Build a Whisky Still

1,510,090

772

298

Introduction: Build a Whisky Still

About: The answer is lasers, now, what was the question? If you need help, feel free to contact me. Find me on Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter as @KitemanX

If you're reading this, I assume you are interested in the theoretical transformation of a relatively weak alcoholic mixture into a relatively strong alcoholic mixture. That is, the distillation of whisky.

If you are just interested in creating your own alcoholic drinks from scratch, then I recommend starting with brewing beer (LINK). It's cheaper, easier, and less likely to be illegal in you area. If you want to try distillation without risking breaking the law, then trythis project.

If you don't know about the early stages of whisky distillation, here is a quick round-up:

Take some grain, and allow it to sprout. Just as it starts to sprout, quickly kill it by drying. It is now a "malted grain". Mix the malted grain with hot water and stir until you get bored - you are dissolving the sugars from the grain into the water. Filter out the solids, and add yeast. Keep the mixture slightly warm (and sealed from the air) until the yeast has turned the sugar into alcohol. You now have a wash that is ready to be distilled. Apparently, the wash has a strength and taste similar to beer, so maybe you would like to start there.

Distillation is the process of separating a mixture of liquids with different boiling points. In this case, we're trying to separate ethanol (alcohol) from water. Pure ethanol boils at 78.4oC, and pure water boils at 100oC, so heating the wash will make the ethanol boil off first.

[This project was first published in 2008 - if you want to see my more recent projects,click here.]

Step 1: What You Need

A still has three separate parts - something to heat the liquid, something to help water vapours condense before they escape the apparatus and something to cool and trap the alcoholic vapours.

I will refer to these parts as the vat, column and condenser. You also need a thermometer with a scale that goes to at least +100oC.

Legal point: It is illegal to manufacture spirits in the UK without a distiller's licence which is required under the provisions of section 12 of the Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979 and this includes manufacture for "own/domestic use". For this reason, my images are a mixture of diagrams and stock photos. This goes against the usual practice here, but I kind of want to keep my job, and if I did it for real, images posted here can (in a UK court of law) be used as evidence against me. Before constructing your still, you must check local licensing laws to ensure you are not committing an offence, or obtain a distiller's license.

Since this is more a guide to function than form, you may choose to use different materials to those suggested, such as paying out for all-copper fittings. This is by no means an exhaustive tutorial, so if you are planning to produce quality drinking-spirits on a regular basis (as opposed to something merely flammable), you may even want to invest in a purpose-built still. Just remember (again) that, in the majority of countries where you can read this Instructable, you need to check the legality of distilling alcoholic beverages for personal use.

Step 2: The Vat

The vat is the container in which you heat your mash. I would suggest the use of an old pressure cooker, as it has a seal around the lid to keep vapours inside the system, and is large enough to hold a reasonable volume of wash.

Step 3: The Column

Alcohol and water have surprisingly similar properties - each will dissolve in the other. This means that you will get water vapours in with the alcohol vapours, but they can be reduced. A tall column above the vat gives the water vapour a chance to condense and fall back.

If you can increase the surface area within the column, so much the better. Looking in my shed, I see a three-foot length of two-inch diameter tube that would be ideal - it's an old bed-leg. To increase the area inside, I could hammer lots and lots of nails into the pipe, or fill it with steel wool. If I was bothered about rust, I could use a similar copper tube and fill it with broken glass.

The column can be connected to the vat by drilling a suitable-diameter hole in the lid of the pressure-cooker, removing the weight-system. The gap between the column and the lid can be sealed with solder, epoxy, welded, or sealed with a compression-fitting, depending on the size of the column and the materials involved. Do not worry about removing the weights or blocking the safety-valve, as the still is never under pressure unless you do something stupidly wrong. The top of the column needs capping, with a hole in the cap to allow insertion of the thermometer. As with the joint at the bottom, this depends on the exact materials you used - it could be as basic as dropping a tin can over the top and epoxying it in place.

Step 4: The Condenser

When the alcohol boils off, it will be a vapour. You can't drink vapour. You need to cool it so that it condenses into a liquid.

This is probably the easiest part to obtain, as coils of small-diameter copper tubing can be purchased from many DIY stores (sometimes called microbore, it is the 8-10mm tubing used to connect up modern central heating systems).

Cut off a convenient length, and insert one end into a hole drilled into the side of the column at the top, preferably level with the bulb or sensor of your thermometer. Seal it in place (epoxy again), and set the other end low down - the alcoholic vapours will cool, condense and trickle downhill into whatever receptacle you have chosen.

