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All about Stills

Are you interested in stills, their history, and or how to make one, or where to buy one? Read on.

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A Brief History of Distillation

Distillation has been around for thousands of years. The earliest stills were used to extract essential oils and perfumes, and were typically a large bowl with a cone on top to condense the vapors. These have been found dating as far back as 3500 BC. They weren’t used for alcohol production, or there is no record of them being used for that until around 400 AD. Aristotle wrote about distilling sea water to get pure drinking water.

In 420 St Patrick brought a still from Egypt back to Ireland. But there is no evidence he used to it to create alcohol. Around the year 1000 Abulcasis who was a Doctor distilled wine and rose water to produce “aqua vitea” – meaning the water of life. In the 11th century the Irish Abbeys were making their own holy water.

There are records of distillation being used to produce alcohol in China in the 12th century. This distillation can also be traced back to Arab traders who brought the knowledge from Egypt.

In the 15th century the distillers went from crude home brew to a better quality of refined spirits meant for drinking. There was some commercial production but it wasn’t until the 17th century that good booze became available. During this alcoholic renaissance England was producing Whiskey, France was producing Armagnac, and Poland and Russia were producing Vodka.

Types of Stills

There are three types of stills – pot stills, reflux stills, and column stills.

  • Pot Stills

These are essentially a large metal (usually copper) pot. The mash is put in it and it is boiled. The alcohol condenses on the upper surface and condenses and drips out a metal tube. These are crude stills and retain quite a bit of flavor from the mash. It could be run through a second time, increasing the potency and removing some of the taste.

  • Reflux Stills

Similar to a Pot Still but has some metal packing (similar to coarse steel wool or a pot scrubber) in a small column coming up from the top of the still. The vapors are continually condensing and dripping back into the main brew. It is good for making vodka, little flavor, and relatively clean tasting.

  • Column Stills

Similar to a Reflux Still but instead of having a copper pipe coming out of the top to drain off the alcohol vapors, they have a tall column rising from the top. The column will have a convoluted surface inside to condense the vapors. So as the vapors condense and drip back into the main brew, the purer alcohol makes its way to the top of the column and then goes through a metal tube into a collection vessel. This produces a cleaner alcohol of exceptionally high potency, up to 95% alcohol.

Moonshine

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Warning

If you are thinking about making moonshine, or operating a still for any purpose, you should do a lot more research than can be found on this webpage. You have to be aware that you are heating a flammable liquid under pressure. You should ensure you follow safe work practices, wear safety gear, have adequate ventilation, and a fire extinguisher.

Having sampled a few batches of moonshine I can say that there is some good hooch out there. But who ever is doing it has to ensure there is no methyl alcohol in it. The product you are attempting to extract is ethyl alcohol. Methyl alcohol is a by product and is highly toxic. Stories of people going blind can be attributed to them drinking methyl alcohol.

Culture

Moonshine is illegal in most areas as it can’t be taxed, and there are potential safety issues. None the less it goes on and moonshiners are a secretive group of people. They have their own vocabulary.

Moonshine comes from an old English saying (around the 1700’s) regarding people who worked late at night out of necessity to make additional money.

Bootlegging is a term that comes from the practice of selling liquor to the Indians in North America, whereby the bottle of hooch was discretely hidden in ones boot.

How to Make Moonshine

WARNING: This is not meant as a guide to make moonshine. You should do your own research as to specifics, safety, and legality. This is for reference purposes only.

  • You need to make a “mash”.
  • In a large container mix sugar, yeast, water, malt, and corn meal. The ingredients do vary between moonshiners and some just use water, sugar, and yeast, although I have not found it very palatable, albeit quite strong.
  • Let it ferment for a period of time.
  • Put the mash in your still. It will be a dark color and might smell somewhat foul.
  • Heat it to about 170-175 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • As the vapor comes out of the tube at the top, collect it in a container. You now have crude moonshine.
  • Put your remaining mash in a container and add more ingredients. You can keep your mash alive and keep brewing if you desire.
  • You can get up to seven or eight brews from a mash

Improving your Brew

  • You can redistill it. Good vodka is distilled up to six times or more.
  • You can charcoal filter it.

Health Issues

Moonshine is not purity tested. It could contain many chemicals such as lead, lye, wood alcohol (methyl alcohol), bleach, and formaldehyde.

Drinking Moonshine

Straight up is pretty tough. Even mixed in a drink it still tastes like lighter fluid.

  • Flavorings

There are many flavorings such as coffee, banana, etc that can be added to moonshine once diluted down to around the 20-20$ mark. These can be expensive, so many moonshiners get creative and use candy flavorings.

  • Candy Flavorings

Dilute your moonshine to around 30% and pour into a large container. One method is to get a large bag of chocolate candy with a hard flavored outer shell. It could be citrusy, cinnamon, etc. Pour the large bag of candy into a liter of the diluted moonshine.

Let it sit for 30 minutes. The hard coating on the candy will turn white, it won’t dissolve, nor will the chocolate dissolve or get mucky.

Filter your flavored liqueur into a bottle.

Enjoy!

Where Can I Get a Still?

The search engine is your friend. Depending upon where you live, you might be able to order one locally. They are available online in the USA. Some are labeled for “Essential Oil Distillation” and can be easily imported into most countries, allowing for relevant duties. These will function for alcohol distillation fine.

A Final Warning

There are dangers to life, health, property, and your freedom if you don’t know what you are doing. This webpage does not make you an expert on making moonshine. However if it has whetted your appetite (pun intended) then please do further research. In particular you should be looking at purity through multiple distillation and charcoal filtration.

References


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