Ok, I showed some pics around on New Year's Eve, and there was some popular demand for a set of instructions on how to brew and distill your own antiseptic/paint thinner/drink mixer....aka moonshine.
Now, before you go any further, this is NOT an invitation to repeat my process, and I do NOT take any responsibility for what anyone does with these instructions. The distillation of spirits can be very dangerous and develop poisons if not handled extremely carefully. One type of alcohol will be very tasty and extremely potent, the other will kill you. The difference is about 10F in the temp of your boil.
IF ANYONE FOLLOWS THESE INSTRUCTIONS IT IS AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Ok...now that that's out of the way, a bit of information before instruction. If you know about the formation of alcohol, skip to the next paragraph. Alcohol is formed by the anerobic process of yeast in a sugar solution. What happens when yeast is introduced into a sugar solution is that they break off carbon and oxygen molecules from the sugar, creating a CO2 discharge as well alcohol. The trick to sustaining a good system is to ensure that after initially mixing the yeast with the solution, that you do your best to keep any and all oxygen out of the system. The sooner you can get it out and get the "air" chamber above your solution filled with CO2 the better your final product will be.
Now, I'm a north woods boy, but still quite a bit of a redneck, so when I was living in Alabama and was told by my friends there that there wasn't a chance in hell that I'd ever manage to figure out how to make good moonshine, let alone moonshine at all, I took that as a personal challenge. Since then I've developed a bit of a system and quite a knowledge base of how to produce different types of alcohol, from distilled spirits to beer and wine. Distilled spirits are by far the easiest, but also the most dangerous.
Step 1: Equipment
You're going to need a few things to make a simple, small volume of alcohol. How much you make, and how involved it gets depends entirely on you. This set of instructions is based on the idea that you're going to make a small amount to try this out and don't want to spend a ton of money on it. That means the equipment is going to be a hodge-podge of miscellaneous things as well as being cobbled together....did I mention I'm a bit of a redneck?
You're going to need:
a mash container, something about a gallon in size with a screw-on lid
some silicon tubing, about 2' or so
some silicon, a small tube should work just fine
a quart sized mason jar or mayonaise/peanut butter/other container (empty)
a pressure cooker: WARNING - USE STAINLESS STEEL ONLY! Most pressure cookers anymore are made from aluminum. Do Not Use Aluminum! It will degrade during the distillation process and put "off" flavors into your final product as well as make it dangerous to drink. The ONLY other option to a stainless steel pressure cooker is one that is completely lined with copper. This is the single, most expensive part of these instructions and the most involitile rule: DO NOT USE ALUMINUM, IT COULD KILL YOU!
3/8" copper tubing, about 10' or so
a 5 gallon bucket, make sure it's one you don't care about ever using for anything other than distillation first.
a brass, compression splice for 3/8" tubing
a brass, compression bulkhead for 3/8" tubing
3 collection vessels
lots and lots of ice (you'll be filling the 5 gallon bucket with it....probably 2 or 3 times while distilling)
Depending on what type of compression fittings you get you may need the following tools: flaring tool, drill with drill bits for the copper tube and the bulkhead fitting, and a copper tubing cutter.
About those fittings....for the compression fittings, make absolutely sure that they do not have ANY plastic or ANY lead in them. Lead for obvious reasons and plastic because it will melt when you distill your mash.
Step 2: "The Mash"
Read this WHOLE section BEFORE mixing your mash.....The mash is your sugar solution. You can use ANYTHING that dissolves in water and releases sugar. What you use will affect not only the flavor of your mash but also the flavor of your final product. For those of you wanting to do things very simply for a first run, I'd suggest a simple response: corn syrup. Take a small bottle of corn syrup and mix it with enough water to almost fill a gallon jug, leaving about 3" of free space above the mash. To this you are going to add 1 packet of bread yeast....you'll note, these items are readily available at your local grocery store for relatively cheap. As soon as you add the yeast, you will see foaming and bubbling and all sorts of fun stuff going on. The little yeastie beasties are waking up from the sleep and going to town. This is a good thing. The container for the mash is going to have to be prepared a couple of days before you start. Take the lid of your mash container and drill a hole in the center of it that will alow the silicon tube to slip through it tightly, but without crimping the tubing. Allow it to exted about 1/2" into the container. Take your silicon and smear a bead around the inside of the cap, up against the tubing to make sure it gets a very good seal but does NOT cover the threads. Once that is done it's going to take about 2 days for the silicon to cure completely. After that's cured, you can start mixing your mash and add it to the gallon jug (I'd suggest a milk jug for a first run). Once the mash is mixed and the yeast is starting to work, put the cap on and let the silicon tube hang over the side. It has to be long enough to reach just an inch above the bottom of the jug. Place the tubing into the mason/mayo/peanutbutter jar and fill the jar about 1/3 of the way with water. This is your airlock and your mash is now fermenting. You are going to want to put this somewhere relatively dark with a stable temperature between 65 and 70F for about 14 days. If you let it sit in direct sunlight, or in too warm or too cold of a location, you will kill the yeast before it has a chance to do the work you want it to.
