The little moonshiner.... Answered
Found an old topic that someone reactivated with a reply, so I though I do a new one to make it easier.
"Moonshine" can be as tasty as any good spirit from the shops. I have done a few liters back in my days... There are a few things to consider right from the start though. What type of sugar is used, e.g. fruits, corn, wheat, potatoes or plain sugar and water. Equally important is the yeast, some prefer natural fermantation, others use baker's yeast, most prefer dedicated yeasts for wine. Even the water used plays a role in the final taste!
Hygine is another thing that many people overlook or neglect. Anything that can grow in a warm and sweet enviroment will grow rapidly! That means if your yeast is not good or fast enough, other cultures can take over and sometimes totally change the outcome and quality. In some cases, like with fruits to the better but usually to the worse. Imagine you want to bake a nice cake with vanilla in it. But since your vanilla stick is already quite old and you stored it together with your garden herbs in one jar.... You get the idea of taste I hope ;) Just go from start to finnish like you would prepare chicken meat together with fish - keep it clean, keep it healthy.
The still.... Now, if you trust some old blokes doing moonshine since they were kids then it all sounds so easy. But for the hobby brewer there are now tons of options available. Basic pot stills you can put on your stove, electric ones that are basically just an electric boiler with a cooling tube, tower models with several levels of control or the good old "reflux" still in copper. Why is it important to know your way around stills? Again, if you ask a cook then he will tell you why he uses a certain pot for certain dishes or why he won't work with certain materials. Sometimes it is for taste or ease of handling, often just preference. Lets check the main differences in material. We have the modern stainless steel and the classic copper. Stainless steel is easy to clean, won't affect the taste and won't cause any chemical reactions that would alter the taste of your product. That is true only if you trust the manufacturers ;) To compensate for the problems I will explain in a bit they use all sorts of gadgets. I call them brewing helpers and explain them in a bit. Copper on the other hand is now quite expensive and also deemed to be a pain to clean and sanitise. To be honest: how hard it is to clean a still only depends on the design. If you can seperate it into nice straight pieces with good access you can clean anything. But copper was and still is the prefered option for drinking vessels and cookware in a lot of cultures - and it is coming back into our kitchens now as well. Why is that then? Copper has natural sanitising abilities but also reacts with a lot of chemicals. And since copper is considered to be a "good" metal, these reactions usually happen only directly on the copper. Meaning all reaction products stay on the copper as well. Work with fruits or potatoes and a copper still can look dark black and really ugly when done. Do the same in a steel still and then compare the taste ;) Copper produces a far better taste! Especially sufur based compounds react strongly with the copper but also anything causing bad smells or tastes is reduced big time. To flux, reflux not not to flux at all!? A basic still heats the mesh to a set temperature, a cooling coil or similar lets the steam condensate and the alcohol (and everything else) drips out. More complex models have a more tower like appearance and with that allow for a better temperature control. Here the steam will cool down in the tower and at the right height you have the outlet. Brings a much more refined product. The best is still the reflux still however. Here the steam is allowed to travel further and cool down completely. Only a fraction is allowed to come out while the rest runs back down into the heated pot. From first to last model the quality, taste and purity improve. Lets take a closer look on what actually happens inside a still:
Once the mix is hot enough that something can turn into a vapor or gas form it will try to escape. That is why we usually discard the first "head" coming out - it contains the most methanol for starters but also the worst of tastes. Again more on heads and tails later ;)
In a simple still all steam produced is now turned back into a liquid.
One reason why the alcohol concentrations is quite low, around 40%.
But also the reason for the low quality taste that can happen.
Even with a generous amount of head removed literally everything that is in the opt ends up in the spirit.
A good temperature control is a must have and the less deviation the better.
And as with all pots running low, once you are low enough all impurities left in your mesh will be concentrated.
If the bottom now gets too hot they release unwanted tastes...
We skip the tower models and go right to the reflux as the later is just better and includes all there is to say about the tower models anyway.
