Distillation for Beginners

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This is one of the most exciting moments in the hobby. You have completed your first fermentation, your wash has been cleared, and you are ready to create your masterpiece. Unfortunately, this is also the most nerve wracking moment in the hobby. Fear of messing everything up fills your mind. This hobby, which started out sounding so simple, now seems so involved. There are so many places to make mistakes. What if you don’t get all the methanol out? What if it tastes awful?

Relax. Take a breath, realize that you have been reading and learning what to do and what not to do, and lastly, remember that in the worst of situations, you can always redistill your spirit, so there is nothing to get worked up about. So let’s take baby steps, and everything will be fine.

Step 1: Ferment and clear your wash. This has been covered well enough already, so it is not necessary to go into great detail again. Simply ferment your wash and allow it to clear naturally or use a clearing agent to do so more quickly. I highly advise clearing the wash to reduce the risk of scorching material to the bottom of your kettle. Clearing is absolutely required when using internal heating elements to heat your still.

Step 2: Transfer the wash to your kettle. While you can use a funnel and simply pour the wash from your fermenter to your kettle, this will also drudge up the sediment and transfer it along with the clear liquid. It is far better to transfer the wash using a siphon, which makes it much easier to move just the clear liquid, leaving behind all the sediment on the bottom of the fermenter. Never fill your kettle to more than 80 percent of its total capacity! This extra space is needed for expansion and potential foaming that may occur during heating and boiling. Overfilling your kettle can create issues that will be extremely frustrating. To reduce issues associated with foaming, it can be very helpful to add an anti-foam agent to the wash.

Step 3: Complete the assembly of your distiller. Hopefully your distiller came with instructions, but regardless, this part should be rather straightforward. Drawings are provided in the Resources section for several popular distiller styles, just in case. You will place the pot still column onto the kettle and ensure that it is fully sealed. When vapor starts being produced is not a good time to find out that your distiller is not sealed.

Step 4: Start heating the still and be patient. Depending on the heat source and size of your wash, the heating process can take up to a couple of hours. It can be tempting to turn the heat up to the maximum to get the still producing as quickly as possible, but this is not always a wise decision. This is especially true when using certain types of propane cookers. These cookers can be capable of producing a very large amount of heat, and while they can get your wash boiling rather quickly, they can also put out enough heat to damage the bottom of your kettle and scorch any sediment that may have been carried across when transferring the wash. Trying to rush any part of the distillation process will usually show in the finished product, while patience will be rewarded. Now that you have started heating your wash, you should not leave the still unattended until the distillation process is complete.

Step 5: Start running your cooling water. While you do not necessarily have to start running your cooling water immediately after you begin heating your still, it is imperative that you start running cooling water into your condenser before any vapor starts being produced to avoid an extremely dangerous situation.

Step 6: Remove and discard the foreshots. If you have a thermometer in the still head, you can use the vapor temperature as a guide. Once vapor starts to appear, the temperature will suddenly spike, and a few moments later you will see drops of distillate begin to flow into your collection container. Continue to watch the temperature until it reached 175° to 176° F (79.5° to 80° C), or until you have collected at least 4 ounces (125ml) of distillate.* Even if the temperature has risen to above 175° F (79.5° C), continue collecting until you have at least 4 ounces (125ml) of foreshots. Do not be afraid to discard a little bit more of the first distillate. The total cost in doing so is literally pennies, and your finished product will often be improved by doing so. Discard the foreshots. They are poisonous, so there is no reason to keep them.

Note: The volume of foreshots is based on a five-gallon wash size. You must adjust this volume based on the size of your wash to ensure that all the foreshots are removed.

Step 7: Start collecting the heads. Change your collection container and begin collecting the heads. If you are watching the temperature, it should now be over 175° F (79.5° C). The speed at which distillate is coming from the condenser will have increased, and will now likely be a medium to fast drip, but should not be a trickle. Continue to collect the heads in pint-sized glass jars until the temperature rises to 195° to 196° F (90.5° to 91° C). It is helpful to mark each jar with “heads” and number them as you draw them off. Although you will use your nose and taste buds to decide which, if any, of these jars will be included in your finished product, numbering the jars will help you get a good feel for the changes in the distillate as the process progresses. It is also a good idea to test the alcohol percentage/proof of the distillate as the process progresses. Many distillers use the alcohol percentage as a guide instead of temperature or use both to be more exact in where they want to make their cuts.

This is where a distiller’s parrot can be a very helpful tool. A distiller’s parrot is connected between the condenser and collection container so that the distillate flows through it on its way to your container. The parrot holds your alcoholmeter, allowing you to take real-time readings of the alcohol percentage as the distillate is being produced. While the readings in a parrot are slightly inaccurate due to constant blending of the distillate, they are generally more than sufficient for deciding on when to make your cuts. Because of this blending, and to avoid any contamination from the foreshots, always collect your foreshots in a separate container before attaching your parrot. Generally, you will find the heads to be over 80%abv (160 proof).

