Introduction: Distilling Basics

Picture of Distilling Basics

this is a companion to my instructable, how to make moonshine, that will explain the basics of distillation. with all of the questions i have received, i find it necessary to write a small primer about what the distillation process is all about. this is not a scientific treatise or journal article. i am not a scientist. i will not get too far into chemistry. this is just the basics, folks, so take that to heart before you berate me for my gross oversimplification of this topic.

distilling is simply a way to separate different liquids dissolved in a solution. henceforth i will refer to each individual component of the mixture as a 'liquid,' and the mixture as a whole as the 'solution.' using a simple pot still such as the one in my fore mentioned instructable i will show the basic science involved in distillation.

i hope this clears up a lot of the questions out there. read up and enjoy.

Step 1: Apparatus

Picture of Apparatus

refer to my instructable how to make moonshine for the basic physical set up. this is what is known as a pot still and is the easiest type of still to build and use. reflux and column are alternate still types that can be used with higher levels of efficiency, but with the trade-off of more difficult construction and operation. in principle, though, they all work the same way. i, however, will focus solely on the pot still.

Step 2: Science

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when i was in seventh grade science class we had a project toward the end of the year that was the culmination of what we had learned throughout this class. it was a big part of our grade and was consequently of great importance. it was called 'mystery lab.'

we were each given a jar containing a random assortment of anything our teacher felt like including--solids, liquids, even dissolved solids. we were then responsible for identifying everything in the solution based on the scientific techniques we had been taught up until this point.

the larger objects--like paperclips and nuts and bolts, etc.--were easy to filter out and identify. where this little story becomes poignant is in the clear liquid left over. this was not simply water, and we had to figure out what was in it. for this we used distillation. distilling this solution while graphing boiling points allowed us to cross reference our graphs with known boiling points and therefore identify each individual liquid in the solution, thus earning a high mark. with this knowledge, you can use a homemade still to make strong alcoholic beverages. who knew they were teaching us how to make moonshine in middle-school!

Step 3: Graphing? Excuse Me? I'm Just Trying to Make Booze

Picture of Graphing?  Excuse Me?  I'm Just Trying to Make Booze

the short answer is no, you don't have to graph. in mystery lab we started with something the contents of which we had no idea. in distilling for liquor we pretty much know what is in there and what to look for. it will help, however, to understand the graphing process in order to understand distilling in general. therefore i will explain it.

whether you use a pot still, or simply a test tube over a Bunsen burner (which is pretty much just a small pot still) the principle is the same. as you run your solution through the still, every 30 seconds to 1 minute record the temperature of the solution in the the pot. when the temperature remains the same for any length of time it will produce what is know as a 'plateau' on your final graph (if you were to actually graph it out). each temperature plateau will correspond to the boiling point of a specific liquid in your solution and can therefore be identified and either retained or discarded.

each type of alcohol (methanol, ethanol, etc.) boils off at a different temperature. and this is the basis for distillation.  by using a little bit of scientific knowledge and a pen and paper, you can find out exactly what is coming out of your still.  this is very important and should not be overlooked. 

in order to have a reference for what you are getting at any given temperature, check out this boiling point calculator. it is not mine and i cannot guarantee it's veracity, but it looks good, from what i can tell.  you can also google the boiling points of methanol, ethanol and water.

Step 4: The Big Difference

Picture of The Big Difference

when you don't know what you have and want to find out you will basically run the still until almost dry and then look back at your graph of boiling points to determine what is actually in the solution. with distilling for drinkable liquor you are only concerned with a very specific boiling point:: that of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. this is where the terms 'heads' and 'tails' comes into play. the heads are anything that boils below the boiling temperature of ethanol and the tails are anything that boils above it.

as the temperature of your pot rises, you will collect and consequently discard anything that corresponds with a boiling temperature less than that of ethanol and in turn do the same for anything boiling at a higher temperature. anything that is boiling off at a temperature corresponding to ethanol's boiling point at your particular elevation, etc., is what you are seeking. once your temperature has increased to a level greater than the boiling temperature of ethanol you can turn off the heat and stop the run. there is no reason to burn it dry in this case.

for instance, if your solution contains methanol, ethanol and water it will happen like this: once the temperature of your solution reaches around 148 °F methanol will begin to boil and come out through your tube as vapor into your condenser where it will convert back to liquid and exit into your receptacle.  the temperature of your solution will not vary much beyond 148 °F until the methanol is gone and then will begin to climb again until it reaches 173 °F, the boiling point of the ethanol.  the same thing will happen here.  the temperature will hover around the same until the ethanol is boiled off and then on to water. 

