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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most standard distillation runs will yield about:
"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
Temperature control is important when distilling.
Don't lie down on the job.
Distilling alcohol at home is an exciting process that requires skill and diligence. If you want to be great at it, be aware of some important considerations about temperature. Distillation requires a lot of heat, and it’s important to control that heat, so you distill safely and end up with a high quality product (called the “distillate”).
Several factors go into producing a high quality distillate - your mash recipe, the mash’s ABV, and your still are a few important ones - but every experienced distiller knows that temperature control is key to making a fine alcohol when it’s all said and done.
Distilling alcohol uses high temperatures - generally around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. High temperatures mean opportunities for accidents, so make sure that everyone who is in your distilling environment is aware of how hot your equipment will get. Controlling and monitoring the temperature will help you keep your distillery safe.
The temperature of your still varies in different spots. There are three key places on your still where you should monitor the temperature - the pot boiler, the top of the column, and the condenser coil.
The temperature inside the pot boiler will tell you about the boiling liquid in the mash. Keep it increasing, maintaining a range of 175 - 195 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as possible. Turn off the heat when it reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
The temperature at the top of the column will tell you about your alcohol vapor as it begins to condense. Monitor this temperature, watching for an excess of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If it becomes overheated, turn down your heat.
It is especially important to use a built-in thermometer
at the top of the column in a large column still
Keep an eye on the touch-temperature of your condenser coil. The coil should be kept cool to the touch, with cold running water or ice packs. If it reaches room temperature, decrease the heat on your still and pack more ice on the coil. If the condenser coil ever becomes hot to the touch, end distilling immediately.
When all the elements of your temperature control come together, the condenser coil should release a steady drip of moonshine - not a stream, but a quick and regular amount that flows without interruption.
As you begin a run, your still’s seams will tighten as the metal naturally expands with the heat. Have your homemade flour paste ready, and you can easily seal the seams with it when the temperature reaches approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you wait too long to seal the still’s seams, the metal will burn both your fingers and the dough.
Different liquids boil at different temperatures: While the boiling point of pure ethanol is 174 degrees Fahrenheit, there are other trace elements that boil at slightly lower or higher temperatures. By controlling the temperature of your still, you can collect trace elements in different cuts in your run. Experienced distillers often make cuts - separating the distillate into portions - based on the temperature of the alcohol vapor.
Water boils at a higher temperature than alcohol, and as alcohol boils off from the pot, there is more water being boiled. So, the longer you run your still and the hotter it gets, the more water there will be boiling into steam at the later stages of your run. There is no reason to let the temperature climb higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, because that is the boiling point of water. Many distillers will cut off their run somewhere around 205 - 207 degrees, knowing that the last 10% or so of alcohol left in the mash won’t be worth it. Letting the still heat over 212 degrees is great if you’re looking to distill water, however.
You can assume that the longer you run your distillation around 175-195 degrees Fahrenheit, the more time you will be producing a large amount of high-quality distillate. With some variations and exceptions, this temperature range produces the purest ethanol and will typically be the “hearts” cut of your alcohol run.
Monitoring the temperature of your still, in addition to recording the mash recipe, type of still, a description of the distillate, and other details about the run, helps you repeat batches that were amazing, and avoid repeating mistakes in the future. Make the most, and the best, out of your moonshine still every time.
Article by: Jim Thomas
Photo credit: Eli Christman