At least on a hobby level a reflux still already starts with a quite tall boiling vessel.
It just allows a better and more evenly heating of the mesh inside.
While the bottom part is hotter than the top currents form that constantly mix what is inside.
The heat is controlled so there is no real boiling, in the best option so that no part of the pot will go over 85° C.
When all is hot enough so the first alcohol could run out the system is actually still closed.
All vapour has to run back down the tower - which is why some towers even come with cooling fins...
As a result all things with a low boiling point will stay in the tower as vapor and once the still is opened they come out first.
The heads can be much smaller then too ;)
Since the outlet is set at a suitable height and is naturally cooler than the steam, a lot of steam will condense above the outlet.
Much more below it and only a fraction is collected to run to the outlet.
That means that once the system has reached stable temps throughout that the tower is filled with ethanol vapour only.
And since it is constantly re-boiled and runs back down and up all that comes out is already at quite high concentrations.
With a good setup as high as 95% vol.
It also means that you can have a great level of control about what exactly ends in your ethanol.
Depending on how high the outlet is located a different amount of things that can either bond with ethanol or have a similar boiling temperature will be collected.
Sole reason why most simple pot stills are designed to work with sugar and clean water only...
When working with fruits as a base you often want quite a lot of the flavours and tastes preserved.
Only experience and trying will get you tot he sweet spot where the alcohol content is just right and all wanted flavours are included.
Go too high with your quality and the alcohol is too pure, go too low and the taste is bad...
Which of course brings us back to why you should take your time before the cooking starts!
I know far too many people who have no patience when it comes to the end of fermantation.
Some yeast might be still active, far too much sugar left over in the mesh or just not enough care in general...
You want most if not all of the sugar gone and used.
What is not dead in terms of yeast needs to be dormant due to the alcohol concentration.
And that can be the tricky part already!
You see, once yeast dies off quickly due to the alcohol only the strong survive.
In some cases, especially if you re-use your leftovers often, these few can still be active at over 20% of alcohol volume in the mix.
The best option is to have a spare fridge and to put the entire container or drum in there.
Let it sit cold for a few days, the yeast goes dormant, all sediments settly down to the bottom as no CO2 is produced anymore.
Once all is really nice and clear use a hose or similar to remove the clear content only!
Be careful here and once the levels are low use a seperate container to drain off!
Take out what you can and if in doubt let what you take settle again for a day or two.
Doing this time consuming step will make sure you only boil up what brings you the good stuff.
On the other hand, when using potatoes, fruits or such you might have to press the liquid out and and add that to what you drained off already.
I prefer to do this first and just put it back into the big drum again to let it all settle together.
Ok, you only use sugar anyway but what comes out just does not taste or smell right...
Would also mean you only use a basic still...
As mentioned before the heads are what contains all the nasties.
There are ways to actually measure if there is methanol present but for what we do now this is not so important.
When the dripping start use shot glasses or such to catch it.
Preferably while watching it ;)
Smell what it is the glass when you put the next one under.
The first glass should smell quite bad anyways.
Quickly the smell in the glasses will change to something more "pure" and alcohol like - now start collecting for use.
With a simple but good controlled still you will see the flow increases and levels out at some point.
When the volume starts to go down your tails start.
It is good practise to now use a seperate collecting vessel for the rest until what comes to fully discard.
At some point you will notice the difference between just enough and really good temperature control.
In a really good system the flow will go down to a slow drip or even stop.
While in a dirt simple one the flow will just slow down for a while and then suddenly start running again.
This running happens when the remainig water starts boiling...
Keep smelling what comes out and once the taste or smell changes noticably again use a different container to collet what comes out. - This is you first tail collection.
What comes out until the smell and taste go bad is your second tail collection - now you can turn your still off for a while.
Let all what you collected cool down to room temperature is not already.
Check what you collected from the heads, helps to have small jars for this ;)
From start to last the smell should get better.
