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.
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!
Alcohol Distillation Happens During the Moonshine Process
The primary chemical process that actually produces alcoholic byproduct during distilling is known as alcohol distillation. In short, it’s the process of separating Ethanol (the drinkable byproduct of brewing certain grains) from your mash, water, and other unwanted by products like methanol. There are many different steps that you need to go through while you’re distilling moonshine in order to get a great batch of moonshine.
Once your mash and fermentation processes are complete, there’s just one more process before fractional distillation is needed to separate the ethanol (alcohol) from the water in the fermented mash. That separation is accomplished by using specific levels of heat. When done properly, this process of alcohol distillation will create a spirit that’s high in alcohol content and has a pure, clean kick to it, leaving you with magnificent moonshine that is ready to ingest.
This type of alcohol distillation technique has been used for hundreds of years to make moonshine and other types of “hooch”, which in turn can be flavored and aged in different ways to make different types of spirits.
The Steps to Alcohol Distillation
Here’s how you take malt, sugar, and water and turn it into moonshine right at home.
Step 1. Make your mash and ferment it
There is a lot to this process. So much that we spent an entire post about it. If you’re not familiar with this aspect of distilling, read the previous post, before moving 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. Once heated the wash generates alcoholic steam and vapor. That steam is pumped into sleeve around the pot still to slowly heat the wash up to 173° F EXACTLY 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 foreshot, contains a high level of harsh chemicals like acetone and methanol. You should dump that down the drain. Consuming the early portion of your distilled alcohol can cause health problems and even make you go blind. Methanol has a lower boiling point than ethanol, so be sure to dump your first 5 – 10%.
- The ethanol liquid that comes next, the heart, 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 mixture a little bit harsher, something called “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 re-distilling the moonshine.
What Exactly Happens When You’re Distilling Alcohol?
To the distilling newbie, the process of alcohol distillation might be a little confusing. How is it different than making beer or wine? What different ingredients might be used?
To be exact, the process for distilling alcohol starts out in much the same way as brewing beer or making wine: You utilize yeast to breakdown sugars and create an alcohol byproduct. But in the first step of the distilling process, your yeast can only consume so much sugar from your mash. At a certain point, the amount of alcohol in the mixture can become toxic to the yeast halting the breakdown process. That line is somewhere around 11 – 18% ABV.
But moonshine and spirits are usually around the 40% ABV level, so how do you get there?
Once you’ve got the byproducts of CO2 and alcohol, you need to start the distillation process to get to the harder stuff. This is where boiling the mash comes in.
The process of distilling alcohol is using a heat source to separate the alcohol from the rest of your mash, condensing it into a tube and then converting it back into a liquid be cooling it down, completely separated from your mash.
Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water so distillers can easily separate the alcohol from the water by maintaining a consistent temperature of 173.1 degree Farenheit. Water has a boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
How to Make Sure You Distilled Alcohol Properly
Safety first. The process of home distilling isn’t a simply one. The best way to ensure that you’re distilling your alcohol properly is to make sure you’ve got the proper equipment, all of which can be found over at Hillbilly Stills.
Things like using a electric heater that keeps your mash at an even temp, and using an appropriate distillation column will help ensure that you’re getting the right alcoholic mixture. There are also a couple tests you can perform to make sure that your mixture doesn’t have too much methanol.
- Smell your run. If it has a smell of ammonia, it’s not safe to drink.
- Methanol tends to burn yellow when lit, so you can gather a sample of your run and see what color flame it produces. NOTE: you should do this in an open environment, far away from the rest of your mixture.
- Test it with sodium dichromate. Not everyone will have the tools to do this, but it’s a surefire way to make sure that you’re not consuming harmful methanol. We got this description on how to test methanol from Science.com. “To do so, mix 8 mL of a sodium dichromate solution with 4 mL of sulfuric acid. Swirl gently to mix, then add 10 drops of the mixed solution to a test tube or other small container containing the alcohol. Swirl this container gently a few times, then waft the air from the mouth of the container towards your nose by fanning the air toward you with a hand, with the container placed roughly 8-12 inches from your face. Take note of the scent: If it is pungent and irritating, methanol is present in the alcohol. If the scent is dominating and fruity, only ethanol is present, and the beverage is safe.”
If you have any more questions about the process of alcohol distillation and how to make sure that you’re getting a great batch of moonshine, get in touch with Hillbilly Stills today!