In many ways, moonshine is similar to all other types of alcohol you can buy at any liquor store; the distillation process can only happen in so many ways so the difference really come down to the type of mash and flavoring you intend to use. However, there are a few key differences between your typical moonshine and other spirits. For the home distiller, if you’re interested in buying or making moonshine, you should understand what it’s made of and how it’s produced.
At its core moonshine is made of the following components:
- Hot water
- Post run flavor/aging (optional)
Like whiskey, moonshine is primarily made using corn. Historically, moonshine has also been made with rye, white sugar, and fruit, but the most common four main ingredients are almost always cornmeal, sugar, yeast, and water. Other ingredients can be added for more flavor, but they’re not necessary for the process of making moonshine.
To ultimately produce moonshine, you need to put the ingredients through 2 key processes: fermentation and distillation.
First, the corn is ground into cornmeal. Then, the meal soaks in hot water in the still, and the sugar and yeast are added. The yeast starts the process of fermentation, which is the chemical breakdown of the sugar by the yeast. The byproduct of that breakdown is what we lovingly call “alcohol.”
After the fermentation process has started, the stone furnace – or other heat source – underneath the still is heated up. As, pressure builds up in the still, and the alcohol steam evaporates, steam travels through a series of pipes into a another chamber where it is cooled. For most home still setups, you’ll only have two stills, the heating and cooling still. The second still is known as a worm box and it consists of a coiled pipe that is surrounded by cold water or ice.
Typically, home distillers will have some water source to provide continual circulation of cold water around the worm tube. In the old days, shiners would divert creek or stream water into the worm box as a natural source of circulating cooling water.
The cold water condenses the alcohol steam back into a liquid, which completes the distillation process. Finally, the now-liquid moonshine travels through a spout or hose into a bucket, bottle, or other container for post run flavoring and aging.
For advanced distillers, you might find a 3 still setup. The middle still, known as a thump keg is a heated kettle that helps to filter out some of mash chunks that sometimes make their way into the steam pipe. Some distillers might even charge the thump keg with mash or booze to give their moonshine an extra kick.
If you’re familiar with whiskey distillation, you’ll notice a lot of similarities in how you make moonshine.
The main difference between the two is the aging. Moonshine is often bottled right out of the still, but whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels before it’s sold giving it its brown or amber coloring. That’s why moonshine is often clear, and it explains why moonshine has such a strong kick. It hasn’t had any time to mellow down before being consumed.
Hillbilly Stills specializes in home distilling equipment for making moonshine. Search our products at the links below to get a head start on your first batch of moonshine.
When distilling moonshine, you have two primary options to use as your mash pot still: copper still and a stainless steel still. One of the most common questions among new moonshine distillers is which still is better and what are the differences between them.
Some people prefer copper stills, and others swear by stainless steel. Both options have their benefits and drawbacks, so, at the end of the day, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference. Before you invest in a still, get to know the two major types of moonshine still and their differences.
Copper is the traditional metal used in moonshine stills. The reason it is so popular is because of all the food-safe materials you can use, copper is the best conductor of heat, so you can precisely control the temperature while you distill. It’s not wonder traditional French cooks prefer to cook with copper pots and pans.
Even and radiant heating is necessary in the fermentation process, because you want to keep your mash at a certain temperature to generate the alcohol steam. If you’re struggling with temperature fluctuations, there’s a chance you can burn your mash or spend a long time heating it up.
But specific to spirit distilling, using copper also removes sulfur compounds in the alcohol, which improves the taste and quality of the moonshine.
The major drawback of utilizing a copper still is that it tarnishes easily and can be somewhat difficult to clean, so you may spend more time doing maintenance on a copper still than on a more durable material like stainless steel. Last but not least, most copper stills are more expensive than stainless steel, which can be a drawback for people who want to distill on a tight budget.
Stainless Steel Stills
Stainless steel is typically cheaper than copper, so it’s a great option for beginners who don’t want to break the bank on their equipment. It’s also very durable and easy to clean. If you want a low-maintenance still that can withstand tarnishing, stainless steel is a good choice.
The main disadvantage of a stainless steel still is that it doesn’t always conduct heat evenly. It can take a long time to heat up the still and cool down the water, so you may not be able to distill with as much precision as you can with a something like a copper still. Stainless steel also doesn’t break down or remove sulfur compounds, which is important for the production of high-quality moonshine. However, you can add copper mesh to your stainless steel still to remove the sulfur compounds and improve the taste and aroma of the alcohol.
Ultimately, the best still for you depends on your experience, your budget, and your priorities. While many experienced distillers agree that copper produces the best moonshine, you can also make a great product with tough and durable stainless steel.
Lose the Cloudy Moonshine
Proper moonshine is crystal clear. No matter where you’re from, where you’re going or who you’re voting for, that’s an inarguable fact upon which we can all agree. Any hint of cloudiness is indicative of a flaw somewhere in the distilling process leading to a quality level that even the most modest consumer should not have to tolerate. But there can be several possible explanations for why the finished product isn’t as clear as water. So let’s clarify:
Bring the heat – just not too much
Managing the temperature added to the still can mean the difference between clear and cloudy moonshine. If it’s too high, liquid will boil up into the still’s column and drip down into the collection vessel. This process (sometimes referred to as a still “puking”) leads to the cloudy stuff. And we know what you’re thinking so go ahead and insert your own joke about puking and moonshine here. For a quality product, however, enjoyed responsibly, back off the heat. Just don’t back off too much or your moonshine cook will last longer than a presidential campaign. Some throw out a temperature range that is most appropriate: 172 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Others watch still output closely to know whether to add or take away some heat. If liquid is pouring out of the still, back off the heat. If the still is putting out a drop at a time, turn it up.
