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.
The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when they hear home distiller or home distillery is a picture of that prohibition era man in his overalls distilling in the woods. This is not the case! Home Distilling is becoming more popular by the day. So what should you do if you want to begin distilling?
1. Check the Law Book
First and foremost, you need to be up to date on the laws in your state and country. Every state is different and requires a different set of forms and permits to get your distillery up and running. We in no way condone the illegal distillation of alcohol at home, but information is not illegal! You may want to use your home distillery for fuel, essential oils or even water!
2. Be Safe
Let’s assume you have checked out all of the laws, filled out all of the forms, and obtained all of the permits. Now you need to be sure you are being safe. Distilling can be dangerous if you aren’t smart about it. The first step you should take is to buy a high quality still for your home distillery.
- Don’t distill in a closed room.
- Don’t use a leaky still
- Keep a tidy workspace
- Always have a fire extinguisher handy.
- Don’t drink on the job – you can partake of your product other times, not while you’re distilling.
- Don’t smoke around the still. Seriously don’t. Just don’t.
3. Have Fun!
Home distilling is really fun! It really isn’t as crazy or dangerous as it has been made out to be. Many of the urban myths you hear are just that, myths brought about by the prohibition era bootleggers. The whole idea that it will make you go blind is a myth from when bootleggers would cut their shine with methanol to save on the bottom line. So, don’t listen to those naysayers and have fun!
If you want to learn more about home distilling head over to stilltalk.com, our online forum for all distilling enthusiasts!
Once your mash and fermentation processes are complete, there’s just one more process before your Fractional distillation is needed to separate the ethanol (alcohol) from the water in the fermented mash, and this is accomplished by using specific levels of heat. When done right, this process will create a spirit that’s high in alcohol content and has a pure, clean kick to it.
magnificent moonshine is ready to ingest.
This type of distillation has been used for hundreds of years to make moonshine, which in turn can be aged in different ways to make many hard liquors.
The Steps to Alcohol Distillation
Here’s how you go from having malt, sugar, and water to making moonshine right at home.
Step 1. Make your mash and ferment it.
We’ve covered this in a previous post, so let’s move on to the next step.
Step 2. Heat the wash in the pot.
The wash from the fermenter is pumped into the pot portion of the still so that the mixture can be heated. Steam is pumped into sleeve around the pot still to slowly heat the wash up to 173° F to separate the ethanol from the water.
Step 3. The ethanol vapor goes through the distillation column.
After being heated, the ethanol/water vapor moves up to a cool copper distillation column. As the vapor condenses, some of it will fall back in the pot while the vapor with the highest alcohol content will continue on all the way to the top of the column.
Step 4. The vapor turns to liquid in the condenser.
After passing through the lyne arm, the vapor enters the condenser. It’s a chamber that has a pipe that the vapor funnels into, which is surrounded by a pipe with cool water. This cools the vapor, which is condensed into liquid ethanol.
Step 5. Collect the moonshine mixture.
The liquid ethanol drips from the condenser into a collection vessel positioned to catch it. It’s important to note that what comes out of the condenser has some variation.
- The first little bit, called the foreshots, contains a high level of harsh chemicals like acetone.
- The ethanol liquid that comes next, the hearts, is the high-content alcohol that’s used to make the base of moonshine and hard liquor.
- The last bit is a lower-content alcohol called the tails.
Step 6. Mix up the moonshine.
Many moonshiners will mix a very small amount of the foreshots with the hearts to make their white lightening. This will give it just the right amount of kick without being too abrasive.
Now it’s time for the best step of all – enjoying your moonshine! If you prefer a little something different, you can age the mixture in barrels to create whiskey or bourbon. You can also make gin by putting a botanical mixture in the pot and redistilling the moonshine.