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Distilling info

Words of Wisdom

An interesting topic on the newsgroup was one of "if there were just three bits of advice to pass onto someone starting distilling, what would they be ?" The replies are listed below.

Patience + Persistence = Results

1. read every word of "" at least three times.
2. wait till the enthusiasm wears off a little prior to getting confused/asking questions.
3. ease into it slow & take notes (just like your building your first customized harley)

1. READ, READ, READ! There is so much good information available that there is no excuse for getting a bad start. You are NOT alone!
2. Fermentation. Sanatize everything involved in the fermentation process. Boil all of the water used to make a mash. Perform aeration (aquarium pump & stone) prior to adding yeast. Use enough yeast. Keep fermenting wash below 30 C, 20 to 25 is better yet.
3. Use a PROVEN still design (experiment later, when you have a quantity of your own hootch to help sort out ideas).
4. RELAX! ENJOY! SHARE WITH FRIENDS! Keep records. Start a 3 ring binder, and stuff it with notes and recipes. Keep it next to the throne and read it often.
5. Avoid "my still is bigger than your still" discussions.

If you live in New Zealand as I do then it is totally legal to own and operate a still of any size for private use and in most towns there is a brew shop with all the latest gear and advice. I would suggest that you check out the sites I have attached as these are of great use to me and if you look on the still spirits site there is a step by step set of instructions on operating a reflux still in PDF format

1. Read everything you can find about what distilling and fermentation and the products that you intend to make. A good web search engine is a life saver here. Using the search feature on the yahoo group works well too. this webpage has all of the messages from the distillers, new distillers, and also 2 or 3 biofuels yahoo groups. Lots of information available with a better search function than yahoo provides
2. Decide what kind of product that you want to make. If you want to make schnapps, brandies or grain whisky's a pot still is better suited for your goals. If you want to make vodkas and gins then a packed column will suit your goals better.
3. Develop a plan to accomplish your goals.
4. Ask questions from people who have done it before. Then ask some more questions. 3 people can read a question written by somebody else and see three whole different ways to answer it.
5. Avoid buying a whole bunch of expensive fancy equipment until you know that this hobby is what you expected it to be. Lots of equipment can be substituted with less expensive (or free) items. Ask what equipment is absolutely necessary.
6. Keep notes about what did and did not work. Sometimes even when everything seems to have gone wrong, something will have gone right and you might want to duplicate the effort.
7. Recycle all projects that did not meet your expectations. Ethanol is ethanol is ethanol and it is never wasted until you dump it down the drain. I made my best batch of whisky/rum hybrid mixture one time from recycling stock of batches that did not work out. I wish I knew what all was in those jugs because the finished product was sure tasty. There was corn whisky, sorghum molasses rum, fermented mellon, fermented watermellon, ect ect, and that is just what I remember.
8. Use a proven design. The time for new designs if for after you gain some experience actually accomplishing your goals.

1. Learn how to ferment something drinkable BEFORE you even think about building a still.
2. Learn from every mistake ever made---yours and others.
3. Figure out why it is that you want to distill, and see if distilling is really for you---or if it would be better to just buy a few bottles of Vodka and learn to make drinks that way.
4. Tell no one about your hobby (if you live in a place that it is illegal)
5. Remember that this is a fun hobby and not an excuse to become more of an alcoholic.

Mine would be:
1. Keep trying.
2. Do not be put off by failures.
3. Your product will improve.
4. Take it slow and do not rush.
5. Use all 5 senses. Smell, taste, hear, see and feel it.
#4....ask questions about what you cant comprehend from reading
#5....distill your wash,utilizing your most valuable asset,common sense....:>)

1. Get a basic understanding how distillation works.
2. Check your needs, what kind of liquor would you like to do?
3. Don't build a monster machine if you don't need huge amounts of liquor, see it from a practical view.
4. Relax, if it didn't turn out the way you wanted to, try again, you'll get it right in time. Learning is the fun process.
5. Don't be afraid to ask, no one knows it all, not even the ones who claims to.

pick someone's else success and repeat it

1: Read and re read
2: Ask questions here (Distillers newsgroup at
3: Don't build a still without advice from the group.
4: Do quite a few sugar washes before attempting grain/mollasses type washes.
5: Listen to the group even if you don't like the answers.

Read as much as you can from a wide variety of sources. Get a good book or two with illustrations of how to build and operate a still. Build a small one first, not too large. You can practice your workshop skills. Join a club or news group and LISTEN to all opinions, ask questions, and after awhile, filter out the stuff that you don't believe fits in with the your accumulated experience. Believe in your own abilities, and get on and do it.

1) Research and then do it again.....
2) Read - Read - Read - etc... - You get the idea..
3) Decide - On what you Want to achieve...
4) READ - read - Read - etc....
5) Build the vechicle that will achive your goals ----
6) Savour, taste and evaluate -
7) Research and Read - Read - etc..
8) Figure it all out.. IF you can...

