Distilling FAQ

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Answers to commonly asked questions about Distillation


Contents

Still-making

1. How do I keep from blowing myself up?

This question may come from two concerns: A. Having a pressurized still and B. Producing a highly flammable distillate.

A. First of all, your still should not be pressurized. Your still should be an open system, in case there is an unusually high build up of vapor, so that vapor can easily escape into the atmosphere. This shouldn't be an issue, as you have control over the rate at which your liquid becomes a gas and is condensed into a liquid again, but just in case, any abnormal build-up of vapor should be able to easily escape without causing an increase in pressure inside your still. This vapor is highly flammable so it should escape at a point that is far from any heat source. Column stills achieve this by having the top of the column open to the atmosphere, and pot stills do this by simply having the end of the pipe after the condenser open to the atmosphere. You may have seen people using 'pressure cookers' as their boiler on their still, but they are not using it to create any above normal pressure. They simply use it because the lid makes a good seal with the pot. Professional commercial distilleries may use pressurized systems, but they have many safety precautions built in to their systems.

B. You must also remember that the alcohol you produce is highly flammable. If you have a reflux still you could be producing 95% ABV liquid and so you must take precautions to keep the distillate at a safe distance from any heat source. Even a distiller that uses a pot still that produces a lower ABV should still take every precaution to keep the distillate away from any heat source. This is especially true for those distillers that use an open flame to heat their boilers.

Further, read the Safety section of this site before you begin this hobby.

2. What materials should I avoid?

There's a lot of discussion about plastics, whether they're safe or not, so unless you're certain it won't hurt you, use something else. Also to be avoided are materials that soak up your distillate (i.e. wood) as it may make it a lot harder to throw away meth and make clean cuts.

3. Pot still or reflux?

To each his own. It really depends on what you're planning on making. A pot still is a lot less efficient, but because of that inefficiency produces distillate that has more flavor properties than what a reflux still would produce. If you're planning on making vodka, i.e. neutral spirits, go with the reflux. If you're planning on making brandy, eau de vie, or boutique whiskey, go with the pot still.--Aidas 02:03, 18 May 2006 (PDT)

4. What's the best heat source? How do I control it?

There are two major options: electrical or gas. The former is safer while the later is cheaper. Both are simple to control.

5. How much cooling water do I need?

6. Do I need a thermometer?

7. How do I pack a column?

8. How do I size the column?

9. How do I size the condenser?

10. Which way do the hoses have to be oriented in my leibig condenser? Or does it matter?

The coolant should flow in the opposite direction that the vapor is running, in order to take advantage of the countercurrent heat exchange. Therefore, in a downward sloping condenser, water should enter through the collection end and exit on the other end.

11. How do I clean my still?

The common way is to scrub it clean and cook some diluted vinegar in it.

Fermentation

1. What water is "good water"?

Typically hard water as its higher mineral content is more agreeable to yeast than "pure" water. Distilled water is likely the worst unless minerals or mash are added. Either way removal of chlorine is a must and can be accomplished by an open lid "breather" simply allowing the water to breathe open air for a day, removal of chloramine is very difficult and if your metro water system has chloramine you should probably use distilled or spring water.

Avoid sulfurous water "skunk water" as some of the compounds the yeast or bacterias can generate could distill into some very vile compounds. --DGary 15:19, 13 February 2007 (PST)

2. What kind of yeast should I use?

Bakers yeast works, but it might not give as good a flavor as yeast from your local home brew shop would do. Theoretically you may just wait for wild yeast to settle in your mash, but that dramatically increases the chance of contamination. It's common to just take a bit of your old wash (with contains yeast of course) and put it in the new one.

3. Do I need "nutrients"?

Yeast has to eat something. But additional nutrients are usually reserved for sugar mashes, as corn or fruit mashes should contain enough nutrients already.

4. How much sugar should I use (osmotic stress)?

An initial gravity over 1.070 can be difficult for most yeast to metabolize, what amount of sugar per gallon reaches that varies with the form of sugar, however most mashes are unlikely to reach a sugar saturation that yeast cannot handle, unless more sugar is added to the mash. This averages out to about 1 lb sugar to 1 gallons water which gives an initial gravity around 1.050. --DGary 15:19, 13 February 2007 (PST)

