The Simplified Guide to Making Moonshine
By Jason Stone
Disclaimer: this guide is for provided for general information purposes only. The information in this guide does not constitute legal advice. Whiskey Still Co. does not warrant that the information is in every respect accurate. Whiskey Still Co. is not responsible for errors, omissions, or inaccuracies in the guide or the results obtained from use of the information provided herein. Whiskey Still Co. will not be responsible in any manner for direct, indirect, special or consequential damages or losses whatsoever arising out of the use of this guide or the product. Whiskey Still Co. will not be responsible for any damages you may suffer through improper use of the product.
The art of moonshining is just that, an art. There are a million-and-one ways to do it and most all of them are correct. The amount of information available on the subject is large and confusing enough to immediately crush the spirit of a new distiller before they ever take one step forward. The purpose of this guide is to help a complete novice moonshiner successfully make their first batch of moonshine—start to finish. However, learning should not stop here. Whether it is whiskey, rum, vodka, or gin, there are many great people, resources, and books available that are full of great information on whatever pursuit you have in mind.
The principal of fermentation:
Whether you’re making beer, wine, or moonshine the fundamentals of creating alcohol from scratch are the same. Simply speaking, there are only three ingredients: water, sugar, and yeast. Yeast is a micro-organism that lives in water, eats sugar, and its byproduct (waste) is carbon dioxide and alcohol.
The principal of distillation:
Once you have a solution of water and alcohol, you need to separate them. Distillation accomplishes this by taking advantage of the different boiling points of water (212°F / 100°C) and alcohol (173°F / 78°C). In theory, if the temperature of a water-alcohol mixture is raised to 174°F (79°C) the alcohol would begin to boil off, but the water should still be too cool to boil. You can then capture the alcohol vapor, cool it down, and are left with liquid alcohol.
Alcohol is extremely flammable, and in its vapor form it can be explosive. Care, vigilance, and attention to detail should be practiced at all times during distillation and handling of any refined alcoholic products. Although distillation can be practiced indoors, it is not advisable to do so unless you have experience. Also, distillation should never be done with an open flame heat source while distilling indoors or other confined spaces.
Methanol is a deadly poison and even low amounts of exposure can cause optic nerve damage (blindness). It is created as a byproduct of fermentation, but in such small amounts that you typically do not need to remove it. However, it is common practice to do it as a precaution and to improve the taste of your product. Since methanol boils at 144°F (62°C), it will boil first when you are distilling and because of this you should discard the first ounce of alcohol per every 5 gallons of mash.
Distilling alcohol, even for home use, is illegal unless you have the proper government approval (both state and federal). Consult your local, state, and federal laws before attempting to distill legally. If you choose to distill illegally, know that if you are caught fines and/or jail time may be the consequence.
Grocery list: what you’ll need for a 10 gallon recipe
This recipe is completely scalable. If you want to make 5 or 20 gallons, simply half or double the recipe.
1. 1 Can (12oz) Tomato Paste (not sauce)
2. 1 Lemon (large, or three small)
3. 2.5lbs Potatoes (any kind will work, just grab a cheap 5# bag and use half)
4. 20lbs White sugar
5. 2 Tablespoons of baker’s yeast (Fleischmann’s or Red Star, buy the 4oz bottle instead of the packets to save money. If you have a Costco or Sam’s nearby you can save a ton buying in bulk. Also, choose highly active if you have a choice)
6. 10gal Fermenter, this is what will hold your mash for 1-2 weeks while it ferments. There are a few options available here. One: Brute trashcans are made of food-grade plastic and make great fermenters. Two: Local donut shops typically give away or sell their old filling buckets; these are also food grade and extremely cheap, try to get them in 5 gallon sizes. Three: Buy new 5 gallon buckets from a local brewing supply store for $5. *Note:* when making a 10 gallon mash, mixing is much easier in a container that can hold all 10 gallons, however, lifting and moving it becomes a monumental task. Two 5 gallon buckets are much easier to move alone, but a bit harder to mix.
Making the mash:
1. Boil approximately 2.5lbs of potatoes, then mash completely. Making them runny is preferred because they will mix easier.
2. Fill the fermenter half way with hot water, any water you can drink is fine for this recipe, including tap.
3. Mix 20lbs sugar into hot water. Stir until completely dissolved.
4. Mix mashed potatoes in. Stir until dissolved.
5. Mix 12oz tomato paste in. Stir until dissolved.
6. Juice one large lemon, add juice to fermenter mix.
7. Top up to 9 gallons with water. Alternate between hot and cold to reach a target temperature of 80°F (27°C) - 70-90°F (21–32 °C) is fine, but do not go over 95°F (35°C) or you may kill your yeast.
8. Once at target temperature add 1oz (2 tablespoons) of yeast. Stir until completely dissolved.
9. Place lid loosely on fermenter. You want to allow carbon dioxide gas to easily escape, but keep bugs from getting in.
10. Set out of direct sunlight and maintain temperature between 70-80°F (21-27°C)
11. Mash should begin to fizz or bubble within the first 24-48 hours.
12. Check daily until either all activity in the mash stops or the mash has been fermenting for two full weeks.
13. Distill promptly (within 3 days).
First time use:
When using a new still for the first time, you must clean your still in a more thorough manner than through normal use. The procedure starts with washing all parts of the still very thoroughly with hot-soapy water. Filling and draining each piece multiple times is often necessary to remove the byproducts of manufacturing. The second step is called a vinegar run. Simply mix equal parts vinegar and water to roughly one-fifth the capacity of the still (i.e. a 1 gallon mix for a 5 gallon still). Setup the still and condenser (without water), pour in the mixture, and heat until water/vinegar liquid and steam come out of the condenser. If the liquid that comes out of the condenser is not COMPLETELY clear, you will need to do this step again. Turn off the heat, allow to cool, and dispose of the contents.
