suits your needs.

 

Article by: Jim Thomas