5. How do I know when fermentation is complete?

Complete fermentation is reached when all usable sugars in the wash have been converted to alcohol.The low tech solution to the question is to taste a portion of the wash...is it sweet, or dry? Sweetness indicates there is sugar yet to be metabolized by the yeast. Another method is possible with washes that have NO suspended particles. Check the specific gravity of the wash with a hydrometer. When the specific gravity is 1.00 or less, the fermentation is over.Checking on the fermentation is possible by watching the bubbles from a fermentation trap.The ceasing of the bubbles does not necessarily mean that fermentation is done, but that it has stopped or slowed to a crawl, indicating that the time has come to test the wash with one of the above methods. Additionally, in a grain mash, there will be a "head" on the mash. When the head falls,the mixture is probably finished fermenting.--Possum 11:34, 21 Mar 2006 (PST)

6. What ingredients should I stay away from? Why?

Seville oranges are incredibly acidic and ferment horribly, although they work outstandingly as flavorings after distillation, the skins being one of the flavorings in triple sec. --DGary 15:19, 13 February 2007 (PST)

7. How should I deal with sanitation?

Hot water and iodine, commercial brewing cleaners such as B-L-C or Iodophor, avoid bleach or ammonia for sanitation but they work for final cleanup. --DGary 15:19, 13 February 2007 (PST)

8. My wash looks like it's been infected with mold, and it smells funny. Is it still safe to run?

Probably. Run it, you may be surprised. In sour mashes, some "infection" is actually preferred.

9. What should I do if my fermentation "sticks"?

If the ferment is still sweet, then try adding a robust, active yeast culture such as EC-1118. If that doesn't get it going, then run it. The worst that can happen is a loss of yield.

10. What's a basic, beginning wash recipe?

First wash

11. Are there special considerations when fermenting fruits?

Highly acidic fruits tend to kill yeast, although tempering with a base such as baking soda can help resolve that. Pineapple, mango, papaya and kiwi can all have unpredictable results, albeit outstanding ones when things go well. --DGary 15:19, 13 February 2007 (PST)

Distilling

1. Do I add the wash, grains and all, to the still, or separate the grain?

Both will work, but unless you are using a double boiler still, also called a water bath, then the cleanup will be more difficult. Grains can burn onto the bottom of your still. People with internal heating elements should not distill on the grain, as the particles can stick and burn onto your elements. There are advantages to distilling on the grain: the flavor of a pot still distilled whiskey that is distilled on the grain has a heavier flavor and can sometimes be described as "oily" or rich. The product from distilling on the grain can be added to other batches of spirit to blend the result to a spirit that has the desired heaviness. There is another good reason to distill the wet fermented grain mess. There is alcohol in there, why waste it ?

Another thing to watch out for when distilling on the grain is the increased risk of a messy foaming boilover. If you do your distillation on the grain, don't fill your boiler the whole way full, and you can avoid the mess or the potentially dangerous blockage of your condenser or lyne arm with swelling boiling grain.

Of course a distiller can just use the liquid, and not use the grain in the still. For those who want the ethanol in the grain without the grain going into the still;dip out the particle free wash, and add water to the grain. Let the water mix and then sit on the grain for at least an hour or two. Then put the grain in a pillow case or similar cloth bag, and then hoist the bag up and let it drip, or run the whole thing through a wine press. --Possum 17:37, 18 May 2006 (PDT)

2. What are "cuts"? How do I make them?

Making cuts means to decide which part of the distillate you take as heart, heads or tails.

3. What about methanol?

Methanol has one of the lowest boiling points, so it's supposed to come out first. Just throw away the first 50-150ml that come out of your still. That part is called head and is essentially poisonous.

4. How fast should I distill? Unless doing a stripping run, run as slow as possible for better separation.

5. How do I determine the alcohol concentration of the distillate?

The "Mac Guyver" method is to try if it burns. Should the answer be yes, your distillate is more than 100proof (50%ABV). The sophisticated way is to know the specific gravity or density of your distillate. A hydrometer will tell you the SG right away. You may also weight a known volume and thus determine it's density. When you know either one you can calculate the ABV or just look it up somewhere.

6. How do "heads", "tails", and "middle-run" contribute to the final flavor?

7. Should I distill once, twice, or three times?

That depends on what you want to produce.

8. Are there specific "tricks" for distilling different types of beverages?

There is little difference between most distilled alcohols, distillate is basically ethanol, water and some trace elements regardless of whether it comes from wine, beer, corn mash or otherwise. A lot of myth and legend surrounds these, but the difference between vodka and moonshine is the name.

Traditionally Brandy comes from wine, Vodka from potatoes, and Moonshine from Corn, but there are no differences in distillation.