Step 5: Operation

Put your wash in the vat, close it, and gently heat it (over the stove, campfire, whatever - heat is heat). Watch the thermometer rise.

As previously mentioned, ethanol boils at 78oC. When the thermometer reaches this point, and remains steady, it means that the vapours surrounding it, and passing down the condenser is mainly alcohol, with some water.

Catch what drips out of the end of the condenser - that is your distilled spirit.

Keep an eye on the temperature. If it starts to rise above 78oC, the bulk of the water is starting to boil, and the vapours you collect will now be making your spirits weaker. You also run the risk of concentrating fusel alcohols in your sprits.

(Fusel alcohols look slightly oily when they drip. If the drips from your still start to look odd, stop the process and save what you have so far.)

How much can you expect to collect?

If you are starting with an alcoholic content of 5% ABV (as many reasonable bitters are), then you will get only around 5% of the volume you put in the vat. That is, one fluid once per pint of wash.

Step 6: Poison!

Some myths:

  • It is a popular myth that illicitly-distilled booze makes you blind.

Wrong.

Methanol (wood alcohol) makes you blind. If you hear about people being blinded by illicit booze, they did not actually distil it, they made some sort of punch with denatured alcohol or antifreeze.

Yeast fermentation of grains does not produce methanol - if your distillate contains methanol, it has come from somewhere else other than the yeast. If your starting mash contains natural or added pectins (grapes, berries, over-ripe fruit (such as windfall apple cider)), then the alcohols produced will have only traces of methanol.

The FDA say that a methanol level of 0.1% by volume is considered safe. According to Tony Ackland, a chemical engineer who started distilling in 1997, fermenting pectin-based fruits can produce 2-3 parts per million of methanol. To produce a fatal dose of methanol, you would need to distil roughly 27,000 litres of mash. Daily doses of methanol below 600mg are considered safe - a dose of that level would require the consumption of 70 litres of 40% whisky per day.

  • Some people say that illicit booze gives you a bad hangover.

Unfortunately, correct.

Neglecting to watch the temperature, or heating the wash too quickly, can result in concentration of higher-order forms of alcohol called fusel alcohols or fusel oils (because they look oily). A small amount of fusel alcohols are naturally present in whisky, and can give a spicy, hot or solvent-like flavour. If you get those flavours in a distilled spirit, watch out for a hangover. Be aware: Very high concentrations (usually caused by incompetent distillation) can cause acute illness, including headaches, nausea, vomiting, clinical depression, or coma. Such liquor may be referred to as rotgut.

If in doubt, you can always pour what you have made so far back into the vat and distil it again.

Some people distil the wash twice. They throw away the residue of the first batch, and put the spirits through again. Second distillations should be done more slowly, and greater care taken to watch the temperature, as the temperature of the vapours will change more quickly.

  • Home-made still tend to explode.

No, they don't. They are open systems, there is nowhere for pressure to build up. If the system leaks pure ethanol, you will get flames.

Explosion may be a risk if you distil in an enclosed space and allow alcohol fumes to build up to stupidly high levels, but that's your room exploding, not your still.

  • Using the wrong metals in your still will poison you.

Partly right. If you are using your still properly, the liquid booze will only touch your condenser. Stories of lead-poisoning originate with people using car radiators as their condensers. Stick to a copper coil (see step 4), and you're fine. The metals of your vat and column will only get into your final product if you heat them enough to vapourise the metal, or you have it so over-filled that the boiling mash bubbles over into the condenser.



Disclaimer:

I have not actually distilled alcohol for quite some time, and then I used proper glassware. I used to work in a lab with a license to distil one litre per year, and not for human consumption. Do not rely solely on this Instructable to inform your distilling activities - do some research of your own, check the local licensing laws, and remember to take it easy if you actually dare to drink the resultant liquor.

Take plenty of water with it, and do not even think about driving or operation hazardous machinery, even after a small snifter or two, since you will not know the exact amount of alcohol you have consumed.
Burning Questions: Round 4

Grand Prize in the
Burning Questions: Round 4

Share

Recommendations

  • Creative Misuse Contest

    Creative Misuse Contest
  • Organic Cooking Challenge

    Organic Cooking Challenge
  • Tiny Home Contest

    Tiny Home Contest

298 Discussions

*Sigh*

Read the disclaimers, please, folks, then read *all* the comments before adding your own...

Hello. Thank you for this piece. How is the spirit tested for alcohol content? Is this something easily done at home?

