How to make a 'still' for fermenting alcohol

When I was a kid, wayyyy back in the day, I watched a lot of the TV show Mash.

The doctors were always making cocktails in their tent - they had mastered the art of using a still to make their own moonshine/alcohol.

You can too!

If you were not aware, a still is a device used to separate alcohol from fermented liquid, such as wine, beer or fruit mash, by heating it and collecting the alcohol vapour. It's a great example of using science to help you make some of your own spirit cocktail creations.

Gather the materials: To make a still, you will need a large pot or kettle, a smaller pot, a copper or stainless steel tubing, a thermometer, a copper or stainless steel cooling coil, and a collection container.

Or you can buy a professionally made still

moonshine still



Assemble the still: Place the large pot or kettle on a heat source and add the fermented liquid. Place the smaller pot on top of the large pot and make sure it's securely in place. The smaller pot will act as the "still head" and it should be able to hold the cooling coil.

Attach the cooling coil: Attach one end of the copper or stainless steel tubing to the still head and the other end to the cooling coil. The cooling coil should be placed in a container of cold water to cool the vapor and condense it into liquid.

Heat the still: Heat the still and monitor the temperature with a thermometer. The temperature should be kept below 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius) to prevent the creation of harmful compounds such as methanol.

Collect the alcohol: Once the temperature reaches the desired level, the alcohol vapor will be produced and pass through the tubing and cooling coil, where it will be condensed back into liquid and collected in the container. 

At face value, this is a simple process but be very wary about methanol.


Here are some tips for using a still for alcohol production:

  • Use a high-quality ferment: The quality of the fermented liquid will greatly affect the quality of the final distilled product. Make sure to use high-quality ingredients and a clean, sanitized fermenting vessel to ensure a clean and pure distillate.
  • Monitor the temperature: As mentioned before, it's important to keep the temperature below 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius) to prevent the creation of harmful compounds such as methanol. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature and make adjustments as needed.
  • Use a proper condenser: A proper condenser is critical to the distillation process. The condenser is used to cool the vapor and turn it back into liquid. It's important to use a good quality condenser that is able to cool the vapor quickly and efficiently.
  • Use a hydrometer to check the alcohol content: A hydrometer is a tool used to measure the density of a liquid and thus the alcohol content. Take a sample of the distillate and measure the alcohol content to ensure that it's safe to consume.
  • Start with small batches: It's recommended to start with small batches until you gain more experience and understanding of the distillation process.
  • Be aware of the laws and regulations: In some countries, it's illegal to distill alcohol at home. Be aware of the laws and regulations in your area before starting to distill alcohol (more on this below)

The risk of methanol when distilling alcohol


When using a still to separate alcohol from fermented liquid, it's important to account for the presence of methanol, as it can be seriously harmful if consumed in large quantities

Methanol is a type of alcohol that is produced during the fermentation process, and it has a lower boiling point than ethanol (the type of alcohol found in beer and wine). This means that methanol will boil off at a lower temperature than ethanol, and it can be present in the final distilled product.

To account for the presence of methanol when using a still, it's important to monitor the temperature and keep it below 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius) to prevent the creation of methanol and other harmful compounds. This is because methanol boils off at a lower temperature than ethanol, around 148-149°F (64-65°C).

Another way to reduce the presence of methanol in the final product is by using a column still that has a higher reflux ratio, this allows the methanol to be redistilled and removed before the final product is collected.

It's important to note that distilling alcohol at home can be dangerous and can produce harmful compounds. It's illegal in some countries and should be done with caution and under the guidance of an expert. Additionally, the alcohol produced by this method should not be consumed without proper knowledge and understanding of the risks associated with consuming high-proof alcohol.

You can always consider tasking a sample of the distillate and have it tested by a professional to determine the alcohol content and the presence of methanol.

Can I use a still in the United States to make alcohol?


The legality of using a still to make alcohol varies from country to country. In some countries, it is legal to use a still for personal use, but not for commercial use or sale. In other countries, it is illegal to use a still for any purpose.

In the United States, it is legal for an individual to own a still for personal use, but it is illegal to use it to produce alcohol for sale without a license from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). 

In Canada, it is legal to own a still for personal use, but it is illegal to use it to produce alcohol for sale without a license from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

In the United Kingdom, it is legal to own a still for personal use, but it is illegal to use it to produce alcohol for sale without a license from the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

In Australia, it is illegal to distill alcohol without a license from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).

It's important to check the laws and regulations in your country before using a still to make alcohol. Additionally, it's important to note that distilling alcohol at home can be dangerous and can produce harmful compounds. It's important to seek guidance from an expert to ensure that the process is done safely and correctly.

Should I use a Reflux Still or a Pot Still?




When it comes to distilling alcohol, there are two main types of stills that are commonly used: Reflux stills and pot stills. Both have their own set of pros and cons,

Reflux Still:


Pros
  • Reflux stills have a high reflux ratio, which allows for a more efficient and precise distillation process.
  • The higher reflux ratio also allows for a higher alcohol content in the final product, typically around 95% ABV.
  • Reflux stills can produce a neutral spirit with fewer impurities, as the reflux column allows for the removal of impurities before the final product is collected.
  • It is more efficient and requires less energy than a pot still.

Cons:

  • Reflux stills are more complex and expensive to build or purchase than pot stills.
  • It's harder to control the final flavor profile of the spirit using a reflux still, as the reflux column tends to strip away some of the flavors and aromas.

Pot Still:


Pros:

  • Pot stills are less complex and less expensive to build or purchase than reflux stills.
  • They allow more control over the final flavor profile of the spirit, as the pot still allows for some of the flavors and aromas to be retained in the final product.
  • Pot stills are ideal for producing traditional spirits such as whiskey, brandy, and rum.

Cons:

  • Pot stills have a lower reflux ratio than reflux stills, which means that the distillation process is less efficient and the final product is less pure.
  • Pot stills typically produce a lower alcohol content in the final product, typically around 60-70% ABV.
  • Pot stills require more energy than reflux stills.

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