If the last two or three collections smeel somehow interesting then add them to your main collection.
Smell the first tail collection again - it should not be that bad anymore, especially if you let it cool down slightly open.
Especially when working with fruits you might to add quite a bit of this to your main collection.
If only sugar was used just move on to the last tail collection.
In case you still don't like the smell mix the tail collection together and keep in a seperate and sealed vessel.
Those tail collections can then later be used to destill them again (with more tails from other runs) to get a decent cleaning alcohol or something that might still be worth adding in small amounts for a better overall taste.
However for sugar only mixes it can be considered to be for cleaning purposes only.
What you have now is little waste and a lot of almost good alcohol.
It still contains more or less amounts of unwanted things that mainly come from the yeast and their by-products.
To "clean" you alcohol the best option is to destill it again - it will also increase the concentration quite a bit.
Best option here is to use properly filtered and prefeably demineralised water to get back to a full fill of the still.
If your still is quite small and what you collected would make for one or two full fills then go for it.
Be warned though that you should not fill it up to the full mark, a bit under is better as the mix now will boil far quicker and more violent.
Personally I prefer to have the alcohol conectration in the still at around 205% only.
As we already discarded the worst of the worst in the heads during our first run only a tiny amount, like half a shot glass should be too bad in terms of taste and smell.
Whatever comes after shall be fine.
Again, once the tails start try to be carefull and if you can slow things down a notch.
You will see a quite destinct reduction in the flow rate once the tails start - use a new container right away.
The alcohol concentration should now drop quickly too as another indicator.
If you want just pure tasting alcohol add what you comes out from this point to your tails container for later use as you don't want to drink it.
Again, for fruits and potatoes you might want to keep the first bit of the collected tails.
You alcohol concentration should now be already over 75% even if a basic still was used.
The overall volume you collected will be lower accordingly of course - so don't be too disappointed by the liters you got from the second run.
In a perfect world you now would use some nice barrel and let your creation age...
But since we do moonshine...
There is a chance that even after two runs you still taste and smell things you don't want or like.
So if in doubt do it all again and get to 90 or more percent...
Either way the final stuff should be now either watered down (filtered and clean of course) to the desired level.
How to further improve on the outcome....
There are little helpers along the way to get far bette results than without using them.
If you check ready to go kits then they often contain specialised yest strains, a carbon mix and some "clearing aids".
The yeast part is obvious, although I do prefer life prt wine yeast anyway.
Carbon or activated charcoal is used to bind some of the bad odors and tastes the yeast produces.
Keep in mind they are designed to work together, unlike using proper wine making cultures.
Using power yeasts without carbon always results in a low quality.
The clearing aids actually change the acidity levels and cause some things to mineralise or otherwise change so they settle to the ground.
But they mainly make sure the yeast is dead.
If you only use sugar then these kits are your easiest option and just follow their instructions.
For fruits or anything else however you might want to try the slow route and use actual wine making yeasts for a change ;)
And of course here we do not use carbon at all as we actually want to keep the taste of waht we use.
We already had the proper way of getting the mesh to settle down, so that bit is clear.
For sugar only you can now try to run your creation through activated charcaol or just add it and mix it.
Let it sit and mix again for a few days.
You do not need to filter the black stuff out, just drain it carefully and run the last bit through a coffee filter.
Nothing will end in your destilled product.
Inside the still you can use ceramic bioling thingies of all sorts.
They provide a surface for water or mix to boil on instead of just the bottom.
If you can't them for a good price then just use the stuff for aquarium filters ;)
As said earlier too, copper is good but most modern stills are made from steel.
If you can't find any copper wool pot cleaners you can cut some plumbing pipe into small sections.
Inside the boiling vessel they will quickly turn brownish black while collecting bad things.
Cleaning is easy with some cirtic acid/delimer/coffee machine cleaner...