2 more answers
0
None
JonW76

1 year ago

*From experience* if you wanna be extra safe, toss the first jarful of shine aside. It is too potent and has a very high alc content, it can be dangerous for consumption if made with certain types of mash.

1 reply

what kind of mash is best and safest?

A very nice 'ible (as always). Unfortunately, it is also regulated/illegal to own a home still in the U.S., but informative indeed. I've been eyeing sets of lab glassware that extract essential oils, and I imagine it would work the same if the temperature was controlled enough.

1 reply
0
None
aebe

Reply 2 years ago

Keep things clean and use the right metals in your still , and you'll be off to a flying start .

0
None
aebe

2 years ago

Hello . More safety with metals - All should be food grade stainless or pure copper - that bedpost is probably brass , and will poison you as surely as will lead .

MMMMM

This guy puts new meaning in choose your poison!
A lot of no no's in this, worked in a lab ay? As a lab technician or janitor?

You can get lots of methanol from realy anything you distill including just a simple wash of sugar-water-yeast.

People going blind from a punch mmmm better stay away from wine champagne and beer.

Using a bed post as a column is a good idea if it's made from 304 or 316 foodgrade stainless steel or waterpipe copper tubing somehow i don't see that. You will get contaminents in your wash that will cause you harm in the long run from mostly anything else.

Things like using epoxy to seal up joints is bad you need to use lead free solder or silver solder for that.
It's lucky that you have never done any of this yourself or you might be writing this instructable in hospital.

If you realy want to build yourself a quick or complex still try this place for more info first http://homedistiller.org/
If you want to distill just small amounts glassware is the safest and most accurate way.

Serg

8 replies

I'm a chemist. No no no. You cannot get methanol from distilling fermented sugar/ yeast mixtures/edible grains. Just no. It doesn't work like that. There is a good reason they call it "wood alcohol".

It's actually called wood alcohol because it was traditionally made by destructive distillation of wood. Methanol is found naturally in many things including unfermented fruit and vegetable juices, as well as the products of fermentation. It just isn't found at concentrations that are any concern for toxicity.

I'm not a chemist, but I am a MD/PhD molecular biologist who spent 3 years in a yeast lab :)

A lot of no no's in this, worked in a lab ay? As a lab technician or janitor?

As head of a large industrial lab. As a high school science teacher. As a published science writer.

Let me know when you've actually read the Instructable properly, plus all the replies I've made to other people who have not read it properly (like the other people who think that yeast produces methanol in anything other than trace amounts). If you still have any smart comments to make, make them then.

"(like the other people who think that yeast produces methanol in anything other than trace amounts)" I'm assuming this is a snide remark at my expense. I guess pointing out the biochemistry and science behind it was the wrong way to go. And here I thought it would resonate with someone who claims a scientific background. You can call it what you want - 'trace amounts' or whatever, it doesn't change the fact they are in there. I wont point out the irony that the whole idea behind distillation is to concentrate things that are present in trace amounts. In my average brandy run 3-5% of the total distillate is the sub-78C fraction, and most of that is methanol. Assuming 75% methanol in that fraciton, and assuming that the other 25% is non-toxic, including that fraction into the portion you drink that would be a high enough concentration that 1 servings (i.e. 1.5oz) would exceed what is considered a safe limit. You would hit a mildly toxic dose (i.e. possible blindness) around 6 servings in. For someone who claims to have the background you do, you're sure adamant about something which is both wrong, and a common/ widely reported problem in producing food-grade ethanol. The production of methanol during the fermentation process, and its concentration during distillation is the topic of a multitude of scientific and industrial reports. BTW, homedistiller.org is an excellent resource of home distilation, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the craft.

From your recommended reference

Poor quality home distilled spirit : methanol 0.0186%
Methanol : usual fatal dose 100-250 mL

So, to get a fatal dose of methanol from poor quality spirits, you would have to drink over 500 litres of the spirit at a single sitting.

Also

The lethal dose of methanol is at least 100 ml that is equal to about 80000 mg or you need 27000 liters of mash at least to get that amount.

That is, to produce a single lethal dose of methanol, you have to collect all the methanol from nearly thirty tonnes of fermented grain and water.

>end<

"Poor quality home distilled spirit : methanol 0.0186%"

here's the full link, so everyone can see

As everyone can see, you're distorting what the webpage states. After a discussion of proper distillation techniques - incluiding throwing away the heads, they (correctly) point out that the methanol content will be minimal; even if you do a poor job. But that is with *throwing away the heads*, which is exactly what we've been saying you have to do all along.