in order to get ethanol and exclude the rest you get rid of what are called the 'heads' and 'tails.' basically dump anything that boils lower than around 173 °F and everything after the temperature begins to climb again.  more than one receptacle could help in this case. use one for the heads, one for what you want, and one for the tails.

after a run through your still, tossing out the heads and tails, you should have left a bit of alcohol and water worth drinking. multiple runs will distill to an even greater proof, up to a point.

welcome to the wonderful world of distillation, folks.

let me know if any of this doesn't make sense and i will correct it in the instructable. thanks for reading and i hope this helps.


DamianB2 (author)2015-01-05

This is very interesting and i have detained much from this eloquently drawn passage.

pdub77 (author)DamianB22015-03-31

Thank you so much for your kind words!

justane212 (author)2012-02-21

Is there a way to test to make sure you have all of the methanol out of the ethanol solution, other than just plotting temperatures?

DamianB2 (author)justane2122015-01-05

The bubbles

sjacques4 (author)justane2122012-06-17

Distill again and akeep a close eye on change in temperature.

keffertz (author)2013-01-09

Does a Sugar/water/yeast wash usually contain methanol??

DamianB2 (author)keffertz2015-01-05

More often than naught

cbell5 (author)2014-12-15

This Instructable completely cleared this up for me. THANK YOU!

Barnyard tan (author)2014-11-01

You say around five lbs of sugar to three gal of water how much yeast to that ?

guerilla78 (author)2013-02-21

so where im from maple syrup season is just round the corner. maple syrup is made of a cooked down tree sap. tree sap is as a whole sugar and water. now ive never made liquor but im thinkin my first try may be with this simple sugar mixture. any thoughts?

MeeKziii (author)2013-01-07

with the wash, do you put the water suger in the kettle and threw the pipe like you do to get ethonal and methonal out of the water?

MeeKziii (author)MeeKziii2013-01-07

also do i leave the ethonal in the brew?

stormyt (author)2012-12-24

funny.marry christmas.. 2009 it was you said. it is now x mas eve 2012. this is the best explanation after many day of research. thanks can not post to proper post

jjay01 (author)2012-07-15

hey all,
i didnt get any run off or significant break at 148F, did i not wait long enough? any help is appreciated.

warren_adams (author)2012-05-28

This is really interesting a story-tell and a step-by -step guide combined! I've been reading your posts and I'm really learning a lot! I made my first run using a copper pot distiller which I bought just lately. I tried and use your moonshine recipe and it awesomely worked! Well just to add, for those who have the same pot still as mine or at least interested in home distilling, this page might also help you: . I found this thing while I was eyeing on starting this hobby :)

jiggerboy (author)2012-02-23

Hello everyone im new to this stuff and wonder if any of u has any good tips

illegalgame (author)2012-01-18

Can I use a aluminum pressure cooker for my pot? Some people mention it in their instruction and other dont. I had built one before reading other saying no. Do I start over??

catchtoot22 (author)2012-01-15

at 25gallons of water how much sugar and yeast should a man at to the wash this is a hell of a good page i completely understand it all. been around it all my life but you put it in the langauge that i speak and understand thanks

mvasher (author)2011-12-07

I'm curious to know how much shine we should expect to produce each run? A cup, two cups?? Thanks!

durbandave (author)2011-11-25

hey i made my pot still useing a preasure cooker but can anyone tell me the right ratio of fruit sugar and water to use and how long should i leave the fruit before i put them in the pot

hillbillyPop (author)2010-01-25

anybody got the receipe for JD its now £24 a bottle here so i'm up for making my own even elijha craig would be better

check out Mile High Distilling online. they have flavoring concentrates that can be added to the distilates to give the flavor you want to have they also have ready made stills for sale that are of high quality. there are other manufactures of stills and flavoring extracts that can be found with a simple web search. I wish it were legal to make alcohol for drinkinig purposes in the area i live in but unfortunately it isnt. i think they need to include alcohol wiskies in the same classification as diy beer homebrew operations or microbreweries. i have considered buying a still for legal manufacture of ethanol for fuel.

