this is for informational purposes only and should not be used for illegal activities. there are many legal things one can do with a still including fueling cars (must register with the federal government) as well as extracting essential oils from plants (not necessary to register). also, implementing the following procedures could result in bodily harm from explosions, fires, burns, not to mention what could happen if you actually consume your final product. use your head, be careful and be safe.
Thank you to everyone who has made this a successful Instructable! I appreciate the views and positive feedback. Please cut me some slack where I am lacking. I have recently updated to include a few more specifics, but this does not take the place of doing your own research. I am not an expert, though I play one on TV. I am also toying with a discussion forum for all the numerous repeat questions. Please continue to check the comments discussions before posting questions. Many have been answered before and plenty more than once.
as a further note, i have decided to add this link to clear up any misunderstandings about what United States law has to say about distilling. Hopefully this will make some of you think a little harder about this and the rest to stop posting comments debating the legality of this. This is ONLY for the US.
anything alcoholic can be distilled. i've distilled everything from my own moonshine washes to jug wine purchased at my local liquor store. distillation is actually quite simple. the hard part is making sure you are getting ethanol and not methanol (or the like). in this instructable i will show how i made a wash, fermented it, and consequently--the most important part--how i distilled it. i have added more specifics in order to answer some of the most asked questions i've gotten in the comments. i hope this helps. i might also mention that everything here is hypothetical and for informational purposes only. hope that covers the bases.
and. . . let's begin. for real this time.
(if this doesn't make sense or you would like more info, check out my instructable--distilling basics--for more detailed information on the distillation process or read through the comment strings before posting a question. I get repeat questions constantly and I don't have time to answer the same questions over and over. Sorry.)
Step 1: Fermentation
i used a sugar water solution to create a wash which i then distilled to a neutral spirit. i dissolved about 5lbs of sugar in 3 gallons of water (not an exact formula, play around a bit) and then let it cool to room temperature. this is about as basic a wash as you can get. many more options are available for different flavor characteristics. for instance, if you ferment molasses you will end up with rum. if you ferment blue agave you will end up with tequila. i was looking for simplicity for a beginner and ran with this. it is the easiest to procure and make. unfortunately white sugar creates a decidedly cidery flavor to the spirit, but much of that can be distilled out or masked by flavoring or blending.
the wash (fermentable solution, a.k.a. sugar water) was then poured into a clean carboy (big glass bottle, see pic). after that i 'pitched' the yeast (dumped yeast into wash) and then capped the carboy with an airlock (see pic). now we wait. depending on yeast, temperature, amount of digestible materials, etc., a couple of weeks is usually good. at this point yeast is eating sugar, and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol. give it some time. let it work. when the bubbles stop (and look close) it's done. if it is still bubbling, let it go. the two week time is just a very rough estimate. it will vary for everyone.
if the bubbles have slowed considerably, taste a bit. if it is sweet, let it go a bit longer.
when it is done. we're ready for the next stage:
Step 2: The pot
in this instructable i will be making what is known as a pot still. it is a very basic design, but can be reasonably efficient. there are many variations on pot stills and many other types of stills. some more advanced, some less. this will be fine for our purposes, though.
helpful hint: goodwill and other thrift stores are great places to scrounge parts.
a tea kettle
a medium sized thermos
a cork stopper that fits the kettle mouth(I used rubber, but cork is safer, use that.)
a pipe cutter
various other tools and what not
okay, let's get down to business.
drill two holes in the stopper. one to fit the copper tubing, and one for the thermometer. i'm using a digital cooking thermometer with a wire probe, but analog thermometers will work as well. drill the holes just a bit smaller than the tube and thermometer probe to make sure you have a tight fit. you don't want any leaks.
the stopper will fit in the spout of the kettle a la the photo. your tube should be out of the liquid to capture the vapors and your thermometer probe should be immersed in the water, but NOT touching the bottom or sides of the kettle. the kettle will get hotter than the liquid and skew your results. you only want the temperature of the liquid.
the copper tube should be long enough to connect to the condenser (attach a coupler on the end). ah, the condenser. on to thee!
