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.

Pot Still HeadThe 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.

  1. Smell your run. If it has a smell of ammonia, it’s not safe to drink.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!