While the mash is working, you need to prepare the rest of your equipment. First step is the pressure cooker. Every pressure cooker has a relief valve. It is typically a pressed-in fitting on the lid. You are going to have to remove it. The easiest way is probably with a drill, but if you don't know how to remove a pressed-on fitting with a drill, you might want to use a file or sandpaper and just grind the lip on the inside of the lid. Whatever you do, DO NOT DEFORM THE LID. Once the relief valve is removed, you will probably have to drill the hole out to allow the bulkhead fitting to fit, or purchase a fitting that is the same size as the hole, but matched for the 3/8" copper tubing. Get that fitting good and tight. This is where the steamed alcohol will be going during the distillation process and any leaks here will be not only a loss of pressure but also a loss of product.
Cut off about 4" of copper tubing, using the tubing cutter, If you need to use the flare tool, then flare both ends. On one end put the compression splice. The other end you will attach to the bulkhead fitting in the lid of the pressure cooker. This spice is just to make things easier to put on or take the lid off the pot. It also makes clean up easier.
Drill a hole in the bottom SIDE WALL of the bucket, just big enough to fit the tubing through (1/2", 15/32" if you have that drill bit). Now comes the part where you will find out just how extensive your vocabulary is....without kinking the copper tubing, you have to make a coil (think spring) that fits inside the bucket but doesn't touch the walls. You also have to have make sure that about 10" extend through the hole you drilled in the side of the bottom of the bucket. This is not fun, it is not easy, and it will frustrate you. The coils inside the bucket should be stacked in a downward spiral and as close together as you can get them....touching is best, but unless you've done a lot of work with copper tubing, don't expect it to look perfect. You are also going to want enough copper tubing (about 3') above the bucket.
This is where planning is going to come into play. You have to plan where you're going to do the distilling and how you are going to set up. Time to dry-fit your tea kettle still together. For ME, I set a chair next to the stovetop. The bucket goes on the chair. Then I place the pressure cooker on the stove, attach the lid and then connect the tubing from the bucket to the lid in a smooth arch/curve. Adujst the copper so everything is seated firmly and and as level as possible. Adjust the spout at the bottom of the bucket so it faces away from the stovetop and slightly downward. The way you have your dryfit equipment is exactly how you want it to sit on distillation day. Without moving any of the equipment, put a LOT of silicone INSIDE the bottom of the bucket all around the copper tubing. You want a VERY GOOD SEAL there. After applying the silicon, measure how high your spout is from the floor and fit your collection vessle there. You may need a footstool, some books or something stable to make absolutely sure the collection vessle is as close to the spout as possible. If it can be avoided, try to not move the still for at least 2 hours while the silicon sets. After the silicon is set, disconnect the splice in the copper tubing up by the pressure cooker, and set everything aside for 2 days to allow the silicon to cure. If you feel the need, you can also put a bead of silicon around the outside of the bucket, around the copper spout as well....sometimes overkill isn't enough, so go ahead and do this as well.
