Introduction: How to Distill Alcohol
Here I am going to explain how to make alcohol safely at home using an Air Still. This is a very simple and effective bit of kit that is also reasonably safe compared to the alternatives. The distiller is built with an 'underfloor' low energy heating coil which is not in direct contact with the liquid and has a condenser coil located in the black housing cooled by blasting air through it. It also has an automatic lock out switch if the distiller runs dry.
There are no naked flames, no exposed heater elements, no running water, no electrical contact relays and lots of air circulation caused by the fan to blow away alcohol fumes. I'm not saying it's perfect, but there have been no reported accidents, as far as I know (Nov. 2016).
Paradoxically, to produce a safe product, a hazardous caustic chemical called sodium hydroxide or 'lye' needs to be used. This can be substituted with sodium bicarbonate if wanted, but a far greater quantity will be required to be effective.
The alcohol from an Air Still will never be fantastically pure, but will have plenty of interesting flavours due to the fact that the condenser is very close to the actual heating chamber, with little opportunity for reflux in the connecting pipework.
Step 1: Equipment
- Air Still
- pH paper
- Sodium hydroxide (pearl not flake), or sodium bicarbonate
- Alcohol meter
- Conductivity Meter eg PRIMO Pocket TDS Tester (0 to 1999ppm)
- Gloves and Goggles
- Scales (0 to 50g)
- 50ml measuring cylinder
- 15mm copper pipe cut into 15mm sections x 20 of
- 3 litre receiver for alcohol produced
- Glass storage bottles
- Brita Water Filter
Step 2: Health and Safety
- Alcohol vapour explosion
- Alcohol liquid fire
- Heavy metal poisoning eg copper
- Sulphurous acid / sulphide poisoning
- Methanol poisoning
- Electric shock
- Irresponsible drinking
- Alcohol addiction
- Sodium hydroxide burns
- User error
- Drinking alcohol above 60% concentration
There should be no naked flames, electrical switching devices, hot surfaces or even mobile phones in the room. A mobile phone can cause an explosion as some of the internal components can get fairly hot:
Heat (about 400 degrees C) + alcohol vapour = self ignition
Make sure you have a sign on all entrance doors warning of the hazards.
Sodium hydroxide needs to be handled very carefully as it can cause skin / eye burns so gloves and goggles are required. Lock this chemical away in a safe when not used.
Ensure that there is plenty of ambient ventilation in the room eg windows and doors opened.
Use an electronic alcohol vapour detector if possible.
Are you confident / competent in handling chemicals and machinery? A competent person has had some experience with chemicals in a laboratory etc. and preferably some relevant training. Do not attempt alcohol distillation unless you are a 'Competent Person' or supervised by one.
Drink in a responsible manner - no more than a couple of units a day and do not drive vehicles or operate machinery whilst under the influence of alcohol. Be aware that even one unit a day can lead to alcohol addiction or dependency.
Step 3: Legal
Check your local laws for the legality of distilling your own alcohol. In many states / countries it is illegal. Also, there may be tax due on the product, even if you use it for personal consumption.
Step 4: Procedure
The starting point is a gallon or so of home made wine / cider / beer, BUT, the yeast used must be from a known strain and not wild yeast that may produce excessive methanol.
- Measure the pH of the brew.
- If the pH is less than 6, using gloves and goggles, add pearls of sodium hydroxide to the brew and stir until the pH level actually reaches 6. Some home brew can be quite acidic eg pH 3.0 and it's a good idea to try and weigh the pearls used to make it easier for the next batch. If the brew is acidic, it's quite likely that natural sulphides will turn into sulphurous acid vapour, which will react with metals such as copper to produce copper sulphate, which is poisonous.
- Add the copper pipe segments to the still boiler - this is a fall back, just in case something went wrong in step 2 above. The idea is that any remaining acid will react with the copper and the copper sulphate produced will stay in the boiler rather than evaporate.
- Add the brew to the boiler, no higher than the line gouged on the inside.
- Place a 50ml measuring cylinder under the output spout and turn on the still, ensuring there is plenty of ambient ventilation eg open doors and windows etc.
- Collect the first 30ml of distillate and discard it as it will be rich in methanol, which is poisonous. Technically, this is called the 'Heads Cut' and can be adjusted for different desired flavours. Some brews will require a greater heads cut to remove other chemicals such as aldehydes, ketones, esters etc.
- Place a large 3 litre 'receiver' jug under the output spout and collect the main run.
- Measure the alcohol content using the alcoholmeter every 15 minutes and stop the process when it reaches 40%. Never drink alcohol if it is above 60%. The exact point at which distillation is stopped depends on the flavour profile required - carry on for longer and more oily 'Fusils' will be produced which can give interesting flavours but more chance of a hangover!
- If the product is cloudy, this is probably copper soaps hanging in suspension in the fluid and so should be redistilled.
- Test the alcohol with pH paper - it should be pH 6.0 and test the conductivity - it should be about a maximum of 10 ppm. If the pH was low there might be sulphurous acid present and if the conductivity was high there might be heavy metal contamination, again, poisonous.
- If there is a problem at stage 9 above, pour the product through a Britvic water filter, which contains ion exchange resins and activated carbon for removing chemicals and repeat the test.
- Taste and smell the alcohol - if it has a strange taste / smell, discard it.