Some Gin stills have an herb "catch", meant to hold herbs and flavorings in the still but many Gins are flavored after distillation not during. --DGary 15:43, 13 February 2007 (PST)

9. How do I keep my distillation constant?

Practice, documentation, cleanliness. --DGary 15:43, 13 February 2007 (PST)

10. What safety precautions should I take while distilling?

You should keep your distillate well away from open flame, as it's usually highly flammable.

Post-distillation

1. Should I reduce the proof of my distillate immediately?

That depends on what your final product will be, if you are going to age in wood, no, if your are aging in glass or plastic or not aging at all, yes. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

2. Should I age with wood? What kind? How?

Aging with wood smooths your distillate and can impart certain flavor characteristics. For example, if you use toasted wood, the amount of time and at what temperature the wood was toasted for can add tannic, vanilla and other notes to your distillate. There's a nice chart at the homedistiller.org mother site.

Traditionally, one would use barrels for ageing with wood, but if one is a hobby-distiller, you can simply use wood chips. The most popular wood to use is, of course, oak. In North America, the white oak (quercus alba)is popular, while in Europe the common European oak (quercus robur) is traditional. The french insist that the only oak that should be used is oak from the Limousin forest -- that's just snob talk -- it's the same quercus robur that grows all over Europe. Other woods can be used as well. Apple wood for calvados, of course, maple for sourmash, etc. The idea is that you can experiment as much as you like to find the flavor that you like best. However, note that using pine or fir, you'll create something akin to Retsina (greek wine aged in pine barrels that tastes something like the resin you put on violin bow strings).

To make your own wood chips, simply get some healthy wood, split it into chips, toast them (you can do this simply in an oven, wrapped in tinfoil). To use them, drop them into your distillate, agitate every once in a while and see what happens. In a month you'll already have something nice, while longer ageing will usually result in something that gets better and better. --Aidas 00:47, 16 May 2006 (PDT)

Avoid any pitchy woods, the solvent nature of ethanol leeches what is effectively paint thinner from the wood. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

3. What "additives" work well?

4. Do I need to filter (carbon, etc.)?

That depends on your final product and personal taste, while all alcohol could due to be filtered through activated charcoal only alcohol that isn't aged or is aged in glass or plastic should it be seriously thought about, wood has a way of absorbing or mellowing bad flavors, but it never hurts, good ingredients in, good product out. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

5. How long will my distillate "keep"?

In a tightly sealed container out of direct light, potentially indefinitely. Although I don't know many that "keep", they get drank. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

6. Can I sweeten my distillate to make a liquer?

Sure, why not, but cut it first, most liquors are 20-30 proof and most distillates are higher. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

7. My new-make distillate is very rough, what do I do?

Age, filter or flavor. --DGary 15:31, 13 February 2007 (PST)

8. I like this stuff, how do I duplicate it?

You should keep records of every step you take. This is especially important in the beginning, when you still don't really know what you're doing. Write everything down -- maybe you'll be the one who discovers an amazing new recipe that blows the world's mind. But you might not be able to replicate it unless you've written down what you put into it, what you did to it, how you ran it, etc.

For example, if you're making fruit brandy, write down the amounts of fruit, sugar, water (what type you used, yeast (what type) you used to make the wine/wash, how you mixed them, how you added the yeast, etc. I even write down the room temperature during any processes that I do. When you measure SG, write down the date, time, results. Write down what you used to sanitize. In a word anything. Imagine that you're a scientist and record everything "for posterity's sake". If you record every step, you'll always be able to track down where you made a mistake, or where you did something brilliant.

When you're ready to run the wash, again, write everything down -- you might purposefully or (more likely) accidentally do something that affects the result, and if the result is good, you're going to want to be able to go back and track down what made the result so good, or in the reverse scenario, so bad...

Of course, such a record is great evidence in evidentiary hearings in your criminal proceedings for evading national exise taxes... :) --Aidas 00:35, 19 May 2006 (PDT)

9. How should I do comparative tastings?

10. I can't think of a toast worthy of my "baby". What is YOUR favorite?

Hurra for the humble yeast, It makes the poor man feel like a king, And harlots look like queens. --Possum 17:49, 18 May 2006 (PDT)

Through the lips, and over the tongue, look out stomach, Here it Comes! --Don Ventura 22:47, 06 June 2006 (PDT)

Here’s to you, here’s to me, best of friends we’ll always be, but if we should ever disagree then F-U. Here’s to me.--YankeeRefugee 13:40, 06 June 2006 (EST)

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