Hopefully you bought all new equipment when you started this product, but then again, you may be like me, and use whatever you had handy. Either way, you need to make a test run to clean out your still before putting your mash into it. By now, the mash should be bubbling merrily in its dark corner and you should be around day 3 or day 4 of its fermentation process. The silicon on the bucket is hopefully 2 days old and nicely solid. Set your still back up. First put the pressure cooker on the stove, filled with water. Put the lid on. Set up the chair and the bucket with your condenser coil, then attach it to the pressure cooker. Get your collection vessel in place. Fill the bucket with ice, right to the top. Now pour water into the ice bucket. Fill it. The reason you're doing this is to ensure a good condensation and temperature transference. The idea behind distillation lies in the science behind it: every liquid has a separate and specific evaporation point (combination of pressure and temperature). Once that evaporation point is reached, the steam of your distilled liquid will rise up in the pressure cooker, then escape the cooker through the copper tubing. This, using the pressure of the boil, will force it down into the bucket, where the hot steam will be introduced to the ice bathed copper coils. The steam will reconstitute into a liquid and travel down the coil to the collection vessel. The more coils in the ice water, the better the collection, and the faster the reconstitution. The water is in the bucket to give a better contact to the copper (again, there's actually a science behind that one). The more surface area in contact with the cold water, the more even the temperature distribution, thus the faster the cooling. Yes, I really am a redneck....just a geeky one.
Anyhow, now that your still is set up, it's time to actually make it work and clean it at the same time. Turn the stovetop on. When you start the stove, check your time. Hopefully you used room temperature water and not cold water. How long did it take to go from room temperature to boil? Write that number down, it'll be important come brew day. Keep the temperature constant, and watch the ice bucket closely. For a while, nothings going to happen. After a while, you'll notice a drip coming out of the spout into your collection vessel. Write the time down that it took from start to first drops. If you watch closely, you'll notice that it goes slowly for a few minutes, then speeds up and stays stead for a while. The length of time that it's slow as well as the length of time that it's steady are also important. Write those down. After the steady phase, you'll notice that the drip slows down again. Check the pressure cooker. Is it empty? It should be empty or very close. Turn the stove off and let things cool down for a few minutes. You just made distilled water. It's pure and as clean as the inside of your system was (which is now clean too!). Dump the collected water. Disconnect the splice at the pressure cooker, take the bucket outside and dump it out. Open the pressure cooker, dump out whatever is left in there and wash it thoroughly, lid and all. Put everything away where it will stay clean, and wait for brew day.
Back to the mash....After 8 to 10 days it will stop bubbling. This means that the yeastie beasties have done most of their work and are either dying or going dormant. SOME, however are still working. This phase of the fermentation process is important to the strength and flavor of your final product. If you have kept water in the mason jar next to the mash jug, you'll notice no air coming out. DO NOT REMOVE THE SILICON LINE OR LET ANY AIR GET INTO THE JUG. Wait a few more days, until the mash has sat for at least 4 days without any noticable bubbles. After 4 days the yeast is completely dormant. Now you're ready to distill.
Set aside an entire day. This is not something you can "squeeze in" unless you've done this many times before and know exactly how long it's going to take you from start to final clean up.
Now, unless you have access to industrial or commercial grade equipment, you're going to notice that only about half of your mash is going to fit into your pressure cooker. That's ok. This is why we timed things with the water. Pour enough mash into the pressure cooker so that there's only about an inch of space left. Put the lid on, and get the rest of your equipment in place, just like you did on test day. Make sure the ice bucket is full of ice and water (more ice than water!) before you turn the stove on (more science...has to do with the back pressure of denser, cold air vs. the forward pressure of the boiling mash reaching an equilibrium and then over coming the back pressure to achieve evaporation point). Turn the stovetop on and start the clock. It should take a few minutes less to reach evaporation point for your mash than it did to reach it for the water. A couple of factors will change that; ambient temperature and air pressure, mash temperature and volume and concentration. Watch the output VERY closely. THIS IS IMPORTANT! Those first slow drips up until it reaches a steady stream...they're poisonous. Remember I mentioned something about each liquid having a separte evaporation point? This is where that's important. In your mash, there's more than just alcohol and water. Some of those solvents are toxic and will evaporate out before and after the alcohol as the temperature and pressure go up or down. Those first slow drops up until the steady stream are some of the highly volatile solvents (low evaporation point) and will be the first thing out. Oldtimers call these the "foreshots."
THROW THEM AWAY DO NOT DRINK THEM!