For a tower or reflux still it really helps to have these copper pads or wool inside for a far greater surface area to aid condensation and slow down the run off.
I know how hard it is to get the stuff these days so if no other option use stainless steel ones and only loose the benefit of more cleaning through chemical reactions.
Tools that come in handy....
Monitoring the sugar and alcohol level to know when the mesh is right is quite obvious.
What might not be is that you can correct bad level towards the end of fermentation.
Yeast already dying slowly but far too much sugar left? Just add luke warm water to lover the alcohol conectration...
Yeast going dormant with low alcohol levels? The sugar might be out so chack and if in doubt add some more.
A good stir will help the remaining yeast to get more active in a day or two.
So these little glass measuring tools should be put to good use from the start.
During the destillation a purpose made overflow pipe to hold your alcohol tester is extremly helpful!
The destilled liquid goes in through a pipe or hose at the bottom of the pipe.
The bottom is closed, the top open to allow to drop the alcohol tester inside.
Overflow or outlet should be just under the rim.
During your run you can now see directly how the alcohol content changes.
It will stabilse once the heads are finnished and get a slight rise just before it drops during the tails section.
Improving basic desing of a basic still...
Once you are done with a dead simple pot still and buy a reflux or tower model you might wonder why you did not build one yourself.
What looked good on the pics and in the shop turns out to be still a bit away from perfect.
The outlet might not have any flow control or is located to low/high.
The vital overpressure protection might be missing and the thing sometimes runs out like a garden hose...
For the later you can slavage some old pressure cooker and use the weight with the screw in counterpart in the lid ;)
A simple hole in the top with flat weight on it works too, I used an old rubber plug from my bathtub one (could not find the purpose made one in time).
For the outlet you can cheat a bit ;)
Wrapping the tower with some insulating material improves on the heat loss - this helps if the still struggles to heat enough to provide a proper flow rate.
Cooling the tower with wet towels, running water or similar well help on hot days or if the outlet is located reall high with little chance to provide decent condensation in the lower parts.
How to cheat with the barrel....
No matter if you just run with sugar or if you prefern corn, wheat, fruits....
For some spirits good taste means good age.
And well, good age for commercial spirits usually happens by resting in wooden drums.
Oak, white oak, red gum and several other types of wood are used.
Some small destilleries even use only locally available wood and won't even tell you which tree it was...
Means we have a few chocices if we don't want to stick to the well known classics.
But how do we make a barrel ?
A good one is not just made from any old wood - the wood needs to be of the right age and moisture.
To keep it simple just treat it like your firewood and let it rest for the same time.
A good barrel is often "charred" - burnt with a flame or by rolling it with burning charcoal inside.
This does two imortant things:
1: It provides charcoal to bind remaining bad stuff.
2: It releases some sugars from the wood plus resins and othe stuff.
Both are an essential part of the final product and aging process!
Now it becomes clear why a good sprit cost more than vodka...
Using a neutral vessel like glass to age your spirit is one thing, preparing the wood the right way another...
You see, size matters here in several ways.
Big chunks provide a decent surface are without causing too much debris.
The also provide more tannins for the color and more resins and sugar.
Smaller chunks provide more charcaol for a higher level or binding impurities.
But both will soak up far more alcohol than the correspong barrel size would!
Obviously, if you are on a small scale on only got about 5 liters of alcohol to deal with loosing much is bad.
The best way to char the wood IMHO is inside a clsed can or steel box.
Just a small vent hole and a lot of turning with the right eye for when the wood is charred enough to be black and sealed.
Opinions vary here but I use about a cup full of wood per 5 liters of alcohol at around 93% vol.
Some goes for the storage, apart from dark some can't really agree here.
Tossing and turning is as much prefered as undisturbed resting - take your own pick.
The thig I do differently after the filtering off is to re-use the wood that is soaked.
It goes into a freezer bag until the next run of the still and then the frozen wood is just added to the second still run to get back the alcohol in it, plus some nice taste and smell :)