Cleaning and maintaining distillation equipment determines the quality of distillates, whether it is water, essential oils, spirits, or fuel alcohol that they will produce. Clean your still thoroughly before using it for the very first time to eliminate impurities that may have remained on its surface during construction. Thereafter, cleaning should be done regularly after every use and sometimes in between batches or when switching from distilling one spirit to the other, particularly for commercial distillers. This eliminates impurities collected on the surface during distillation like sulfuric acid from fermented mash and others.
Why should you clean your stills regularly?
When copper is exposed to the outdoor elements it oxidizes and its color dulls out to a bluish-green color and eventually to almost black color. This coloration is natural in copper metal when used over time and is known as patina. Some people try to maintain copper still’s original color by scrubbing and polishing it regularly or by coating it with benzotriazole. Others really don’t mind the dulling out but this only applies to the outside.
Stainless steel stills, on the other hand, will show off dirt and smudge on its surface as soon as they occur. Stainless is easy to clean but at the same time requires frequent cleaning to keep it spotless all the time.
The inside of a still, whether copper or stainless, should be cleaned thoroughly to maintain a safe, hygienic, and fit for producing pure distillates. Additionally, copper stills will eliminate sulfides more effectively when clean.
Cleaning fermentation equipment
Fermentation equipment, although separate from the still, is part of the distillation set-up. These equipment tend to carry much more dirt and microorganisms compared to the still because they interact with grain straight from harvesting. Thus, fermentation equipment should not only be cleaned but also sanitized. Cleaning removes soil and other larger particles while sanitizing takes care of unseen microorganisms.
- Trub or lees (depending on what you are fermenting) will be left on the glass/plastic carboy once the mash has been fermented, strained, and transferred to the still.
- Using a carboy brush, gently and patiently scrub the inside of the carboy bearing in mind that the sticky oily substance will not all come off at once.
- Once scrubbing is done, fill the carboy with water and let it stand for some time then scrub it once more with the brush to clean up any remaining residue and then give it a final rinse.
- Place your carboy facing down to let it drain all the water and dry.
- If, however, you are using a container with a wide opening to ferment your mash, cleaning should be easier as you will simply remove the trub/lees, clean it with PBW solution with a brush, rinse it off, sanitize, and then dry it with a towel before storing it away.
Cleaning copper stills
There are two instances where cleaning copper stills is crucial, before using it for the first time after purchase and regularly after using it. You can clean your copper still with the vinegar solution, rye flour, and water, or salt solution. Alternatively, you can opt for commercial copper cleaners.
The very first cleaning
- Soak the still including the column, condenser, parrot, and other parts in a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar for a few hours.
- Scrub the inside of the still gently with a long brush, rinse it off with warm water, and allow it to dry.
- Fill your boiler with white vinegar solution making sure the heating element is completely submerged. The vinegar run helps to remove impurities from your still.
- Turn on the heat and bring the vinegar in your boiler to boil. Keep it boiling for 30 minutes to one hour so that the steam produced in the process cleans up and sanitizes your still. As you bring the vinegar to the boil, do not turn on your condenser to allow the steam building up to circulate amply within both the still and the condenser.
- After 30 minutes, turn on the condenser and run it as in a normal distillation process. Because it is liquid passing through the condenser, you should be able to pick up leaks from joints or seals easily. In case you do, ensure that the leaking joints are soldered well before you can use your still as they can be very dangerous.
- Also, ensure that you are doing this in an open place with enough ventilation.
- Finally, if all is well, turn off your still, empty the boiler. Scrub and rinse your boiler, column, and condenser with warm water.
Copper still regular cleaning
In addition to the first cleaning, cleaning your copper still after every use is also important. Just as you did during the first run, at the end of your distillation session, turn off your still and allow it to cool before disassembling it for cleaning.
- Rinse the still in warm water.
- Add clean water up to 1/5th of the pot and scrub it inside thoroughly with a brush. In case you are using a column still, rinse it well and scrub the column with the right carboy brush.
- Once done, empty the water, rinse it once again with clean water, and let it dry before storing it for the next use.