Quickly change out collection vessels (this is the reason you want them close to the spout...less mess). Check your time. The foreshots should take about the same time as the water-run did, maybe a couple minutes longer. Regardless of how long it takes, do not keep anything before the steady stream starts. Check your time. The alcohol you want to collect is going to be the steady stream, and as soon as it starts to slow down, you want to switch to a different collection vessel. The slow drip at the end is called the "after shots" and is also posionous, throw those away too. At this point you can actually turn the stovetop off. Put a lid on the alcohol in your collection vessel and store it in the fridge/freezer. You are probably going to get about a 1:5 ratio of alcohol to mash, so if you just boiled a half gallon of mash, you probably have less a pint of alcohol. That's going to depend on the concentration of your mash, how long it fermented, how good the yeast was, etc.....generally speaking less than a pint for a half gallon of mash is a good return (especially for a tea kettle still). Open the pressure cooker, dump whatever is left in there, WASH IT WELL, put the rest of the mash in and repeat the process. Make sure you keep the bucket full of mostly ice and some water for the entire process, both times.
You just made your own moonshine.
Now, take a look at the final product. You should have about a quart of a clear liquid that smells vaguely of pain thinner. (hahaha). Pour a little bit on to a shallow plate or into a metal (cast iron) frying pan. See if it lights up. It should burn, without a wick, with a pure, blue flame....no yellow points. If you've done everything perfectly, it will do exactly that. This means you have AT LEAST 150 proof alcohol. I DO NOT recommond drinking it straight. Typically, a good distillation process will result in 80%-90% alcohol. A tea kettle still can expect 70-85%. I like to pour mine into mason jars filled with fruit, then let them sit for a couple of weeks, or mix with juice (grape and apple work exceptionally well for that). Enjoy responsibly. You now have an antiseptic that will steralize better than rubbing alcohol, a paint stripper/thinner/engine de-greaser that will make WD-40 look stupid and booze that will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF. If you did it perfectly right, you can also run an engine off it or use it as starter fluid for 4 stroke engines.
Going forward.......You can stop reading now if you just want to try this out and see what happens. There are those of us that are also purests, and want the best product we can make. This next section is for those that want to take the next step and improve their product.
There are multiple types of stills. The most effective is a refraction still. In a refraction still, the alcohol vapor is condensed and re-evaporated within the steam column multiple times before ever reaching the spout. The effect this has is to remove the impurities in the final product by zeroing in on the actual evaporation point of the target alcohol. The impurities that occur will either drop out in condensation at lower temperatures (foreshots) or reach escape evaporation at higher temps (after shots). If you have a bit of a DIYer in you, I would highly recommend you look up and investigate a "Boka Stil." There are thousands of designs on the internet. I'm not saying you can't get a good product with the tea kettle still I've described here. The difference is that you'll get lucky with a tea kettle still. Sometimes the product will be absolutely excellent, other times it'll just be good (there's no such thing as "bad" moonshine!). A better still will give you more consistency with producing a better product.
About the product....what starts good ends good, right? Wrong. Ever smelled distilled vinegar? Yeah, I let a mash sit too long before distilling it and ended up chasing everyone (wife, kids, dogs, cats) out of the house and ALL of them gave me dirty looks for a week. Starting with better supplies will make for a better product....IF you pay attention and don't let it sit too long. There are a couple of factors that go into that as well. The fermentation of a product is actually an artform. Hobby beer brewers and wine makers have been trying to perfect THEIR special brew for as long as people have home brewed. You can take the above recipe and change out the yeast to get a different flavor, or even the type of sugars you ferment. In essese, you're making a wine and then distilling it. The question is what wine are you making? Whisky starts out as malted grain....any grain. Vodka starts as potatos. Wine as grapes. Beer is basically a pre-whisky mash that didn't get distilled to be honest. If you want to play with different mashes, I'd actually suggest getting a gallon of cheap wine and distilling that first to see how the final product tastes. From there experiment with fermenting different juices and using different yeasts (there are tons of stores online that you can get "better" grades and different of yeast from that are specifically for fermentation). If you're feeling really adventurous you can actually start with fruit and make your own fruit mash with wild yeast. The big thing is going to be the sugar content. There is a certain balance between sugar in solution and fermentation. I don't know the numbers (but I'm sure they're out there), but basically, the more sugar in the mix, the higher the alcohol percentage in the mash...the higher the mash percentage, the more product you'll get in the end. Oh, one point: watch the preservatives in the juices you try. DO NOT USE ANYTHING THAT HAS PRESERVATIVES! They will ruin the flavor of your product. Trust me. I already made that mistake.
