Introduction to Liquor Distilling
Your friends are sitting in your living room after dinner. You break out a bottle of your very own aged whiskey. As your friends sample your delicious concoction, you beam with pride knowing that you are the craftsman.
Liquor distilling is an art form. Unlike the homebrewing of beer and wine, liquor distilling requires more equipment and a little extra effort before the final results are produced. This hobby requires patience and excellent organizational skills. You will learn from your mistakes and, over time, develop your own recipes and techniques.
This hobby can be expensive. Rather than spend over a thousand dollars on equipment on day one, piece together your collection. Each piece of your home distillery can be replaced with more efficient, more expensive equipment as you get more involved in the hobby.
For centuries, homeowners have produced their own wines, beers, and liquors. Homebrewing and homedistilling are very different. Distilled liquors are essentially a result of additional processing of a fermented liquid. In fact, fermented mash is termed “beer” in many guides. A distilled beverage, liquor, or spirit is a drinkable liquid containing ethanol that is produced by distilling fermented grain, fruit, or vegetables. This excludes undistilled fermented beverages such as beer, wine, and hard cider.
The process of distillation makes liquor distilling unique. Some knowledge of chemistry is helpful when beginning a home distillery. Prior to beginning a home distillery, research the distillation process to ensure that you fully understand the chemical processes taking place during distillation. A clear understanding of the process itself will allow you to fine tune your equipment and produce a better product. Distillation is a method of separating mixtures based on differences in their volatilities in a boiling liquid mixture. Distillation is a unit operation, or a physical separation process, and not a chemical reaction.
Liquor Distillation Today
In a world where watermelon vodka and nail-polish remover flavored whiskey clog the shelves of liquor stores, it is difficult to find true quality in a liquor. Alcohol consumption today is higher than ever before. Fortunately, the appreciation for excellent flavor and quality is not lost. Liquor tasting itself is a hobby. Some people spend years hunting for the perfect bourbon or the most exquisitely flavored scotch.
The basic process of distillation has not changed since the 8th century. Freeze distillation also remained in limited use, for example during the American colonial period applejack was made from cider using this method. There have been many changes in the methods used to prepare organic material for the still, and the ways the distilled beverage is finished and marketed.
Knowledge of the principles of sanitation and access to standardised yeast strains have improved the quality of the base ingredient; larger, more efficient stills produce more product per square foot and reduce waste; ingredients such as corn, rice, and potatoes have been called into service as inexpensive replacements for traditional grains and fruit. For tequila, the blue agave plant is used.
Chemists have discovered the scientific principles behind aging, and have devised ways to accelerate aging without introducing harsh flavors. Modern filters have allowed distillers to remove unwanted residue and produce smoother finished products. Most of all, marketing has developed a worldwide market for distilled beverages among populations that previously did not drink spirits.
In the quest for the perfect alcohol, many turn to home or micro distillation. The microdistillery movement is growing in the United States. These companies are paving the way for the home distillery. A microdistillery is a small, often `boutique`, distillery. While the term is most commonly used in the United States, micro-distilleries have been established in Europe for many years, either as small cognac distilleries supplying the larger cognac houses, or as distilleries of single malt whiskey originally produced for the blended Scotch whisk market, but whose products are now sold as niche single malt brands.
Before you begin, decide which route you plan to take. You can build your equipment at fairly low cost or you can spend a little more for professional equipment. Determine which type of alcohol you plan to make and design your equipment to suit the alcohol best.
Choose your location well. You will need a ventilated space with plenty of room for cooking, fermentation, and distillation. You will need a rodent free area to store your ingredients.
The process of creating your own liquor is not overly complex. Careful attention to detail will result in delicious results.
There are many books available that discuss still construction in detail. Others contain recipes and distillation techniques. You can also find forums where other distillers compare notes, share recipes and tips, and troubleshoot.
Types of Distilled Liquors
Every region of the world has a liquor unique to the area. With the right recipe, you can successfully duplicate almost any liquor. Some liquors are more simple to make than others. The following list of liquors can be produced with good results in a home distillery.
• Whiskey (includes Scotch & Bourbon): Distilled grain mash.
• Rum: Rum distilled from light sugar, dark sugar, or molasses.
• Brandy: Distilled fruit, usually grapes.
• Applejack: Distilled from fresh and rotten apples.