Step 8: Collect the hearts. Now it is time to start tasting! Yes, you can use your nose and taste buds with the heads, but especially at the start of the heads you may find this to be less than pleasant. Once the temperature hits around 195° to 196° F (90.5° to 91° C) and/or the alcohol percentage drops below 80%abv (160 proof), it is time to start collecting the hearts. Change your container to a new container marked “hearts,” and just as you did with the heads, number them. The distillate will be coming out more quickly now, as a very fast drip or even a slow trickle. This can result in a slightly less accurate reading on your alcoholmeter if you are using a distiller’s parrot, as there is a noticeable flow from the bottom of parrot, where the distillate enters, to the top, where it is being drawn off. It is still generally sufficiently accurate to make the cuts between heads, hearts, and tails, as these cuts are not usually extremely precise.

Continue collecting the hearts until the temperature rises to around 202° F (94.5° C) and/or the percentage alcohol drops below 65 percent (130 proof). If you want to ensure that you have a very clean middle run that will not require a second distillation, then do not be afraid to stop collecting the hearts slightly earlier. This will mean that you have slightly less volume of hearts and a little bit more tails, but the tails can always be added to a subsequent batch to avoid wasting any of the ethanol that they contain.

Step 9: Collect the tails. Change your collection container and begin collecting the tails. Most of the ethanol has been collected by this point, but there is still a little bit remaining. The point of collecting the tails is to avoid wasting this bit of alcohol. Continue collecting until the temperature rises to 207° to 208° F (97° to 98° C) or until taste and smell reveal little to no remaining alcohol.

Step 10: Shut down the still. Turn off the heat. DO NOT TURN OFF THE COOLING WATER! Just because you have turned off the heat does not mean that there is no vapor being produced. The liquid remaining in the kettle is still very hot and well above 173° F (78° C)–the boiling point of ethanol. That means that if there is any ethanol remaining in the kettle, it will continue to rise and make its way into the condenser. Keep the cooling water to the condenser running until you are certain that there is no more vapor being produced, as even a little bit of alcohol vapor in the air can be extremely dangerous. As soon as you are sure that no more vapor is being produced, you should remove the thermometer from the top of your still head or loosen the still head to allow adequate airflow back into the distiller. Just as expansion takes place when heating the still, when the still is cooling, the vapor inside of it will condense. Without adequate airflow, the still can literally implode! Once the still is cool enough to handle, you can remove the still head completely and dump the liquid remaining in the kettle (or keep a portion of it for use as backset, if you are running a sour mash recipe). Wash and rinse your distiller as per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Step 11: Blending. Depending on how you have made your cuts, you may wish to blend some of the heads with the hearts, or maybe you are pleased with the hearts that you collected and you want to keep all the heads separate. Either is fine, and your decision will depend on the flavor and aroma of each container that you collected. If you decide to keep the heads separate, you may either use this part of your distillate as it is, add flavoring to it, or combine it with your tails and redistill. Another option is to add the heads and tails to your next run. The choice on this is yours.

Step 12: Aging and cutting. Once you have blended your final distillate to your liking you need to decide if you will age the spirit or leave it “raw.” Aging your spirit will allow the harsh bite of the distillate to mellow, and the flavors will become more complex. However, not everyone prefers this character, so the choice is ultimately yours. If you do decide to age your spirit in oak casks or with alternatives such as oak chips, oak staves, or another type of wood, you will generally want to age your spirit at just over 60%abv (120 proof) and cut the spirit (dilute it) after it has been aged.

Cutting, also known as “proofing down,” is a fancy way of saying that you are diluting your distillate. It is a very simple process of just mixing water with your spirit. There are a couple of reasons to cut your spirit. First, reducing the alcohol percentage makes the product noticeably smoother, reducing the bite and harshness of a 120 proof spirit. The second reason to cut your spirit is that aroma compounds are more easily released at this lower proof, resulting in a more aromatic spirit.

Second distillation

It is very common in pot distilling to redistill your spirit to obtain a more refined product. The advantage to multiple distillations is that it improves the removal of congeners and increases alcohol content. However, with each distillation you will remove more of the flavor and aroma compounds (remember, these are congeners), resulting in a product closer and closer to neutral spirits (vodka) with each run. If you are going to redistill your spirit, you should plan to do so in advance to make the most effective and efficient use of your time.

One option is simply to collect your heads, hearts, and tails from multiple batches and combine the like types together (e.g., combine only the heads from each batch) and redistill each when you have enough to reasonably run in your boiler. The advantage to this method is that you will get the most from each collection stage, and your hearts will become more refined and smoother. The disadvantage, of course, is that you must make multiple batches before you will have any finished, drinkable spirits.

Another method is to make your cuts somewhat less precise, starting your middle-run collection just slightly into the heads and continuing it slightly into the tails. You can then dilute the distillate that you have collected in the middle run to reduce the proof to below 80 (below 40%abv) and increase the volume to fill your boiler to at least 50 percent of its capacity. Never try to distill a product that is over 40%abv (80 proof)! The higher the alcohol percentage, the greater the risk of fire. If there is space in the boiler, add additional water to further reduce the proof while still leaving 20 percent open space in the kettle for expansion. The additional water will separate very efficiently from your alcohol due to the difference in their boiling points, so this will not adversely affect your finished product. You can then redistill the product, making more precise cuts. As you have already tossed the foreshots, you should not have any remaining in your second distillation.

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Excerpted with permission from The Joy of Home Distilling: The Ultimate Guide to Making Your Own Vodka, Whiskey, Rum, Brandy, Moonshine, and More by Rick Morris. Copyright 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.