What’s in the water?
Minerals found in some tap water can turn your shine cloudier than a Seattle skyline. The obvious work-around here is to use filtered water whenever possible. Additional tips concerning your water: make sure your moonshine and water are at the same temperature when mixing, and always pour the water into the distillate.
Keep out the yeast
When transferring the wash into the still, use an auto-siphon. This helpful device will hold separate the yeast and trub that has sunk to the bottom of the fermenter, which is good because if the yeast makes it into the still, your moonshine will fog up.
Tails of woe
Fusel oils can be another culprit of cloudy moonshine, and these guys appear when you’re not making the proper tail cuts. Keep the hearts and discard the tails or you’ll be producing moonshine that is cloudy right away, or if the fusel oils are in low enough concentration, the cloudiness will appear after your moonshine chills. Fusel oils don’t smell or taste good, so you’ll likely know it when your tail cuts aren’t up to snuff.
A micro-distillery explained (according to yours truly)
One can get fairly philosophical in a hurry when trying to pin down the definition of a micro-distillery. The American Distilling Institute pegs it with production volume, saying a “craft” or “artisan” distiller doesn’t exceed 50,000 proof gallons per year. Assuming some things about alcohol by volume, that can mean production of around 68 9-Liter cases per day. The big guns of the industry can produce in the neighborhood of 46,000 9-Liter cases per day by comparison. But that definition alone only helps Uncle Sam with tax brackets. What about the craftsmanship and gumption of someone seeking perfection? Excuse us if it sounds highfalutin, but a volume count doesn’t capture the gall of someone looking at the distilling business – one with a long history, big reputations, and even bigger marketing budgets – and say, “I can add something different, maybe even better than what’s there.” You’re starting to get at the heart of a micro-distillery when you view the person behind the product. Someone, or as in our case some family, that decides dedicated craftsmanship and attention to detail can lead to something new. Architects, perfectionists, entrepreneurs, innovators, dreamers – all defining titles we won’t squabble over too much as long as they come with the understanding that our work is carefully researched and practiced every day. Certain terms have become synonymous with the micro-distillery movement, chief among them being “small batch” or “single batch.” Again, this speaks to production volume meaning a relatively small quantity of a spirit being distilled at one time as opposed to a large continuous distilling process. Whatever your views on production or volume size may be, we value the production process involved. When your top focus is on your own still design and the quality of production from beginning to end, volume doesn’t matter as much as the process and the people behind it. We’re always glad to share about micro-distilleries, and about the methods in our small (or micro) corner of the spirits industry. We may even get philosophical on you if you stick around long enough.
Check out the latest and greatest from our commercial line, HBS Copper here!
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.
Moonshine is made from dry distiller’s grains and this is what sets it apart from other distilled beverages. Malted grains are the source of the sugars required for fermentation, and they usually are released through steeping in hot water. Unlike beer, moonshine contains no hops to act as a preservative because it doesn’t need hops. Instead, distilling increases the alcohol level that preserves the moonshine. Moonshine will taste different based on the types of grain used and the method by which it is distilled.
Here are the most common grains you’ll find in the moonshine-making process and how they affect flavor.
Different varieties of corn have different flavors and different levels of sugars available for fermentation. Corn is a popular choice for those looking for a sweet, neutral flavor as it yields more sugar and is cheaper compared to other grains. Thus, corn whiskey has been a popular choice from early on.
Oats make for a smoother flavor in moonshine. Like other grains, the flavor they provide is highly dependent on the malting process, but oats are typically milder than barley or rye. They are good for blending with other grains to even out any undesirable harshness. This mildness is also desirable for bringing out any fruity flavors that come from other parts of the moonshine production process.
Rye imparts what many consider a spicy or fruity flavor. It is less sweet than corn but more complex. The flavor is also usually drier than when corn is used. Rye is usually blended with other grains, but to be a true rye moonshine, it must use at least 51% rye.
The different types of barley are indicated by “row.” Six-row barley and 2-row barley are common varieties with 2-row having a higher extract level and lower enzyme activity than 6-row barley. Using 6-row barley with higher enzyme activity is useful for moonshines including other grains, but in a single malt moonshine, 2-row barley with higher starch content is often preferred since other grains are not used, making the enzyme activity less important. These options give you greater latitude in mixing and matching grains and malts to create different flavor profiles. Sometimes barley is used unmalted as well.
What Is This Malt Stuff, Exactly?
“Malt” refers to a grain like barley or rye that has been softened by steeping it in water and allowing it to germinate and then dry. This produces an enzyme called diastase, which helps starch in the grains turn first into sugar and then into alcohol. The particulars of the drying process are what really allow malt to give moonshine a unique flavor–it can give it a smoky, earthy, nutty, or even floral taste.
In some recipes for making moonshine, different types of grains are combined to create a unique taste. For example, Hillbilly Stills’ Sweet Feed Mix contains rolled corn, oats and cane molasses. How do you prefer your moonshine: smooth and sweet, nutty and dry or something unusual? What are your favorite moonshine grain combinations?