Sour Mash vs. Corn Mash: What is Better for Distilling?

Sour Mash vs. Corn Mash: What is Better for Distilling?

Aficionado or connoisseur, devotee or fan, those who understand the difference between bourbon and whiskey are already familiar with which is better for distilling.

Distilling whiskey involves the use of starchy grains, which are ground into a mixture, hence the term “mash.” The mash is then fermented before it is distilled, blended, and then finally aged. This is the point at which we can distinguish what separates bourbon from whiskey, despite the fact that most people assume they are one and the same.

While bourbon falls into the whiskey classification, not all whiskeys are bourbons. To be classified as bourbon, the grain mash used in distilling the whiskey must contain at least 51 percent corn and be aged a minimum of two years inside a new, oak barrel. Bourbon distillers typically have all the necessary materials to make new casks.

Another misconception is in thinking the term sour mash refers to the bourbon’s flavor, although it does have to do with producing a consistent taste.

Sour mash is a process. Sour mash distilling is akin to the process of making sourdough bread using a starter to achieve a consistent taste from one loaf to the next. By adding some of the spent mash, which is the previously fermented mash that contains live yeast, the home distiller is better able to control the yeast growth, thus producing a consistent spirit from one bottle to the next.

Both bourbon and sour mash whiskeys are descended from the moonshine that was originally produced in Kentucky and Tennessee. While connoisseurs may continue to debate over which is the superior brew, all would concur that they both comprise the distinctive American distiller’s craft. There are even societies devoted to the study of these uniquely American spirits.

Bourbon Whiskey is Made in the United States

Named for the French-Bourbon dynasty at the time, bourbon whiskey first began in territorial Kentucky. Blue Ridge Mountain distillers in both Kentucky and Tennessee managed to hide from revenue agents during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, which had everything to do with allowing the moonshiners to thrive in an unregulated industry. The successful production of these mountain distilleries eventually evolved into the refined bourbon and sour mash that famously hail from these parts today.

It was not until 1964 that the U.S. Congress ruled that bourbon whiskey is a “distinctive product of the United States,” and Federal regulation defines bourbon whiskey to include only bourbon that is produced in the U.S. Bourbon-makers do exist in other counties, however, only the bourbon produced in Kentucky is permitted the use of the name of the state on its labels.

The labels hold useful information to help you identify the whiskey. For example, by law, to be labeled Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, this bourbon has not been blended with other whiskeys, has been produced using some of the mash from a previous batch, which is the “sour mash,” and the entire product was made in the state of Kentucky.

While Tennessee whiskeys are produced using corn mash distilling, makers may only specify “sour mash” on the label if that process is used. These spirits may use the same bourbon recipe, but they are filtered through maple charcoal to achieve a different overtone. The strongest influences on the taste of bourbon are the grain, the yeast strains and the new, oak barrels. As well, even the type of wood used will contribute to the taste.

Both Kentucky and Tennessee are located where large limestone layers filter the water to a superb clarity for whiskey production and is considered by Kentucky bourbon distillers to be a signature element in their sour mash process. The predominant grain used to make all bourbon is corn, at least 51 percent. It is preferred for the sweeter, robust vanilla and maple syrup flavors that come from the sugars. Unlike the single malts made entirely from barley that come from Scotland and Ireland, rye, barley and wheat tend to be added to make up the balance of grain contained in the mash.

It All Starts with Corn Mash Distilling

Small Yeast Bubbles of Yellow Bourbon Mash with selective focus

It is generally thought distilling began in Kentucky in the late 1700s introduced by the Scots, Scots-Irish from the province of Ulster and others including the English, French, Germans, Irish and Welshmen. The possibility of identifying a single inventor of either whiskey or bourbon is unlikely.

Charring barrels for enhanced flavor when aging whiskey is a centuries-old practice in Europe. It was inevitable that this practice would migrate with the settlers.

Numerous counties were founded in the vast regions west of the Allegheny Mountains proceeding the American Revolution. Despite the region’s burgeoning growth, most people continued to refer to this area as Old Bourbon. As it happened, the main port in Old Bourbon where the whiskey was shipped was located on the Ohio River in Kentucky.

To indicate their port of origin, “Old Bourbon” was stenciled on the barrels. Like it or not, this strongly associated any corn-based bourbon whiskey with the name Old Bourbon. Most often, this was the first taste of corn whiskey most people ever had. In Tennessee, they prefer to call their bourbon “Tennessee whiskey” instead. The production process for both Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are the same except that Tennessee whiskey is charcoal-filtered before going into the barrels.

