To start distilling at home, you’ll need some technical knowledge about the equipment, process and how to handle the delicious results.
Start small and cheap. You can produce flavorful eau de vie using a tea kettle and a condenser made with plastic tubing to distill wine made from a few pounds of fruit. If you know you are interested in home distilling and don’t need a test still, then the first still to purchase is a 1 1/2- to 2-liter copper alembic pot still. These often ship from Europe and represent a comparatively small investment for what could become a lifelong hobby. The small still is good for small batches of anything, and for redistilling alcohol you have produced in a larger still.
The largest still appropriate for home use is 5 gallons (25 liters), a size that matches the scale of home-scale fermenting buckets. But even one run in a 5-gallon still makes a substantial quantity of alcohol. While it is always nice to dream big, stills holding less than 1 gallon (4 liters) encourage you to be creative and keep the enterprise well within the bounds and spirit of home-scale craft distilling.
Operating a Pot Still
Heat source: Stills under a few liters are best operated over natural gas or propane, and ideally in a water bath. This is because when distilling for maximum flavor, one needs to keep the distillation as slow as possible. It is easier to control the heat in a small still if it is indirect.
Getting ready to distill: Clear a work area around the heat source you will use for the distillation. You will need the following:
- the still
- the wine
- a ladle
- a dozen small glasses to collect the distillate
- a pitcher for mixing the alcohol you are saving to drink
- a jar with lid for the saved drinkable distillation
- a jar for “heads and tails” if you plan to redistill them at some point
- a permanent marker that writes on glass
- a mixing bowl along with flour and water to form the paste for sealing joints
- and a damp sponge and towel for use polishing the still and cleaning up spills.
- If your still will need polishing either inside or out, then also have on hand vinegar and salt.
Preparing the still: Make sure your still is clean. If copper sits unused for a long time it naturally oxidizes. The traditional way to polish the interior of a copper is to warm it slightly and then pour some vinegar (1/8 to 1/4 cup for small still) into the still, chased by a tablespoon of salt. Then spread with a sponge. You can polish the exterior of your still with vinegar and salt as well.
Step by Step Setup: Follow these steps to set up your still for a distillation run.
- Place the pot still over the heat source. If using a water bath, set the still in a pot that is large enough to be 3/4 immersed in water. For example, a 2-liter still comfortably sits in a dutch oven. Next, fill the still approximately 3/4 full with the wine to be distilled and then assemble the still. The wine can foam up when first heated so don’t overfill.
- Assemble the still. This usually means placing the lid on the distillation pot, running the tube from the lid to the condenser coil, adding cold water to the condenser, and finally putting a glass under the spout through which the alcohol will flow. As most home distillers improvise, their setup it may take a little adjusting to get it working.
- Once the still is assembled, make sure fittings are tight. For example, on a homemade still, ensure that any corks or rubber stoppers are tightly in place. All loosely fitting joints need to be sealed. In a traditional copper alembic still, this means sealing where the lid fits into the pot and where the copper tube leading from the swan’s neck lid fits into the condenser coil. A thick paste made of flour and water is the traditional sealant.
- If using a water bath, use aluminum foil to make an improvised lid around the still if practical. This reduces energy use and reduces evaporation from the water bath.
- If the condenser coil is not already surrounded by cold water, add the cold water now.
Operating the Still: The simple part is operating the still. There are just two rules: go slow, keeping the alcohol coming out of the still at no faster than a drip a second, and use lots of jars or glasses to collect the distillation so that after your run, when your judgment is better, you can throw away what is bad and keep the good.
Turn on heat under the still. Start with a strong flame and if you are distilling in a bain marie, bring the water bath to a full boil. Once you become familiar with your still, you will get a sense of when the alcohol will begin flowing. From time to time, touch the copper tube close to the lid and also close to the condenser. The alcohol will begin flowing soon after the copper becomes hot where it enters the cooling water. I often notice steam beginning to rise from where the copper enters the water just before or just as alcohol beings to flow. It is especially important not to allow the still to get too hot. The ideal speed is no greater than 1 drip a second.