• Schnapps: Fermented fruit liquor. Apples, grapes, cherries, pears, plums, and peaches are common. Schnapps can also be used to describe a flavored alcohol.
• Vodka: Flavorless liquor made from anything, primarily grain or potatoes.
• Gin: Grain alcohol flavored with juniper berries.
• Everclear and Moonshine: Pure grain alcohol.
Not all liquors are simple to distill at home. Tequila, from the agave plant, is difficult to make. Sake is also more difficult. This liquor is made from rice.
As you gain experience, you can add ingredients or experiment with different combinations to create your own flavors and versions of the above liquors. The sky is the limit once you master the basic steps of liquor distillation.
Equipment & Supplies
To set up your distillery, you will need to set up four areas. The first area is where you will cook your mash. The second area is where fermentation takes place. The third area is the distillery. The final area is for storage of ingredients and the finished product. Your cooking area needs to have a heat source, measuring tools, mixing tools, and pots. The storage area should be cool, dry, and out of direct sunlight.
Your fermentation and distillation areas require more technical equipment.
Mash Fermentation Tank
Your fermentation tank is where the carbohydrate/sugar mix is converted into alcohol. The tank must allow for anaerobic fermentation to take place. This is fermentation without the addition of oxygen.
Almost any sealed, watertight tank will work well as a fermentation tank. A five gallon bucket with a sealed lid will suffice.
• A plastic tank will work best for small batches.
• Glass is also a great option but it breaks easily and, if kept outdoors, will kill the yeast.
• Stainless steel and copper tanks are excellent for large batches.
• Finally, a wooden tank can be made with little expense. However, this tank must be lined with something that is alcohol resistant.
The container must be larger than than the batch you plan to make. For example, if you plan to make 2 gallons of liquor, you will need a fermentation tank that will hold at least 32 gallons.
You will need to add a spigot to the base of your tank for easy draining of your alcohol. In addition to the spigot, you need to make a fermentation lock of some sort. This is as simple as a hose leading from the tank to a jar of water. This prevents oxygen from entering the tank as carbon dioxide leaves the tank.
There are many types of stills. The two stills you are likely to use are the pot still and the column still. Pot stills are traditional in whiskeys and most grain alcohols. A column still eliminates most flavor and results in a higher proof alcohol.
Your still can be made or bought. Regardless of which way you choose to get your still, you need to have the same key features.
• Boiler: The alcohol begins the distillation process in this tank. The shape and size don`t matter but the tank does need to be made of metal. Copper and stainless steel work very well.
• Column/Cap: The first step of condensation. Traps the water vapor before it travels any further through the still. Your column should provide lots of extra surface area to promote condensation. This can be done with a packed column or a plate column.
• Condensing Coils: Alcohol vapor becomes liquid alcohol as it travels through this coil.
• Cooling System: This cools the air around the condensing coils allowing the alcohol vapor to become liquid.
• Collection Equipment: Collects the liquid alcohol and begins the denaturing process. This container should be made of metal. The smaller the mouth, the better. Less vapor will be lost.
No gauge should come in contact with liquid. Water is not explosive or likely to build up pressure. All of the controls on your still should measure the vapor.
• Temperature Gauge: Water boils at a higher temperature than alcohol. If the temperature increases, there are fewer alcohol vapors and your run is nearing its end.
• Blowout pressure valves reduce the chances of a still explosion.
• A pressure gauge will allow you to turn off your still in case of a blockage.
Regardless of which type of alcohol you choose to make, you will need a few core ingredients. These ingredients are essential to the creation of a good alcohol.
• Malt Grains: corn, wheat, barley, rye, rice
• Vegetables: potatoes, beets
• Fruits: Apples, pumpkins, cherries, pears, peaches, plums, grapes
• Sugars: white sugar, sugar cane, molasses, brown sugar, honey
You can experiment with different ingredients as you gain experience. Basically, anything with sugar or carbohydrates that can be broken down into simple sugars will work to make alcohol.
You will need a collection of glass bottles with lids or caps that create a good seal. Ball jars work well. Bottles with screw on caps also serve as excellent storage containers for finished alcohol.
If you find a bottling system you like, you could even create your own labels.
Procedures & Mixtures
Distilling liquor is a multiphase process. The chemical reactions that take place within each step allow the next step to take place. The steps are as follows:
• Carbohydrates are converted to sugars during the preparation of the mash.