Your Choice of Grains Influence the Flavor

Whether starting as whiskey or intended to be made into bourbon, it all starts with a mash bill that requires the minimum 51 percent corn with any cereal grain making up the remainder. Wheated bourbon is the result of using wheat in the mash bill instead of rye making it milder and smoother on the tongue. A higher rye content produces a dryer, spicy whiskey. The corn sugars produce a rich and syrupy quality and lends to a leathery finish as the spirit is aged. Craft whiskey distillers experiment with many different grains as accents to the corn.

Corn whiskey may either be unaged or aged in previously used barrels. You can really taste the corn influence in these whiskeys as there are little to no barrel flavors influencing the batch. If mash from a previous distillation is added to the corn mash to ensure consistency, then you have a sour mash. Most bourbons today are run off a column still that is then redistilled in a thumper. The clear spirit produced from this process is called “white dog,” which is placed in the charred new oak casks for the aging.

Sour Mash Distilling is Essentially Yeast Management

The yeast strains possessed by Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries have survived since prohibition with patents filed for their isolated yeasts. The primary purpose of the sour mash is the control of yeast reproduction with the pH balance being key to this process. Even the object used in this process are autoclaved to ensure no foreign element contaminate the desired yeast strain. The consistency of the batch depends upon this careful handling.

The sour mash process is much-praised for its ability to create an acidic environment for the yeasts. When prepared with fresh spring water as it is in Kentucky and Tennessee, its chemically neutral condition is neither acidic nor alkaline. With a pH of about 7, the yeasts cannot work correctly. It is the addition of the sour stillage, or mash, with a lower pH of between 5.0 and 5.4 that leads to the acidification of the entire mash. This brings the pH up to between 5.4 and 5.8, which is ideal for the yeasts to work properly.

Clearly, you can see the advantage to using sour mash when your goal is to achieve consistency in your white dog or if you intend to market your product as straight bourbon. The decision is ultimately yours, but at least now you have some knowledge as to the laws and regulations that come to bear upon how you identify your distillations.

What States Allow Home Distilling?

What States Allow Home Distilling?

If you or someone you know would like to make moonshine, it is important to understand what the state and federal laws are that help regulate the production and consumption of moonshine.

Only one state allows home distilling at the state level: Missouri. You can learn more about Missouri’s distilling law by reading the statute here. However, that doesn’t make it legal at the federal level, so the overall legality is still a bit murky.

In most cases, federal law aims to regulate the recreational production of moonshine and other spirits without the proper permitting. Exceptions to the rule exist if you live in certain states that allow home distillation. For example, in Missouri, anyone 21 or older can distill up to 100 gallons of moonshine per year for personal use, but you are still obligated to pay taxes on anything produced.

Federal Distilled Spirits Permit

When people ask, “Is moonshine legal?” they are often wondering whether or not moonshine is legal in their home state so that they can move forward with a still operation without breaking the law.

In the US, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) regulates the production of moonshine through a permitting process. If you live in one of the many states that ban moonshine production outright, you can apply for a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit, however, hobby distilling is usually not permitted. We should note that this path is not an easy option for most people because it can be expensive and involves a complicated application process.

To learn more about the Federal Distilled Spritis permit, visit here.

Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit

The other most common avenue that home distillers utilize when looking to distill at home is the Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit. This permit allows you to product fuel alcohol without the intent to consume. Also administered by the TTB, this permit is free and allows you to produce moonshine without jumping through tons of hoops. You can apply for free and only need to fill out a simple application form. Once the government approves your application, you can begin distilling alcohol without trouble.

The alcohol you produce, however, is only legal if you use it as fuel.

So this might leave your wondering: “How the heck do you get started learning the distilling trade if I’m not allowed to do it anywhere except Missouri?”

That’s a great question! The truth is we cannot condone any activities that fall outside of federal and state regulations. Your best bet to learn the distilling trade is to visit commercial distilleries and take classes there.

For more questions about home distilling tips, get in touch with Hillbilly Stills today!

Is Home Distilling Dangerous?

Is Home Distilling Dangerous?

When it comes to home distilling, the hobby can be really fun, but you also need to make sure that you’re taking the proper precautions so that you have a tasty and safe product. With any given still setup, there are inherent dangers involved; there’s a heating element, flammable vapor, and moonshine byproducts – methanol and ethanol – which can be dangerous if they’re exposed to heat or consumed improperly.

At one point or another, you’ve probably heard that distilling is inherently dangerous and might be wondering if that statement holds any water.

