Distilling: Part 2
January 10, 2010
The actual process of distilling takes some time to master, but thankfully allows or a fair amount of room to make mistakes. Conceptually, distilling is the process of purifying or concentrating (due to different boiling points) a liquid by evaporation and condensation. Making moonshine is really not too much more than that, you just ferment alcohol and then distill it through a still. There are a million different ways to make moonshine, and the following method is just one way. Part of the enjoyment of moonshining is that you can adapt the process to reflect the way you want to do it and the kind of alcohol you end up with, so I definitely recommend experimenting.
To make a batch of wash, you need yeast, somewhere to put the yeast, and something for the yeast to eat. Wash is fermented alcohol that is used for distilling. If you want to get any kind of results, you need some wine yeast, which generally costs less than $1 a pack. Any kind works, we typically use Red Star Pasteur Red as a good general purpose yeast. Pay attention to the % of alcohol the yeast can tolerate – this number is a rough estimate of the final alcohol content of the wash when it is done (assuming there is enough sugar for the yeast to eat). As for a place to put the yeast, you probably want a glass carboy (although ghetto-rigged batches can go in anything). Carboys can be bought for around $25 at any wine or homebrew store in different sizes. You will also need a drilled rubber stopper that fits your carboy and an airlock. We typically use a 5 gallon carboy with a #6.5 or #7 stopper and a standard carboy airlock.
Airlocks are essential to the fermenting process. An airlock needs to keep oxygen out while allowing the carbon dioxide to escape. When the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, the by-product is carbon dioxide. If CO2 is not let out, it will build up so much pressure that it will explode. Oxygen cannot be let in because it will promote the growth of bacteria which will contaminate the entire batch and render it useless. If you don’t have an airlock, another simple way is to have flexible tubing run out of your sealed carboy into a glass of water. Make sure the tubing and carboy are airtight and that the tubing is submerged in the water. This will allow CO2 to bubble out freely without allowing any O2 to enter. If you buy an airlock, make sure to add water or they will not work.
In terms of cleaning your supplies, I don’t recommend using soap because it will mess with the yeast and the resulting flavors. If you can, use a mixture of 2 oz of potassium metabisulfite in 1 gallon of water and rinse it through everything. If not, just use water and a clean sponge/brush without soap.
What the yeast will eat will determine what kind of alcohol you produce. Homedistiller.org has amazing recipes for any kind of alcohol you might want to make, from rum to mead to whiskey. Each of these is defined by what the yeast eats (ie: molasses=rum, honey=mead, grain=whiskey). I suggest starting with rum, because the ingredients are easily available and cheap: molasses and brown sugar. Starting with something like vodka (with potatoes) or whiskey (with grain) can be quite a bit harder because it is tricky to get the quantities right and to process the foods in a way that the yeast can consume it.
If you are using a 5 gallon carboy you should make about 3 gallons of wash to leave room for air and bubbling during the fermentation process. To make a 3 gallon wash of rum, you need 3 2lb bags of brown sugar and a little under 3 gallons of hot water (for an average recipe of rum, the ratio is about 2lb of brown sugar per gallon of water). Pour the brown sugar and some extra molasses into the warm water and stir until it is dissolved. You can also add yeast nutrients, which you can buy at any homebrew store, to help along the process. Then, pour it into the carboy and let it cool to room temperature. If it is too hot or too cold when the yeast is added, the yeast will not be able to live.
Next open the yeast and add it to a couple of ounces of room-temperature wash and let it sit for an hour. You can then add it to the batch and seal the carboy with the airlock. But, if you are a perfectionist, or it does not look like it is foaming enough, add a few more ounces of wash, cover it, and let it sit overnight. It should be foaming pretty heavily by the morning. Place the carboy in a room that will keep a steady temperature (to keep the yeast happy) and will stay undisturbed (also to keep the yeast happy), and keep an eye on it for the first few days to make sure it does not overflow/burst. It should be bubbling for at least a few weeks, if not one or two months.