The big thing that's going to make the difference in the fermentation is actually the equipment. The gallon jug has what's called a "blow off" airlock on it. As the yeast grows it builds up pressure inside the jug from the release of CO2. As the pressure builds it will "blow off" the pressure down the silicon tube and through the water in the mason jar. We do this to ensure that once the oxygen is out of the jug, it stays out. The less O2 in there, the better the fermentation will be. I personally use a 5 gallon glass carboy with a standard airlock. The quality and amount of your yeast is going to make a difference, but only in how long you have to let the mash ferment. Yeast is a single celled microorganism. If you toss (or pitch as it's called in the alcohol industry), for example a single pack of bread yeast into a 5 gal. carboy of heavily sugared solution, well.....think of trying to handle a Christmas feast for 30....by yourself. You'll eventually finish it all, but it's gonna take some time. The yeast colony has to build up and reproduce. They will eventually reach the point where they are actually doing their job completely, it just takes longer to get there if you don't pitch enough to start. That could be a problem too, though....if the yeast colonies don't reproduce fast enough to get the oxygen out of the fermentation vessel, you risk including "wild yeasts" into your mash. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it's bad. If you like the flavor of the bread yeast (as I do), then figure about 1 packet (2 tsp.) per gallon of mash and you'll have a good amount. Some people disagree as to what type of water to use. I use my well water, but I've got an awesome well, almost no iron or other "contaminants" in it. If you have city water or a well that has a lot of inclusions, I'd recommend either distilling enough water (with your still!) for your mash, buying distilled water (why would you do that? You have your OWN still!) or buying spring water. Things you do not want in your mash are any metals....they will throw off flavors into your product. Anyhow, the better your mash is isolated from outside influences (ie oxygen, light, foreign bodies) the better it will be. The temperature you ferment at will be highly dependent on what type of yeast you use, but generally you want between 67-69F for best fermentation. To read more about the fermentation process, I'd suggest you read this link (even though it's about beer, it gives you a really good idea about the whole process): http://www.howtobrew.com/section1/chapter1.html
About the process:
"When you have a mixture of liquids, each with its own boiling point when pure, then the boiling point of the mix will lie somewhere in the middle, and this will depend on the relative concentrations of each liquid. Pure water boils at 212 °F, and pure ethanol boils at 173.3°F, but a mixture of water and ethanol will boil at some point in between. The major point about distillation is that when a mixture like that boils, then the vapor given off is richer in the most volatile component, and when that vapor condenses then the resulting liquid has a lower boiling point than the mix it came from." ~Mike Nixon from http://homedistiller.org/howitworks.pdf
What this means, if you didn't understand that, is that your mash is going to boil at or about 193°F. The longer you hold that temperature in the mash, the better and purer your final product is going to be. The trick is to slowly reach that temperature, which will be the time from start to the end of the foreshots, then hold hard to that temp until the condensate slows down (end of the steady stream/start of the after shots). While the homedistillers.org website has a lot of good information on it, it seemed like it was too "over the top" for me. Still, if you're really getting into it, there's a lot of good information on their site as well.
If you're wanting to improve your still, there's millions of things you could do: set a temperature probe port in the pressure cooker so you can maintain a certain temperature (as listed above), increase the size or styel of the pressure vessle, put a valve on the output spout....these are just some ideas. All of them require a bit of handiness with tools and metal, and that's not something everyone is good at or set up to do at home. One thing: IF you do decide to build your own, upgraded still, there are some factors you want to keep firmly in mind. First: do NOT skimp on materials. Buy the best materials because you want to make it last. Second, absolutely, without question, no arguments, no if/and/buts or ors do NOT USE ALUMINUM. Further, when soldering the copper together (some still styles require assembly) do NOT USE SOLDER THAT CONTAINS LEAD. And, ANY BRASS FITTINGS MUST BE POTABLE WATER RATED, ie no lead in those either. The only metals you should use are stainless steel and/or copper. Nothing else. No tin, bronze, aluminum, iron, lead.....remember, what goes into the making of your still will also go into your mouth when you drink your moonshine.
ok...final note and then I'm done: if all else fails, having a still handy is also a way to make sure that any water you have, in a survival setting, will allow you to produce good, drinkable water. Even if it starts as nothing more than very wet swamp mud. AND....having an antisceptic you can produce on your own in a survival situation can be a life saver.
These are some very detailed instructions for making a distiller and distillation. I am impressed with the details. Anyone who screws up with these instructions wasn't paying attention.
M. R. Hamilton