Introduction: How to Distill
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Step 1: Distilling
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. 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. Turn off the heat, allow to cool, and dispose of the contents. Next is the final cleaning step called the sacrificial run. You will follow the steps below as if you were making a drinking run, but throw away your 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.
Step 2: Precautions
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.
Step 3: Setup
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 (while the condenser is equipped with in and out nozzles for total control, this could be as simple as plugging the bottom and letting a water hose run in the top).
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.
Step 4: The Run
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.
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. This may seem complex at first, so an alternative way of monitoring the still temperature is a handheld temperature scanner. They are available from local hardware stores for $20-25. If you use this method, maintain the temperature at the top of the onion head between 79°C (174°F) and 88°C (190°F).
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)