The truth is the distillation process can be dangerous if you aren’t following the proper precautions, using bad equipment or don’t follow the proper steps. With any craft of hobby, there is the potential for harm, but home distillers are no more in danger than a home mechanic might be of a car falling on their head. If you use the right equipment and the proven process, you really have nothing to worry about. The home distilling safety guide below will help.

Common Dangers

Fires or Explosion

The distillation process naturally produces alcohol vapor and two key byproducts: methanol and ethanol. Both of which are potentially flammable. Exposed to an open flame or dangerously high temperatures, and you could end up with an unwanted fire. Explosions are pretty rare and at no point should pressure in your still setup be high enough to actually explode. As long as you’ve got the proper equipment and a safe setup, the chances of combustion or explosions is rare.

One way to avoid any chance of fire altogether is to use an electric heating element. Electric heating elements create heat without the use of an open flame making it much, much safer to utilize in a copper still setup.

Bad Moonshine

The other prominent danger during the distilling process actually comes after you’re done brewing. If you drink improperly made moonshine, there’s a chance that you can suffer health problems as a result. The good news is that if you follow any home distilling instructions, you can easily avoid drinking bad moonshine.

The distillation process produces alcohol in the form of ethanol. As a certain boiling point, your mash will create an alcoholic vapor which is captured in the distilling column and finally condensed in the kettle. As your mash is heating up, the first chemical component – methanol – which has a lower boiling temperature actually condenses first. This is why, you’re supposed to throw out the first part of your batch. As your mash gets hotter, the methanol boils off and then you start creating ethanol vapor, which is what you want to make.

Methanol is the chemical that has given moonshine a bad rap and the source of the “moonshine will make you go blind rumor.”

So, to answer the question. No, in general, home distilling is not dangerous. Hillbilly Stills has helped countless home distillers set up their still safely to avoid an accidents. We also distill ourselves. As long as you’re using the proper equipment and are following proper instructions for making moonshine, you’ll be able to home distill safely and securely.

For more information on home distilling or to find home distilling products, visit

Can Moonshine Make You Go Blind?

Can Moonshine Make You Go Blind?

We’ve all seen the cartoon of the old man hiding a jug of hooch underneath his beard. Those jugs are always labelled “XXX,” giving the impression that it’s a dangerous mixture to consume.

If you have ever considered drinking or making moonshine in your own home distillery, you’ve probably hear someone mention that those who drink moonshine can potentially go blind.

Contrary to the old wives’ tales, moonshine does not make you go blind, especially if it’s made with quality ingredients and professional equipment. Methanol toxicity is the root of the old adage that moonshine makes you go blind. Methanol, a byproduct of the distilling process, is metabolized in the human body and forms formaldehyde, which can damage the liver as well as the optic nerve, resulting in blindness.

Methanol Toxicity

There are specific reasons bad moonshine can make you go blind or even cause death, but if you’re drinking quality homemade moonshine, you likely are safe from the problem.

In the distillation process, ethanol and methanol rise out of the fermented alcohol and into the moonshine jug. Although ethanol is safe to consume, methanol is a poisonous byproduct and can cause blindness and death as mentioned above.

Methanol boils and evaporates at a lower temperature than ethanol, so it’s recommended that you dump the first 5% of your distilled moonshine as the initial amount contains a most of your methanol. This batch is called the “foreshot.”

As you take precaution and follow and proper home distillation process, you should have no issues in dealing with methanol.

Lead Contamination from Improper Still Setup

In some rare cases, a batch of moonshine can contain lead. This is almost always, always a result of faulty equipment. Some home distillers would use old automobile radiators to distill their moonshine, and those components are made out of lead-soldered parts. During the distilling process, the alcohol can pick up lead elements.

Once your moonshine has been distilled with lead parts, it’s no longer drinkable.

There was a specific case in Alabama during the early 90s when there were a series of cases where patients showed symptoms of lead poisoning after ingesting anywhere from .2 L to 1.5 L of moonshine per day. They reported symptoms including seizures, anemia, weakness, and abdominal colic.

Luckily, 99% of the time, any readily available moonshine wasn’t distilled using old car radiators so you’re in the clear. As long as you have quality equipment during the distillation process, you moonshine will always be lead-free and safe to consume.

Drinking moonshine will only make you go blind if you get a bad batch. Make sure you trust the person making the moonshine if you don’t want to run into trouble along the way, and you will have nothing about which to worry.

Ready to start home distilling? Visit our site and get gear, distilling tips, and more!

How Do You Make Moonshine?

How Do You Make Moonshine?