Cleaning your copper mesh
Just like the still, maintain a regular after-use cleaning schedule for the copper mesh. How clean your copper mesh is will determine its ability to eliminate sulfur compounds from your liquor hence directly affecting its quality.
- Fill a container with a cleaning solution, commercial, or otherwise depending on your choice. This can be a citric acid solution or vinegar solution in a 50/50 mix ratio. As mentioned above, others would go for an ash or salt solution, it is all a matter of preference.
- Roll out your mesh and soak it in the solution for a few hours.
- Rinse it off and hang it out to dry before storing it.
Polishing your copper still
Polishing your copper still on the outside gives it a bright and shiny appearance. While at it, it is advisable to go for non-toxic polish and avoid abrasive cleaners at all costs. Here are some solutions you can use to polish your copper still.
- Vinegar + salt + flour solution. Mix one tablespoon of salt in a cupful of vinegar and then stir in flour until it forms a paste. Apply the paste on your still and let it stay for around 30 minutes and then rinse it off.
- Ketchup + lemon juice. While not as effective as the vinegar+salt+flour solution, this one is also a good way of spot-cleaning patches of tarnish on your copper still. Rub the mixture on your pot and let it stay for around 15 minutes. Use a dry cloth to rub it out.
- Industrial tarnish remover. Commercial tarnish remover or copper cleaning products are the easiest to use. Products like Tarn-X are very effective and widely available in stores. Because they are strong, take precautions, and use some protection for your hands, eyes, nose, and mouth so that you don’t touch or inhale them. Secondly, they are strictly for use on the external part of your copper still and not on the inside. It is advisable to use them out in the open or in properly ventilated areas.
Whichever cleaner you decide to use to give your still a shine, be sure to rinse well and dry it after to prevent your still from being discolored by the very cleaners that should remove tarnish from them.
Cleaning stainless steel stills
Stainless steel stills are a lot easier to clean and they do not discolor with good care like copper equipment. However, they will show off even the slightest dirt and smudge which comes off after a simple wipe.
- After each run, allow your still to cool and take it apart.
- Run hot water through the column to remove oil and other residues. Also, rinse the boiler and the condenser with hot water.
- Add PBW or an equipment cleaner of your choice to hot water and clean your equipment. It is important to note that you do not need an abrasive to clean your equipment. A simple cleaning with your hands or a soft piece of cloth will do.
- Rinse your equipment in plain hot water or if you like, dilute some Brewhause Equipment rinse in hot water and use this to do your final rinse.
- Allow your equipment to dry before storing them away for the next use.
Storing your distillation equipment
Before storing your equipment, ensure that they are thoroughly dry.
- Take a piece of soft dry cloth and dry the equipment.
- Position the still facing down to allow it to drain water and leave it to dry in this position.
- After drying, store your still in a safe place. As you choose your storage position, keep in mind the following:
- They should not be kept in a place where they will easily drop to the ground and get dented or damaged.
- Your storage location should be cool and dry not damp.
Important maintenance tips
- Before your first spirit run, it is important to do an ethanol run. This does not only clean your still, but it also enhances the flavor of your first distillate by removing trace elements from the construction process that would interfere with the flavor of your spirits. The distillate from this ethanol run should be discarded.
- As you do, check your still for leaks in joints and other places and fix them before you start using your still. Leaks are dangerous and can cause a fire.
- Before every run, examine your still for physical damage that could have occurred from the previous washing, handling, or storage and fix it before the run.
- If your still is used for producing essential oils, ensure that you use warm or hot water to clean your still as oil residue can stick on the walls of your pot or column, form a sticky layer that is hard to clean and eventually clog your outlets particularly in the condenser if not taken care of.
Well cleaned stills produce high-quality products and great-flavor spirits. Copper stills particularly will be more effective in eliminating sulfur compounds from your resulting in great-tasting moonshine. You would want to be careful to clean your still, depending on its type and function, the right way. Also, it is recommended to use warm or hot water during cleaning as this will remove not only dirt and oil residues but also unseen microorganisms. Ultimately, regular cleaning and maintenance will keep your distillation longer in a tip-top working condition.