How does this work ? I'll try and describe it ...the main pot heats up, and begins giving off ethanol vapours (say at 40% purity at 96 C off a 5% wash)... these get passed into the thumper and try to bubble up through the liquid there. But because the liquid is cold too, the vapour will all condense if given the chance (e.g. small bubbles & water deep enough). A bit later on, the thumper liquid is starting to heat up and increasing in ethanol content .... soon the thumper is at say 84 C, and the ethanol content is around 40% - gees - that sounds like a second pot still doesn't it ? So the ethanol starts coming coming out of solution, though this time it will be at around 75-80% - hence the second distillation occurring - all for free, no additional cost or heating involved. Of course all this depends on how effective the thumper is at knocking down the incoming vapour - e.g. bubble size, depth of immersion, % alcohol in the vapour & thumper liquid etc, but you get the basic idea.

Look at the energy involved ..

Heat of Vapourisation/Condensation
Water = 2260 J/g
Ethanol = 855 J/g
To make the thumper effective you want

  • lots of vapor liquid contact, ie heaps of small bubbles - eg use a screen or simply lots of pinholes in the bottom of the inlet tube.
  • the liquid in the thumper to begin high in alcohol, so a small volume of wash or, maybe better, tails from the last run. Deb recommends .. You put tails or mash into the thumper - not water - and the loss is not a factor compared to the resulting alcohol content :) I highly recommend a thumper!
  • larger is beeter than smaller. For sizing a thumper, Ted suggests ..
    A good rule of thumb is make the thumper twice the size of the amont of distillate in a single run. ie: one run = 1 liter of spirits then make the thumper 2 liters .... as a minimum, have it at least 1/3 the volume, ie ((#gallons of wash * %alc of wash) / 3), or if using tails in the doubler, ((gallons of wash * %alc of wash + gallons of tails * % alc of tails) / 3). I myself prefer to use a larger size to allow for condensation that always seems to overflow the thumper. My grandfathers still was 250 gallons
    Once the still is up to temperature, and the distillate has started dripping, make sure you throw away the first 50 mL per 20 L of wash, as this may contain any methanol that is present.

    You should expect to collect the equivalent of approx 1L of 40% alcohol per kg of sugar used; the actual % purity will depend on the type of still you are using.

    Stop collecting the distillate once you notice them containing some fusels, or if the temperature gets above about 94 oC (it doesn't become "dangerous" or "deadly", just that it tastes foul).

    If you collect the distillate in small amounts (say 1/2 L or so), you can segregate the drinkable spirit from that with fusels in; the latter can be added to the next wash, and be collected cleanly then.

    "Genuine" whiskey can be made by passing a grain wash through a pot still twice.

    The alcohols in the wash begin to vapourise from the wash around specific temperatures. If by themselves they would be ...
    • Acetone 56.5C (134F)
    • Methanol (wood alcohol) 64C (147F)
    • Ethyl acetate 77.1C (171F)
    • Ethanol 78C (172F)
    • 2-Propanol (rubbing alcohol) 82C (180F)
    • 1-Propanol 97C (207F)
    • Water 100C (212F)
    • Butanol 116C (241F)
    • Amyl alcohol 137.8C (280F)
    • Furfural 161C (322F)

    Once together, a mixture of several of them will be slightly different however. You no longer get them coming off seperately, but always as a mixture. Fortunately for us though, each of the species will tend to dominate around its boiling point temperature, thus we know whats "mostly" coming off at that point. By tracking the temperature of the vapour, you have a fairly good idea when you're collecting the Ethanol your after (78-82 C), vs when it is starting to get lean and you're into the higher alcohols.
    Jack adds though ..
      Actually, % of alcohol is a more reliable method of measuring cutoff points than temperature is. Thermometer placement in a still can cause a major difference in how the temp is read. Everyone's still is different- the % is more likely to give predictable results, where the temp can be off by more than 10F either high or low- giving the wrong results when duplication of anothers' run is being tried.
    Sometimes with the tails though, even the % isn't accurate enough, with smelly tails sneaking through with little apparent notice. This is when you should also let your nose guide you - collect a few drops on the back of a spoon every so often, and check what they smell like, on a regular basis.

    Filling the Boiler

    When filling the boiler, make sure you leave enough headspace above the liquid, so that if it foams up a bit, that the foam won't get pushed up the column. Typically it should only be around 3/4 full.

    You also want to ensure that there will be enough liquid at all times to completely cover the elements. This is particularly relevent when you've already done some "stripping" runs first, and you're now starting with something quite high in purity (eg 45%) and the reduction in volume will be greater.

    Removing the Methanol

    Be ruthless about tossing the first 50 mL (off a 20L wash) that you collect, as this contains any methanol (causer of hangovers - small quantities, or blindness - larger quantities). Even though I'm pretty sure I only collect less than 10mL at the methanol stage, I still discard 50mL, just to make sure. No need for penny-pinching when you're making 3L of the stuff, for less than $5. If you're using a potstill, you may need to increase this amount you toss up to 100-200 mL.

    Jack writes ..I have tasted potstill alcohol that has been made both ways- when only 50ml (per 20L) was thrown out, the stuff was very sharp tasting. It became alot smoother when a full 100ml was thrown out at the start of the run.




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