Your nose is what you use to separate the “run” into its component parts: the foreshots, the heads, the heart, and the tails. The heads and the tails may be saved to redistill. The hearts are consumed, though depending on taste, they may be diluted with water first. There isn’t a clear separation between the different parts of the run. The art and craft of distilling is how the distiller makes the call using his or her nose.
Foreshots: The first alcohol to come out is called the foreshots. The foreshots are heavily contaminated with acetone and methyl alcohol. The still does not create these alcohols, but it concentrates them. In quantity, acetone and methyl (wood) alcohol are poisonous. They also smell horrible. Learn this smell. You cannot go too slowly at this stage. The foreshots are thrown away.
Heads: The heads contain a mix of the undesirable alcohols and an increasing percentage of ethyl acetate, which is one of the important flavor compounds in grape wine, and methanol. Most commercial distillers save the heads to run through the still a second and third time. You may want to save them, toss them, or add at least some to the hearts. There is no fixed rule.
Hearts: The hearts is the main run of ethanol. The smell is bright and fresh and is strongly evocative of the underlying fruit or herb in fruit wines and fruit and herbal macerations. As you maintain the still at a steady slow drip you will find that you are slowly increasing the temperature of the still. One drop every second, or even every two or three seconds is what you are looking for from a small still. Collect in small glasses, like shot glasses.
Tails: At some point the flavor changes, becoming more dilute (more water vapor is condensing) and the smell is less pleasant. At that point you are sliding into the tails. The tails contain a high percentage of water mixed with ethanol and fusel alcohols.
If you smell any of the undesirable alcohols of the foreshots and heads, you can leave the alcohol in a glass container with a cheese cloth lid. After a few days the acetone and methyl alcohol remaining will evaporate. Changes do take place within the glass. Letting the alcohol rest for a few months mellows the drink and reduces any metallic tastes picked up from the still.
Commercial distillers focus flavor by running the alcohol through the still two and three times. Each time through the still a more refined cut of foreshots, heads, and tales is made producing an ever cleaner hearts. The trouble with redistilling on a home scale is that one has to start with an awful lot of alcohol to get enough to run back through a still, and then heating a pot filled with now highly flammable alcohol — as opposed to heating wine in a first distillation — clearly poses safety issues. It isn’t something I’d do in my kitchen nor is it something I’d do over or near an open flame. My advice is to be methodically slow about your primary distillation, gather the run in lots of small containers so you can make the cleanest, brightest mix possible, and be happy with what you have achieved.
Boiling Temperatures of Alcohols
The following is a list of the temperatures at which the different alcohols boil at sea level. In the real world liquids evaporate at temperatures below their boiling point. For example, water evaporates out of ice and snow and rain evaporates off of sidewalks even on cool days under cloud cover. Therefore, there are no clear demarcation points. As the acetone boils out of the wine at 134 degrees, ethanol and water are evaporating too, even though they are below their boiling temperatures. But the steam rising from the still at 134 to 147 degrees is richer in acetone and methanol than in ethanol, so these are the foreshots.
A pot of boiling waters boils for a long time before all the water evaporates. Thus, it isn’t as if your wine reaches the boil. What you can see from this table, though, is that to isolate the acetone and methanol, you want to go very slowly so the temperature of the wine creeps up to the 172 degrees of the ethanol, the alcohol that is at the heart of the run. If you go slowly, then it will be clear where the foreshots and heads separate. Everything above ethanol (boldface) listed below is the foreshots and heads; ethanol is the desirable middles; and everything below the Ethanol is the tails.
- Acetone: 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.5 degrees Celsius)
- Methanol (wood alcohol): 147 degrees F (64 degrees C)
- Ethyl acetate: 171 degrees F (77.1 degrees C)
- Ethanol: 172 degrees F (78 degrees C)
- 2-Propanol (rubbing alcohol): 180 degrees F (82 degrees C)
- 1-Propanol: 207 degrees F (97 degrees C)
- Water: 212 degrees F (100 degrees C)
- Butanol: 241 degrees F (116 degrees C)
Amyl alcohol: 280 degrees F (137.8 degrees C)
Furfural: 322 degrees F (161 degrees C)