Step 3: The condenser
the pot was easy. the condenser takes a bit of finagling. whatever the inside diameter of your thermos is, you want to find something like a 20oz soda bottle or some suitable tube-like thing that is a bit smaller and wrap your copper tubing around it to make a neat little spiral (careful, copper kinks easily). tube benders are available. they are basically big springs that slide over the tube and allow you to bend without kinking. filling the tube with salt, sugar, or even sand can work as well. i was just really careful and bent slowly and it worked fine for me.
the bottom end of the spiral exits through a hole cut in the lower side of the thermos. the top will exit a hole cut in your thermos lid (see pic). seal the area around the exiting tube at the bottom. seal it well and let it dry completely before you use it. test it before you go full throttle, as well.
thread the top of the copper through the hole in the center of the lid (if it is a screw type, like mine, you want to be able to unscrew the lid to fill and empty) and attach an appropriate coupler that marries with the one coming from the pot. spend a little time in the plumbing department of your local hardware store and i'm sure you'll find something that will work (look at the pictures). just do not use anything that contains lead. very important!
anyway, let's learn how to use this thing.
Step 4: Implementation
fill your condenser with ice and water (a little salt wouldn't hurt either, lowers temperature - think ice cream). attach the copper tube coming from the pot to the tube from the condenser with the couplers. place something under the spout to catch your shine and go to town. it may be good to have more than one receptacle. you will see why if you continue reading.
now we need some heat. back in the day people would use wood fires, gas stoves, basically anything they could get their hands on. dangerous! play it safe. open flames are not good around a still. alcohol vapors are flammable! as well, precise temperature control of your heat source is not necessary. the solution will take care of that. electric heat is the best.
check the pic. i'm using an electric stove. works great. you can see how i have it set up and i hope it all makes sense now. you load your wash into the kettle/pot, apply some heat, and condense the results. how? i'll tell you if you'd just be patient. geez.
okay, pour your wash into the kettle. place the stopper into the spout. turn on the heat. watch the thermometer. alcohol boils at a temperature lower than water. that's what makes distillation work. exact temperature will vary depending on elevation and barometric pressure, but water boils at around 212 °F while ethanol boils at around 173 °F. methanol, that can make you blind and is what you really want to avoid, boils around 148 °F. while running your wash, watch for plateaus (when the temperature stays the same for a while -- forms a plateau if you graph it) on your thermometer and compare them to known boiling temperatures to ensure you get only what you want and leave the rest. check out my instructable to give you the basics of distillation.
basically if you begin to distill and the temperature reaches a certain point and remains there for any length of time you have reached the boiling temperature for a particular liquid component of your wash. check the temperature against the boiling point data you have researched and you can tell what it is you are distilling at the time. using this information you can discard anything other than ethanol. no matter what a solution contains, it will not boil at a temperature any higher than what the level of the component with the lowest boiling temperature is until that component is boiled away. check the comments or 'distilling basics' for a discussion or two on this.
as an example, if your solution contains methanol, ethanol and water it will happen like this: once the temperature of your solution reaches around 148 °F methanol will begin to boil and come out through your tube as vapor into your condenser where it will convert back to liquid and exit into your receptacle. the temperature of your solution will not vary much beyond 148 °F until the methanol is gone and then will begin to climb again until it reaches 173 °F, the boiling point of the ethanol. the same thing will happen here. the temperature will hover around the same until the ethanol is boiled off and then on to water.
in order to get ethanol and exclude the rest you get rid of what are called the 'heads' and 'tails.' basically dump anything that boils lower than around 173 °F and everything after the temperature begins to climb again. this is why i mentioned having more than one receptacle. use one for the heads, one for what you want, and one for the tails.
so once you've boiled off and then condensed your wash, you should be left with a solution containing a much higher alcohol content than what you started with. you will still get a bit of water, but that's okay. running the product through the still again will further extract ethanol and raise the proof.
a bit of trivia: the Xes often seen on moonshine bottles in old cartoons, etc. represent the amount of runnings, or how many times it was distilled.
i've achieved a blue flame from a wash after a first run with this set up. you may or may not need to run the wash more than once. anything over about 150 proof will burn. that's a pretty good result from a single run.
i do not recommend doing anything i've talked about. it's not very legal (in the US), and it's not very safe. i enjoy knowledge for the sake of knowledge, though, and just because i know how to do something doesn't mean i will. so take this to heart, and take care.