How To Moonshine

Fermenting &
Distilling Basics
Making Equipment
How to Make Moonshine Using Sugar How to Make Moonshine Using Grain Moonshine Recipes

Distill the Wash

The distillation stage is usually the home distillers favourite step in the process of distilling moonshine, aside from drinking the finished product that is. The instructions here are for a pot still as pot stills are the preferred still for producing most grain based spirits where we wish to retain some of the flavours that will be collected towards the tail end of distillation. If you are using a reflux or fractionating still it may be possible to detune it by removing the packing in the column so that it functions as a pot still.

It is important to measure the vapour temperature during distillation and the best place to do this is to place a thermometer at the top of the stills column where the vapour will pass before going into the condenser. This will show the temperature of the vapour and give a reasonable guide as to what is currently passing through the condenser. There will always be some variation to the displayed temperature, for example a friend and I both bought our pot stills from the same home brewing supplier and they are identical. The thermometer on both our stills is inserted into a hole in a rubber cork which is then placed in a corresponding hole in the top of the stills column. He inserted his thermometer so that the tip protrudes into the column 5mm further than mine and as a result his readings at a particular stage are about 3°C different to mine. The best thing to do is to get a baseline, perhaps using a sugar wash as they are cheap and easy to produce, so that you know what your still is producing at a particular temperature. Bear in mind that with pot stills there is a degree of overlap, for example it will not produce methanol and then ethanol seperately but produce a blend of the two in the middle as the temperature rises.

Without repeating the information provided on the Fermenting and Distilling Basics Distilling page too much lets consider the steps we would take with our example Bourbon and the cuts we would make to produce a bourbon to our own tastes.

Start by putting the fermented wash into your still. Foaming can be a problem when distilling a grain wash, that is as heat is applied to the wash it forms a foam on top that can be quite thick and will cause problems if it fills the column and the condenser. There are anti-foaming agents that can be added to the wash that can be purchased from your home brew supplier that will reduce foaming. If foaming persists reduce the amount of wash you are distilling on the first pass so that there is room to accommodate the foam. You might also consider heating the wash in your still until the foam builds up and then turn the heat off and walk away for a couple of hours as the foam will subside and you can return and continue distilling with less foaming. As we are going to run the grain wash through the still twice dividing the wash into two or even three batches will not create any problems as the output from the still from all batches can be combined for the second pass. The foaming will not occur on the second pass through the still as the impurities that create the foam will have been removed.

You might recall from the Distilling page in fermenting and distilling basics that the first thing that will be produced by the still is methanol. Methanol is undesirable for a number of good reasons and it will be the first thing that your still produces as the wash heats up. Water is circulated through the condenser on my still (and most other designs) by a pump (an aquarium water pump in my case) and I usually dont turn the pump on until the vapour temperature reaches 60°C. Methanol boils at 64°C so the condenser starts working just in time to catch it as the first thing the still produces. I have an old PET soft drink bottle that I use to catch the first output of the still so that the methanol can be discarded. The methanol will drip out slowly and then faster as the temperature rises. From a 25 litre wash the first 50-200ml will be methanol. When most of the methanol is collected you will notice that the vapour temperature will rise markedly to about 78-82°C and the flow from the condenser will increase markedly. The output from the still is now ethanol and you should now start collecting it in another vessel. I use five litre glass demijohns to collect the output of the still at this point.

Continue to collect all of this first pass without bothering to seperate it as we will be running the output of this first pass through the still again. Collect everything the still produces at this point until you get to a temperature about 2 degrees lower than you would anticipate seeing fusel oils. In the case of my still this is about 91.5°c. Turn the heat off and allow it to cool perhaps a little before discarding the leftover wash that remains in the still. Giving the still a rinse with clean water to get rid of any sediments etc is not a bad idea before commencing the second pass.

What you have collected on the first pass through the still is all of the ethanol (alcohol) and most of the congeners and flavourings. We are going to seperate these on the second pass so that you can then blend it according to your own personal tastes. What you need to bear in mind is that the ethanol has the lower boiling point and will be collected first while the flavours etc have the higher boiling point and will come out later. On the first pass the alcohol content would have been increased significantly and depending on the initial strength of the wash might be as high as 65%. The second pass will bring this up to over 90% in many cases. An alcometer is probably a wise investment so that you can see what you've got.

So put everything that you have collected back into the still and distill it all again. There will be a small amount of methanol still present and you can easy collect and discard the first 50ml just to be safe. Collect everything in one vessel until the vapour temperature reaches around 86°C and then collect the rest in seperate smaller containers. I use clean 375ml beer bottles as they are a good size, handle the heat and are small enough for the size of the batches I make to allow good seperation of the different flavours that are produced as the vapour temperature rises. Keep these smaller vessels in the order than they were collected for later reference.

Once the vapour temperature has reached around the 91°C mark turn the heat off and stop collecting the stills output. Our sample bourbon has been distilled and is ready for blending and aging.