Punkazz189 (author)hillbillyPop2011-07-25

Jack Daniels gets it's distinct flavor and colour from the kegs they age the whiskey in. Unless you have some wooden kegs laying around you probably won't be able to make it. If you want a bourbon, start with a corn based mash. :)

getyourshoes (author)Punkazz1892011-08-16

If you used a glass or stainless steel container you could get the white oak flavoring (or other wood flavoring) by adding some shavings and letting it soak for a while. The process is apparently faster than using actual barrels (according to a friend that has made whiskey for a few decades). Rack it after about a week and you should have the wood flavoring you're lookin' fer.

mpitts (author)2011-08-04

when you boil your wash and you are watching your temperature, the methanol boils out at like around 150 or something. and the ethyl alcohol should boil around 173. at both the boiling points the temperature should plateau. but what is the stuff that drips out of your condenser between the two temperatures? is that safe to collect? do i keep anything after the 150 plateau all the way through the 173 plateau? and also is storing your wash outside not a good idea?

ardousius (author)mpitts2011-08-10

I wouldn't keep the stuff in between who knows what it is. lol

ardousius (author)2011-08-10

hey i was reading everyone worried about the methanol and ethanol boiling points. According to wikipedia (which knows all the answer to life's questions) methanol boils at 143 F and ethanol boils at 173 F so pdub is pretty much correct in his instructions. Nice job pdub

beehard44 (author)2010-12-09

i have one of those broken espresso machines where you just place them on your stove. I was thinking of modifying it to become by kettle by epoxying some copper tubing to the outlet and making it similar to your setup. I'm not making drinkable alcohol, just some alcohol for lab use.

pdub77 (author)beehard442011-01-22

Could work, but a really low yield. I hope you don't need much.

jkb3614 (author)2011-01-22

from what i understand the boiling point of ethanol is about 141 F so wouldnt that make your instructions backwards? as in the first thing to condense in the receptacle will actually be the ethanol, and then second comes the methanol at about 148 F ?
not trying to be a jerk, i just dont wanna go blind haha

pdub77 (author)jkb36142011-01-22

Google it. Not trying to be a jerk either. I've studied this a bit. Don't go blind!!!!! Go to a liquor store if you aren't sure of what you are doing!

jo_hf (author)2010-06-21

hey, i'm midway through creating a still like the one you have and was wanderin wether, when you distill and it reaches the level at which methanol evaporates wether after removing this methanol, any liquid or sediment could still be present in the tubing of the condenser????... :S Thanks

pdub77 (author)jo_hf2010-06-21

Some could possibly still be there, but it will be in quantities that are generally negligible. I'm not an expert, though, so please do more research if you are concerned.

peede1 (author)2009-02-21

Whats the best way to "cut" the ethanol so that people dont burn a hole in their stomachs? Me personally don't want to consume 150 proof. Id personnaly like to be around 80 or 90 proof.

ironsmiter (author)peede12009-02-21

cut with water(filtered tap works well for drinking. distilled/deionized water for most other applications) to make a less-potent version. That is presuming you are distilling a FOOD GRADE ETHANOL. To quote his moonshine 'ible "the hard part is making sure you are getting ethanol and not methanol (or the like). " Having a little methanol mixed with your ethanol, in your flex-fuel lawnmower engine won't hurt anything. Doing the same in your stomach can KILL you ;-( you can also : drink immediately(good stuff warms, instead of burning), filter through activated carbon(and yes 6 passes through a britta filter makes nasty/cheap stuff taste pretty good), introduced with oak chips for flavor and color, burn as fuel in your car, or anything else you can think of. Personally, I'd treat it like vodka... Soak some pears in it for a few months, then bottle. Pears not only add sugar, and flavor, but also tend to "smooth" things out a bit, without needing to dilute the end product.

the rowdyboy (author)ironsmiter2010-01-16

i recently tried soaking toasted oak chips in with my rum and after just 24 hrs in a bottle the flavour was improved and it turned golden. a good tip smiter.

pdub77 (author)ironsmiter2009-02-22

the smiter speaks the truth. good quality water can bring your spirit to a drinkable level (around 80 proof) that can then be used for shots or a mixer with your favorite n/a beverage. filtering through charcoal is also a good way to smooth out the beverage. many of the commercial liquors are charcoal filtered, especially vodkas (which are a neutral spirit such as i show how to produce in my instructable how to make moonshine).

many fruits besides pears can be soaked in the concentrated liquor to create liqueurs and cordials and just some good naturally fruit flavored vodka. citrus fruits impart a lot of flavor from both the meat of the fruit itself as well as the rind. some fruits may need to be crushed a bit to allow the goodness to flow out.