*note* There are several things that will cause discoloration and off-tastes. They are residual flux from soldering/welding, oxidation of copper, and sharpie marks from marking up sheet copper for cutting. All are certified non-toxic, but obviously should be removed before making a drinking batch. The initial cleaning step should be taken seriously so you so not waste more than one run.
Next is the final cleaning step called the sacrificial run. This step is suggested, but not completely necessary. You will follow the steps below as if you were making a drinking run, but throw away your entire first batch of moonshine. This will clear the still of anything that could possibly taint the taste of future runs. For un-scientific reasons, this is also considered a rite of passage for a new distiller and is the all-important christening of the still.
1. Never leave a running still unattended.
2. Never drink while distilling.
3. Never block the outlet of the still. Doing so may result in overpressure and explosion.
4. Never use an open-flame heat source while distilling indoors. Distilling outdoors is always preferred.
1. Set the base of the still on your heat-source.
2. Pour in mash, but take care to keep the sediments that have settled in the bottom of the container from going into the still since they can cause off-flavors. Additionally, leave approximately 4” of space at the top of the still to prevent boil over into the top section or worse, the swan neck and condenser.
3. Place and seal the onion top. The sealing can be done using a thick water/flour mix and pushing it in and around the seam where the top and bottom meet. Another option is wrapping the bottom of the onion head with plumber’s Teflon tape before setting it in the bottom part of the still.
4. Attach condenser.
5. Keep the condenser cool. This is done by filling the condenser body with water and continually adding ice (frozen water bottles work great too) or using a continuous stream of cool water from a kitchen faucet or water hose. Just put the supply hose into the condenser and either let it overflow naturally or use the outlet nozzle to direct the flow to a kitchen sink or flower bed.
6. Set a container at the outlet of the still to catch the moonshine. Keep in mind that while some plastics are fine to use, most are not able to safely handle high concentrations of alcohol. Play it safe and use glass, Mason jars are excellent for this.
1. Start applying heat. Use high heat until you can hear the mash boiling. You can also carefully touch the pipe that connects the onion-top to the condenser, when the still is up to operating temperature this will go from cold, to warm, to hot very quickly. Once you reach this point cut the heat to half and watch the temperature gauge.
2. Regulating heat: once liquid starts to come out of the condenser, you want to turn down the heat so that it is not a constant stream. Drips are fine, as are breaking or intermittent streams, but a constant stream means the temperature is too high. Pure alcohol boils at 173.3°F (78.5°C) while water boils at 212°F (100°C). The closer you get to 173.3°F (78.5°C) the more pure your product will be, but it will take longer to distill and have less taste. Conversely, the closer you get to 212°F (100°C) the weaker the product will be but it will have more taste and take less time. For your first run just split the difference and aim for 190-194°F (88-90°C) by adjusting the heat.
3. Throw away the heads: as a precaution against methanol poisoning you will throw away the first ounce per 5 gallons of mash.
4. Monitor for leaks: frequently inspect the seam between the onion-top and the pot for escaping vapor. If any is found, simply plug with the flour-water mix taking care not to burn yourself with the hot escaping vapor.
5. Keep the condenser water cool: frequently monitor the condenser water temperature. Cold or cool water is great, lukewarm water is a warning that it needs to be cooler. If the water gets warmer then lukewarm then you should stop distilling immediately.
6. Ending the run: you will notice that once you get your heat set correctly it needs very little manipulation. This is one way to tell when you are done distilling. When you reach the end of the run you will notice that the onion top temperature will suddenly drop along with the moonshine coming out of the condenser. This will happen without any change in heat supply. Whenever you experience significant change in this manner you can conclude that the run is over, so turn off the heat and allow the still to cool completely before cleaning.
7. Once the still and mash are cool, dispose of the mash. Flowerbeds are great because the wasted mash is extremely high in nutrients.
8. Wash the still with dish soap and hot water then immediately towel dry. The condenser coil can be rinsed out with hot water, no soap is needed. (if you are planning on running another batch immediately after then a quick rinse with water would suffice)
Once you have your moonshine there are an infinite number of things you can do with it. I am going to cover only a few of the more common ones.
This is the process of literally watering down the concentration of alcohol. The primary purpose of this is to add volume to alcohol. For example: 1 quart of 160 proof moonshine can be watered down to 2 quarts of still very potent 80 proof moonshine.
This is the process of further increasing the proof of an already distilled moonshine.
Carbon is used much like a water filter to remove bad tasting contaminates from moonshine. Unfortunately, it also removes the good tasting flavors as well. Because of this they are normally used to make a neutral moonshine that will then be mixed with fruits or wines later.
This is the process of simply adding flavors and/or sugar to a jar of moonshine to enhance the taste. From apple-pie to coffee, nearly everything can be used. Use a coffee filter to strain the mess after letting the concoction sit for a few weeks.
Many types of liquor have a special ageing process that defines them, one example is Whiskey. Part of the process is that it is stored inside a charred-oak barrel for a specified amount of time. Since most beginner moonshiners do not have access to oak barrels this can be recreated by simply charring a piece of white oak and putting it into a mason jar filled with moonshine. Over time the moonshine will age, turn color, and become a very basic whiskey.
Questions? Need more information? Start your learning here:
Modern Moonshine Techniques by Bill Owens
The Alaskan Bootlegger’s Bible by Leon W. Kania.
Good luck and happy distilling!