While it may have a dubious history, moonshining, or “shinin’” has developed into something of an art form. At its essence, moonshine is just unaged and or flavored alcohol fermented from a wide variety of sources. Moonshine is traditionally fermented from corn, but you’ll also find moonshine fermented from other sources, like grain.

There are many different ways to create moonshine and add a personal touch to the end result, however, the traditional method always revolves around three basic steps: fermentation, distillation and collecting the distillate.

The Basics of Making Alcohol

It’s possible to make alcohol out of any grain, fruit or vegetable that goes through fermentation. This process is essentially the chemical reaction that occurs between two basic ingredients – a yeast breaks down sugar.

For moonshiners, the base ingredient of choice is a corn mixture called a “mash.” A 5-gallon mash-yeast mixture will typically take two weeks to ferment.

After the corn mash is fermented, the alcohol must be distilled.

Distillation involves heating the alcohol turning it into steam. This separates the actual alcohol content from the mash. This requires having a still furnace to boil the mash mixture and a still cap with a distilling flute that allows the vapors to filter into a new holding tank. From there, some moonshiners will prime their distillation with more alcohol or cool down the alcohol into a condensed liquid form. The distillation process is based on the fact that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water.

Before you can collect the distillate, the alcohol must run through a condenser that is cooled by water or ice. Bootleggers would often set up their stills along a river or creek and run the distillate through pipes submerged in water to cool the alcohol down. Today, most distillers have a 3rd chamber that has cooled copper tubing running throughout.

Once cooled, the filtered moonshine will then drain out of a spout at the end of the condenser.

Remember, the first 5 percent of your production should be thrown out. This is extra-strong methanol that is dangerous to consume. The trick to making good moonshine is finding the best portion of distillate. Therefore, you should expect a bit of trial and error for your first batch.

What You Need to Make Moonshine

While the basic ingredients and process of making of moonshine are simple, it’s important to have the appropriate equipment available so you can distill effectively and safely.

Typical Distilling Ingredients

To add extra kick or flavor, some moonshiners incorporate certain fruits, yeast nutrients or even more alcohol into the process, called a “thump.”

To successfully do a run of moonshine you’ll need the following equipment:

  • Mash pot – used to mix the mash and heat the mixture to generate the alcohol steam
  • Heating source – this can be an electric or gas burner underneath the mash pot
  • Distilling Column – this is where the the alcohol vapor rises and moves through the cool vertical copper column
  • Condenser, or Lyne Arm – once the highest percentage alcohol steam travels through the distilling column it condenses into another cooler metal pipe where the mixture cools down and turns back into a liquid
  • Barrel or Aging – the clear ethanol typically needs to go through some sort of flavoring or aging process, so most distilling setups have a post run flavoring/storage component like oak barrels

If you’re interested in getting into moonshine and home distilling, you can get all the essential ingredient and supplies over at Hillbilly Stills.

Please Beware of Lead When Buying a Still

Please Beware of Lead When Buying a Still

So you’ve decided to get in the moonshine business, eh?

It doesn’t matter if it’s just a hobby or you’re looking getting in commercial micro distilling, the first thing you do is search for the perfect still. When buying a still, do yourself a favor and always ask the manufacturer where the copper still came from.  Are they made in house, or do they order from China?  This is a major decision point for you.  If the still came from China there’s a very good chance that it will contain lead.  If a still contains lead there is a good chance down the road it will cause issues for you! Nobody wants issues!

Chinese Made Stills

The Chinese make some beautiful equipment and at first glance, they appear to be very well made.  Don’t let this fool you, do your research before you make this big investment! You want to save yourself from as many problems down the road as you can when buying a still.


When buying a still, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What kind of alloy does the company uses for the joining of the metal (Welding)?
  2. Who are you going to call when you have a problem with the equipment?
  3. How long will it take me to get any replacement parts that I may need?
  4. What is the best way to communicate? (maybe you work and can only communicate via email, it’s across the world will they be available 24/7?)

The last thing you want is a batch of ‘shine coming out tastin’ like metal.

Moonshinin’ is hard work, and nobody wants to see their hard work going down the drain. We hear it over and over again, “My moonshine taste like metal!”  Well there’s an easy solution, BUY AMERICAN MADE! When buying a still, if you buy your equipment from an American builder you shouldn’t have any problems with customer service and replacement parts. You will also increase productivity and quality when you purchase a serious still. Plus who doesn’t want to support American Made Products and American Jobs? USA! USA! USA!

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  1. Do you make your copper products?
  2. Can I come by and take a look at your facility? (if not beware they are hiding something from the public)
  3. Are they willing to set down and discuss your options?
  4. Can you reach the manufacturer by phone?