you are right, peede, to shy away from drinking the super high test stuff. it is cool to make for novelty sake and to make your own liquors, liqueurs, cordials and the like, but on its own can be very dangerous. it is easy to drink enough to go into alcohol poisoning before you even feel drunk. be careful, folks. follow this man's example and dilute your liquor before you drink it. 80 proof is still some strong stuff. be careful with anything involving alcohol.

andybuda (author)pdub772009-09-12

true i learned the hard way aswel was so happy i made booze that i could set on fire didnt realize that it was killing me kidneys off after 2weeks started diluting the stuf with vodka that has be cleared in charcoal around 15% stuf

the rowdyboy (author)pdub772009-04-28

so when you make your wash do you add the fruit to tsaste or is it eisier after distillation?

pdub77 (author)the rowdyboy2009-05-03

if you are using it for the sugar to ferment, before. if you are using it for flavor, after.

ironsmiter (author)pdub772009-05-03

I always add the flavoring fruit and sugar AFTER distillation. The higher concentration helps prevent wild yeast from acting on the sugars, and fermenting... on a side note, that's almost exactly how I make my hard cider sparkling. After it's done, I bottle, and into each bottle, a small pre-measured amount of sugar goes in. when the bottle has matured - WHAM - bubbly cider! Depending on your yeast, added sugar after racking, but before distillation, leads to further fermentation.

pdub77 (author)ironsmiter2009-05-04

yeah, adding a bit of sugar before bottling is called 'priming' and is an example of a secondary fermentation. this is how home brewers and purists carbonate alcoholic beverages. cheaper, massed produced beers are actually carbonated the same way sodas are and then bottled. this way the yeast can be filtered out before bottling to create a totally clear beverage. drinking yeast is good for you, though.

parksm5 (author)2009-12-29

My Daughter bought me a book on making Moonshine for Christmas (a great kid or what?) and then forwarded me your link. Many thanks for your clear and concise basic tutorial - I enjoyed it immensely - along with your wit. I'll let you know how the first lesson goes.

pdub77 (author)parksm52009-12-29

That's awesome!  I am honored to be a part of your Christmas.  Hope it goes well.  Let me know if you have any questions.  I will do my best to answer them if I can.  (remind me who you are if you do.)  Take care.


bazalaz (author)2009-10-14

Why is everyone worried about methanol, the cure for methanol isethanol, which is the primary.  The amount of methanol would benegated simply by the fact that you are drinking ethanol..  Here isa quote from a medical site "Specific antidote is ethanol and thisshould be given IV as a 10% solution in 5% dextrose A loading dose of0.6g/kg should be given followed by an lVI of 0.07g/kg/hr fornon-drinkers (regular drinkers should receive 0. 16g/kg/hr):" You are actually in no danger because in addition to drinking a poison,you just drank the cure.

ironsmiter (author)2009-04-28

Not sure what you mean by "oven cement" give a product link, and I might be better able to help. Rubber is, for the most part, inert to the distillation process. But you may need higher temp rubber to withstand the heat.

the rowdyboy (author)ironsmiter2009-04-29

'pyruma ' fire cement. its an english product. for repairing ovens, fires ,boilers etc.

ironsmiter (author)the rowdyboy2009-05-03

Odds are pretty good that it will NOT react, but you'd have to check the ingredients list on the cement. Not sure what you're gonna use it FOR in your setup. Possibly, you're referring to oven Mastic? the glue like stuff used to secure oven glass? Sorry, My queen's english is limited. Cement where I am usually refers to the motor product called concrete. I think you may mean the glue stuff. :-( If you ARE using he glue product to secure or seal the parts... be aware that the steam MAY weaken the joints to the point of failure. that stuff is rated for DRY hot strength. Once cured though, it will probably not react. Probably.

the rowdyboy (author)ironsmiter2009-05-06

thanks for your advise. there was no ingredient list on it. i used it to seal the joint between a stainless kettle and 42mm copper tube. ill stay with it as now its been heated its as hard as rock. will let you know more in a week or so.

pdub77 (author)the rowdyboy2009-05-06

if you die, it's not safe. i'm kidding. you may be able to find ingredients online if you search the manufacturer. alcohol can be rather caustic. be careful, my friend, and good luck to you. let us know how it works. pics are nice! =)

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