• Fermentation converts the sugars to alcohol.
• The alcohol is then distilled to create the liquor.
Plan to spend several hours making each batch of mash. Bacteria and acid will ruin your mash so sterilization and proper cleaning are important before and after every batch.
There are several ways to make mash. Some involve sprouting grains to convert the carbohydrates to sugar. Others are more time consuming but less complicated. You can find a myriad of recipes for mash online. You will eventually figure out the recipe that works best for you.
Most of the liquors you will make will be made from grains, potatoes, or fruit. Here is an example of a mash recipe that will work well for all three types: The ratio of grain to malt is 3:1. Use 37 gallons of water for every 8 dry gallons of the grain/malt mixture.
Cook cracked corn without malt for 30 minutes and let sit 24 hours in an open container. Add the malt and stir well.
Repeat the steps above but use a 5 to 1 ratio of potato to grain malt. Cook the potatoes in water for 1 hour. Cool the mix to room temperature and add the malt.
You can use apples in almost any condition. All you need to do is juice the apples and ferment without malt. Add yeast if you choose.
This step converts the sugars created in the previous step to alcohol.
Once the cooked ingredients are below 90 degrees, they can be added to the fermentation tank. Add a live yeast mixture to the mash. Close the lid and put all hoses in place. Ferment for 24 hours and check for fermentation.
Leave the tank to ferment for three days. Remove a sample and test with a hydrometer for the alcohol content. Close the tank and allow to ferment until the ideal alcohol level is reached. This can take anywhere from 10 days to 30 days.
Once your mash is fermented to your satisfaction, you can begin the fun.
The proof of an alcohol is double the percentage of alcohol. For example, a liquor that is 50% alcohol is 100 proof. Your still will produce alcohol that ranges in proof from 160 to 190. You can raise the proof of the alcohol by filtering the finished product through charcoal.
• Fill the boiler with the fermented liquid. DO NOT overfill as you need room for boiling and evaporation.
• Light the boiler once you have added the liquid. Alcohol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit and water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The alcohol will vaporize first, leaving the water and any impurities behind.
• The first 2 to 3 quarts should be set aside as they will contain methanol.
• Once the alcohol is mostly evaporated, the temperature of the water vapor will begin to rise. At this point, you will have finished the distillation run. Any further distillation will force water vapor through the system.
• If something doesn`t seem right, turn everything off. Clean and maintain your still to increase its longevity and reduce the risk of an accident.
• The solution left after a distillation run can be saved for another run.
Do not leave your still unattended. You are working with a pressurized system filled with flammable liquid and gas. The last thing you need is an explosion.
Aside from the risk of an explosion, poorly or improperly made alcohol can contain a variety of harmful components. Failure to use quality materials or ingredients can result in health problems for everyone who consumes the contaminated product. While instances of lead poisoning or other illnesses are less common than in the days of bootleggers, the risk of illness is always present when you take shortcuts or use equipment or ingredients that are not of food grade.
For example, badly-produced moonshine can be contaminated with toxins, mainly from materials used in construction of the still. Stills employing used automotive radiators as a condenser are particularly dangerous; in some cases, glycol products from antifreeze used in the radiator can appear as well. Radiators used as heaters also may contain lead at the connections to the plumbing. Both glycol and lead are poisonous and potentially deadly.
Although methanol is not produced in toxic amounts by fermentation of sugars from grain starches, contamination is still possible by unscrupulous distillers using cheap methanol to increase the apparent strength of the product. Moonshine can be made both more palatable and less damaging by discarding the "foreshot"--the first few ounces of alcohol that drip from the distiller. The foreshot contains most of the methanol, if any, from the mash. Methanol may be present because it vaporizes at a lower temperature than ethanol. The foreshot also typically contains small amounts of other undesirable compounds such as acetone and various aldehydes.
Any alcohol that is at least 80 US proof (i.e. 40% alcohol by volume) is flammable. This is especially true during the distilling process in which vaporized alcohol can accumulate in the air if there is not enough ventilation.
Around the world, the government regulation of distilleries is present. Very few countries allow personal distilleries. Those that do permit home distillation often limit the quantity and strength of the alcohols produced.
Before you begin your liquor distilling hobby, check your local laws. If you are required to have a permit, complete the necessary paperwork. While the idea of being a “moonshiner” might seem like an adventure, the legal repercussions of violating a distillation law will soon change your mind.