Everyone can make moonshine and yes a little learning goes a long way if you are totally green in it. However, it takes skill and some experience to make the finest. Ideally, you will have to do it over and over, with some improvement every time you are at it to perfect your craft. Additionally, the pride of keeping this rich culture alive is very fulfilling if not outrightly thrilling.
First things first, moonshine is made through a process known as distillation. Before you get started however, it is important to note that it is illegal to distill spirits at home and this article is strictly for informational purposes.
What is distillation?
Distillation can be defined as the process of separating the components of a liquid substance based on varying boiling points of the components. The result of distillation is complete or partial separation of components where the concentration of the selected components increases. For moonshine, the distillation process separates ethanol from water making the concentration of ethanol stronger.
When making moonshine, distillation is usually the last process. Distillation is done on already prepared and fermented mash. This is done to extract ethanol. Ethanol has a boiling point of 172 °F (77 °C) which is lower than that of water which is 212 °F (100 °C). When the mash is heated, ethanol will be the first to boil and vaporize, a process that separates it from water. It is then extracted by condensing the vapor and collecting it in a jar.
Step 1: The equipment
Before you begin any process, it is important to prepare the equipment that you will need for the process. These include:
- Fermentation container. The container is where you’ll keep your mash and give it time to ferment.
- Airlock. Typically made of plastic, this device allows carbon dioxide to escape from the fermentation container and prevents air to enter the container thus preventing the mash from oxidation
- Heat source. Wood, gas, and electricity are three sources of heat commonly used during distillation
- Boiling pot. Used for heating water for preparing mash.
- Still. A copper or stainless steel still makes a good option and be sure to get the right size i.e ranging between 5-8-gallon (19-30-liter)still
- Temperature gauge. For measuring the temperature inside the still
- Hydrometer. A device that measures the density of a liquid in relation to water. You will need both the brewing hydrometer for fermentation and distilling hydrometer for use during distillation.
- Fire extinguisher. You will be using heat therefore have a class B fire extinguisher for safety.
- Collection containers. Have some glass mason jars in which your spirit will be collected and stored
Step 2: making the mash
To make the mash you will need
- 5 gallons (18.9 liters) of water
- 8.5 pounds (3.9 kg) flaked corn
- 1.5 pounds (0.5 kg) crushed malted barley
- Start by heating the 5 gallons (18.9 liters) of water in the fermentation container to 165 °F (73.9 °C).
- Turn off the heat and pour in the 8.5 pounds (3.9 kg) of flaked corn while stirring continuously for at least 5 minutes. After this, stir the mixture every 30 seconds as you check the temperature and stop when the temperature drops to 152 °F (66.7 °C).
- Now, pour in the 1.5 pounds (0.5 kg) of crushed malted barley and cover the container for 1.5 hours while uncovering it after every 15 minutes to stir the mixture.
- Let the mixture sit for another 2 hours or so to allow it to cool to 70 °F (21 °C).
- Add in the yeast and aerate the mix by turning it over continuously between two pots until you are sure the yeast has mixed in well. Your mash is prepared and waiting for the next process which is fermentation.
Step 3: Fermentation
- Once your mash is well aerated, cover the pot and let it sit at room temperature for at least two weeks. It is important to note that yeast works best at room temperature therefore keep monitoring the temperature to make sure it doesn’t get too low.
- During fermentation, use your hydrometer to measure gravity both at the start and at the end of the two weeks. If in doubt, you can give the process another one week to make sure that all sugars have been broken down. Your mash should produce the smell of alcohol by the end of the three weeks.
- Strain the mash through clean cheesecloth to separate the solid substance from the mash liquid. This liquid should have a pH of 6.0. If lower, add a little calcium carbonate to bring it up. If it is higher, add some citric acid to bring it down.
Step 4: Distillation
With your mash water, it is now time to make your moonshine. This step is certainly less involving compared to preparing the mash and yes, you ought to be excited having come this far. Secondly, coming this far and ready to proceed could only mean that you are doing this legally or so we hope.
- Distilling is basically producing purified alcohol out of your mash water. Ensure that your still is thoroughly cleaned up before using it. There are various types of stills with different features and operation modes. Any still should come with an operating manual on purchase which will give you guidelines on care, prepping, and use.
- Setting up your still should involve packing it with copper mesh to proof the alcohol and/or connecting your water input and output if your still has a condenser. Packing with copper mesh creates a reflux in the column while also reacting with sulfur compounds to eliminate them resulting in a great taste for your moonshine.
- Once this is done, add your strained mash water into the still. To this point, ensure that only pure strained liquid gets into the still. If in doubt, consider straining this liquid once again through a cheesecloth to eliminate sediment.
Step 5: Running the still
Note that you already have your alcohol from the mash. The purpose of the distillation process is to separate your alcohol from other compounds in your mash liquid. Turn your source of heat on and bring the temperature up to 150 °F (65.6 °C) then turn on your condensing water. It will start dripping on the condenser to cool it. As it does, increase the heat until the first run of distillate is produced. This should be at around 190-200 °F (87.8-93.3 °C) temperature. Now turn down the heat until you notice your distillate dripping steadily at 3-5 drips every second. When this is achieved, maintain your heat at this temperature.
Step 6: Collecting your distillate
Ideally, you need to be collecting the distillate when it starts dripping steadily. Caution, never use a plastic container to collect your distillate because it contains BPA which can contaminate your distillate. it is advisable to use a glass container.
Distillation takes place in phases as explained below.
Secondly, collect and get rid of the first about 5% of your distillate. This is known as foreshot and may contain methanol and other congeners which is risky to ingest as it is known to cause blindness.
After the foreshots, the next 30% of your distillate which is still not pure but less dangerous compared to the foreshots is known as the heads. The heads feature a characteristic smell and volatile substances like acetone, acetate, and acetaldehyde which makes its taste not so good. It should also be poured out and not consumed.
As the name suggests, this is the heart of your distillate and the best as it is pure ethanol with neither contaminants nor the smell found in the heads. The hearts will be the next 30% of the distillate.
As you come to the end of the distillation process, into the last 35% of your distillate, you will be collecting the tails. It takes some experience to cut the heads from the hearts and the hearts from the tail. With time and practice, you should achieve this by both your sense of smell and taste.
The tails taste rather flat without the rich taste of corn found in the heart. The tail contains carbohydrates and proteins as well as fusel oils like butanol and propanol which gives it an oily slippery feel on your fingers. You have the option of getting rid of the tails or distilling it further.
Step 7: Cleaning after
Once you are done with the tails, your still will be empty once again. Strip off the copper mesh and soak your column in vinegar. Once done, clean your still and dry it thoroughly before storing it away. Equally, clean your thermometers, containers, and hydrometer and store them.
Don’t toss away your copper mesh just yet. You could use it a couple of times more. Clean it up, dry it thoroughly, and keep it for the next use.
When making moonshine at home, here are some tips to observe.
- Making alcohol indoors can be risky. Moonshine should be made out in the open if possible using wood fire near a waterpoint. This is also appropriate because mash tends to have a strong unpleasant smell which may linger indoors days after you have prepared your shine.
- The best yeast to use for your mash is the brewer’s yeast. Others are known to produce methanol which causes blindness and eventually death if ingested.
- Sour mash should be covered but not tightly covered.
- Don’t shy away from engaging a mentor if you are on the right side of the law. There is no harm in flattening the learning curve.
In addition to this, you can also learn brewing and distilling via online distilling courses.