But you're counseling people to not throw away the heads. If you do this the amounts of methanol are much, much higher.

For example, most wines have a methanol content of >0.1%; some fruit juices have methanol contents even higher then that - meaning, of course, if you distill them, and don't toss the heads, you'll concentrate them along with your ethanol. Even with grains you'll get methanol produced, although it'll be lower then fruit-based ferments.

As stated before, my personal experience with brandies is 3-5% of total distillate is methanol/other lower-boiling point compounds. I used to do a lot of sugar mashes, and even then I collected 1-2% the final volume of these lower temperature fractions.

"The lethal dose of methanol is at least 100 ml"

Firstly, that is out-and-out wrong. Methanol has an LD50 of ~1ml/kg, and since most of us aren't 100kg, you're toxic limit is way off.

Secondly, I never said anything about death. I specifically said "mild toxicity, i.e. possible blindness", not once did I say "death" or "lethal dose".

Blindness occurs at doses as low as 0.1ml/kg, and permanent eye damage occurs at doses about 1/5th of that. Meaning for me (at 65kg) I'd have to drink a meager 6.5ml of methanol to blind myself, and a minute 1.3ml to begin seeing minor damage to my eyes. That's not very much.

In the case of my Brandies, if I were to put those heads back in I'd have a methanol content of ~3%, meaning to get my 1.3ml worth (onset of eye damage) I'd have to drink a mere 43ml (1.45oz, just shy of 1 serving) to hit a point where damage is possible. 5 servings gets me upto 6.5ml; onset of blindness.

Lastly, there is a growing body of medical evidence that long-term exposure to minute amounts - parts per *billion* range - can have damaging effects of the neurological system, including the onset of a Parkinson's-like disease. Chronic higher doses have a large range of known effects - including, but not limited to - reproductive disorders, teratogenic effects, optic, liver, kidney, and heart damage.

But hey, its your life. If you'd rather continue on in your delusion, and poison yourself slowly, that's your business. But to falsely claim that there is no danger - when there is a well established danger - is just wrong.

Please point out where I say "do not throw away the heads"?

All this argument has happened because people - yes, I mean you - are not reading what I wrote.

Check Step 5 - I specifically say not to collect the condensate until the temperature at the top of the column reaches 78oC - by that point, all the methanol will have evaporated.

I have been discussing the product collected if you follow what I write. You seem to have assumed, that just because I did not use the term "heads" that I am some sort of ignorant fool that is quite happy to encourage others to poison themselves.



"The lethal dose of methanol is at least 100 ml"

Firstly, that is out-and-out wrong. Methanol has an LD50 of ~1ml/kg, and since most of us aren't 100kg, you're toxic limit is way off.

First you recommend http://www.homedistiller.org/, then you criticise me for your recommended site quoting numbers you do not agree with.

Wikipedia agrees with those numbers
According to the official MSDS; "Methyl Alcohol (Methanol) Oral rat LD50: 5628 mg/kg" (I mass about 70kg, so (a rat my size) needs a touch under half a litre to kill me)]

The reference you gave us says that says a 100ml dose is fatal.
The official HSE data says it needs 500ml to kill 50% of those who drink it.
What do you say?

"Please point out where I say "do not throw away the heads"?" My bad, but you have repetitively commented that there is no risk of methanol poisoning, when there is. You specifically attributed methanol poisoning from moonshine to adulterants; which is also false. "First you recommend..." They're a great resource for how to distill properly, build a still, make a mash, etc. But I'll take the medical communities findings when it comes to toxological data. "According to the official MSDS" There is no such thing as an "official MSDS". MSDS's are produced by the manufacturing companies, and simply have to meet some rather weak standards. Take a look at Lilly's MSDS for methanol - they've got completely different LD50's listed compared to yours. And why use the rat standard, when the toxicity in humans is well established? its long been known us lowly primates are far more sensitive to methanol than are our rat brothers. My values - both the LD50, onset of blindness, and onset of optical damage, came from HUMAN data, published in "Medical Toxicology" by R.Dart, published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins in 2003. "Wikipedia agrees with those numbers" No, it don't. Direct quote, from your wikipedia link: "The usual fatal dose is 100–125 mL (4 fl oz)" That 1/5th of your "half liter". For myself thats 1.3ml/kg; just a hair higher than the 1ml/kg I quoted previously. And wikipedia does not state its an LD50, so we don't even know if the two values are comparable. Bryan