Possible improvements to the procedure include using an electronic alcohol detector to help prevent explosions / fire. These are easy to build with a bit of electronics knowledge.
Step 5: Flavouring
The product can be flavoured with all kinds of herbs, berries and spices eg juniper, blue berries, sour cherries, angelica, bay, liquorice, caramel, molasses, mint, star anise, vanilla, oak chips etc. and even redistilled to get a clear product once more.
Step 6: Conditioning
It's not really necessary to store the alcohol product in an oak cask for 10 years, but it does need to be left for at least 10 days in a glass bottle to mature (Never use any kind of plastic). During this time, complex chemical reactions will be taking place between the hundreds of different chemicals in the product. The overall balance of flavours will change and the product should become more mellow and tasty. Leaving the product to stand for a month or a year will improve it further, but with diminishing returns.
Activated carbon can be used to remove certain chemicals and flavours. Experimentation is key.
Step 7: Tasting
Finally, we're going to need to try and drink the product. This is far more difficult than it sounds and actually 'tasting' is probably the single most difficult part of the whole process! When tasting, we need to have a clean palette ie no food or drink other than water in the last hour. First we swill the glass and then carefully smell the vapours - what do we notice? Then we taste the product - what other flavours are there present? Is anything too dominant? Are there any subtle flavours lingering in the background that need to be enhanced at all?
Experienced, professional, tasters experience a drink like ordinary people might experience a piece of music or a work of visual art. This skill can, however, easily be leant. A useful technique is to use sensory deprivation - blind fold yourself and use ear plugs - sit in a chair for a whole hour doing nothing and then carefully drink some of the product, making a mental note of the range and intensity of the different flavours. Also, ask some of your friends to do the same - it could be fun!
Tasting is divided into 3 parts - the smell, the main taste and the aftertaste. A good example of aftertaste is saffron. Drink something with this spice in it and you will experience the most amazing aftertaste that lingers for about 5 minutes! Try to be creative in describing the taste and relate it to personal past experiences eg Grandad's old desk, frolicking in a hay loft or arrival of the Flying Scotsman.
If anybody has any improvements / constructive criticism, please comment below. This instructable will be updated accordingly, and .....
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Tip 2 years ago
Auto Shutt-off Your Distiller According to ABV Preset Value
3 years ago
Where can I buy that Gadget???
4 years ago
I have one of these too. My method is to double distill from a tomato paste-based sugar wash (birdwatchers). I let the first distillate sit on sodium bicarbonate for a week or so, then dilute to 40% for the second distillation, being very finnicky about my cuts. I let the product sit in carboys for a few days in a cool spot, with the lid open, then carbon filter.
It's important to dilute the first wash to 40% before the second distilling, or the air still gets overloaded. Leaving the cap open allows the traces of ethyl acetate, etc. evaporate off.
6 years ago
I have had this still for over four years now and quite frankly if I'd read this before buying I would never have owned one at all, a lot of what is mentioned is unnecessary if you use the likes of triple distilled turbo yeast (which you can get in a pack containing the yeast, a sachet of liquid carbon, and a two part clearing agent) the end result is excellent and you can make five gallon of wash in seven days, once distilled you run it through a carbon filter such as a Z tube to give it a final polish and to remove any lingering traces of fusil oil, I have never needed to use sodium hydroxide at any point during this time and my 'brews' have always 'went down well' so to speak. Still spirit also makes flavourings that come in 50ml bottles ( Caramel Vodka being a favorite with my lot) and is handy if you want a quick and good vodka, whiskey, rum, etc and in case anyone is wondering, no I don't have shares in the company lol I just think its a really good buy I enjoyed your instructable but any new comer to home distilling could easily be scared off by the complexity of it.
6 years ago
Hi, nice instructables. I'm a bit worried about the side products you may be producing or collecting with your method. To really need to find a way to check the temperature of your steam to improve your process. Therefore, you'll be able to eliminate the methanol for sure and don't waste alcohol you may be throwin away while waiting too long. Maybe a simple kitchen temperature probe could do the trick.
Your pH adjusment method with sodium hydroxide is right and food safe, good on you.
Reply 6 years ago
Thank you for the useful comment. I did hack the top of the still and inserted a digital temp probe, which worked really well. Unfortunately, temperature does not tell me very much about what I'm producing as it all depends on the strength of the wash being boiled. I'd rather lose 30ml of good alcohol down the drain rather than cut it any finer as far as the methanol is concerned. At some stage I might get some of my product tested on a GC machine - need to make some more friends in my local university!
Thanks for the pH adjustment thumbs up - this was something I worked out myself rather than reading in a book, but it's really very important IMO.
Reply 6 years ago
Temp can tell you alot! Watch the temp when distillate first comes over. Chuck first bit. Temp might raise a bit. Keep fraction that comes over at a given temp. When temp rises, switch in new collection container. Collect. Temp raises, new collection container, and so on. Each temp range contains different 'flavors' and different alc content. Higher temp, heavier 'flavors'. Then mix the collected ranges to your taste preferance.
Of course, this is all done after alot of research on CREDITABLE sites so you dont kill yourself or others.
Reply 6 years ago
This sounds like a good tip - thanks!
6 years ago
Plastic is better for the initial storage as the spirit can "breathe" through the plastic. Thats why its aged in wooden casks and not bottles