Artisan Home Distilling

Use a small pot still to make "eau de vie" (brandy) from your fruit wines and capture the flavor of ripe fruit.

| February/March 2013

  • home distilling connects us with our past
    Offering guests a glass of "eau de vie" is an ancient custom. 
    Photo By Thomas Gibson Studios
  • a copper still
    A small alembic pot still can distill alcohol from fruit wines. 
    Photo By Thomas Gibson Studios
  • a basket of sweet mirabelle plums
    Sweet Mirabelle plums are good for jams and tarts as well as making into wine to distill into brandy. Two main cultivars are 'Nancy' and 'Metz.'
    Photo By Andreas und Karen Kaspar
  • a small oaken cask containing eau de vie
    Small oaken casks such as this one are relatively inexpensive, usually starting at less than $50. 
    Photo By Christian Draghici
  • distilled fruit eau de vies can be very diverse
    European tradition has given "eau de vie" made from differety types of fruit different names: poire is pear, framboise is raspberry and mirabelle is made from plums.
    Photo By Gilles Paire

  • home distilling connects us with our past
  • a copper still
  • a basket of sweet mirabelle plums
  • a small oaken cask containing eau de vie
  • distilled fruit eau de vies can be very diverse

Well into the 1800s, homes in both Europe and North America had a “still room” where the woman of the house used a pot still to transform herbs and flowers into medicines and perfumes. Farms also had equipment for distilling fermented grain into liquor, or fruit wine into eau de vie.

Even today, it is impossible to travel in much of the European countryside without being welcomed with shots of home-distilled spirits, including plum brandy or eau de vie, called slivovitz in Eastern Europe and mirabelle in France.

What Is Eau de Vie?

“Strictly speaking, any distilled spirit is an eau de vie,” said the late food authority R.W. Apple in The New York Times in 1998. “Cognac is an eau de vie made from [grape] wine; Calvados is an eau de vie made from [apple] cider. Scotch whisky is an eau de vie made from malted barley, and its name comes from the Gaelic word uisge beatha, meaning — you guessed it — ‘water of life.’ But in practice the name eau de vie is usually confined to the clear fruit brandies that the French also call alcools blancs, or ‘white alcohols.’ ”

Unlike other distilled beverages, eau de vie preserves the flavor of what was distilled. A whiff of plum eau de vie and you are right there in summer with a hot, ripe plum in your hand. Eau de vie is the only way to capture the aroma of ripe fruit. Jam doesn’t do it, and neither do fruit wines. Homemade eau de vie is summer memories in a bottle.



I got my start in DIY distilling thanks to the mirabelle plum tree that rains fruit in my backyard in June. I eat plums every day for weeks — I make tarts, I make plum jam, I make wine — yet from this single tree the plums keep falling. So I started making wine that I could distill into plum eau de vie. Plums are the fruit of choice throughout Europe for home distillation. They are easy to ferment into wine and to make into an evocatively perfumed alcohol. I suggest you start with them.

Home distilling is a safe hobby that enables you to interact with your fruit harvests in new ways. Distilling produces a beverage that is warming and adds a wonderful dimension to socializing. For step-by-step instructions, visit the article Step-by-Step Home Distilling.

Home-Distilling Revival

These days, there’s a revival of the distilling traditions that Prohibition suppressed. This revival includes a burgeoning world of small, licensed distillers; farm-based distillers rounding out the economics of farming by making fruit- or grain-based alcohols; and avid hobbyists who regularly share their experiences and help each other out with technical information on online home-distilling boards (see “Additional Resources,” at the end of this article for more information).

In the United States, the growth of the Temperance movement in the 19th century culminated in Prohibition in 1919, which criminalized alcoholic beverage production. Distilling went underground, and poor quality and poisonous distillations of wood alcohol (methanol) severely damaged the reputation of home-distilled alcohols. Even today, online home-distilling sites frequently warn of the dangers of distilling. In fact, in making fruit brandies, there are no risks. You can drink the wine that goes into the pot still without danger. Distillation doesn’t add compounds; it removes them.

Because the distilling tradition was so badly interrupted in the United States, and what survived remained such a secretive affair, it can be helpful to look to Europe, where long-standing distilling traditions remain strong. Villagers throughout Europe routinely produce eau de vie for personal consumption.

In European countries, orchardists distill fruit that is otherwise unsalable, producing revenue from what would have become compost. Mobile distillers travel from farm to farm.

The Best Start

French eau de vie is world-renowned because French distillers don’t add sugar to the fruit when they make wine that will be distilled. You’ll find that most recipes for fruit wines (including all fruits except grapes) call for sugar. Adding sugar increases the alcohol content of the wine. Most recipes add enough sugar to boost fruit wine to the alcohol content of grape wine, which is between 11 and 14 percent.

Plums will naturally make a wine in the range of 5 to 6 percent alcohol. If you add sugar to double that alcohol percentage, you’ll get twice the volume of alcohol out of your still, but with a diluted flavor. Your eau de vie will still be aromatic if distilled from higher-alcohol wines, but not as aromatic as from a wine lower in alcohol.

Plums, apples and pears are classified as “high-sugar” fruits that ferment to the alcohol content of beer, which is enough for a good eau de vie. If you want to make an eau de vie from low-sugar fruits — such as blackberries or raspberries — on a home scale, the most practical way to do so is to add sugar when you make the wine, aiming for 5 to 6 percent alcohol. If you are working from a published recipe, this probably means cutting the sugar in half.

But Wait! Isn’t It Illegal?

Not to paint too rosy a picture: Home distilling is illegal in most parts of the world (including the United States and Canada) but is also generally tolerated (including in the United States and Canada) if the distilling is only for personal consumption.



In the United States, laws that have discouraged commercial distilling since the repeal of Prohibition are easing, and obtaining a state-issued permit for small-scale distilleries is getting easier.

Some U.S. states and Canadian provinces now make it easier for farmers to produce and sell alcohol at their farms. For example, Washington state now licenses craft distillers for $100 per year, and allows them to produce up to 20,000 gallons of alcohol a year and to offer tastings and sales on premises.

This takes place within the context of the general revival of interest in craft-food production and sale of local products. It is increasingly true that if a local farm produces an item, we’ll buy it.

Equipment You’ll Need for Home Distilling

Even if you have never seen a still — much less used one — you know the most important principle, because the underlying concept is in our language: “To distill” is to find the essence. The essence of an eau de vie is not the alcohol. When you distill fruit wine into brandy, you look past the wine to the flavors and aromas found in the ripe fruit itself.

To distill, you use the simplest of all stills — the pot still — to clarify and amplify the plumminess of plum or the peariness of pear. The alembic style, an ancient type of pot still, is the still of choice for all distillers where taste matters.

Pot stills contain five parts: the pot, the lid, and the tube that carries the steam from the pot into the coil in the condenser.

Pot stills work with just the right amount of inefficiency. Super-efficient stills, such as the reflux and condenser stills, can strip out all impurities to isolate the ethanol — which is the tasteless, odorless psychoactive alcohol whose percentage is listed on beer, wine, and spirit bottles. Tasteless and odorless is what vodka distillers are after. But the essence of a ripe piece of fruit is its taste and odor, so you don’t want to strip those compounds through over-efficiency.

There are three secrets to success: start with a low-alcohol fruit wine (about 5 percent), run your still as slowly as possible, and let your senses be your guide.

Home distilling requires no technical equipment besides the still — not even a thermometer. All you need are your senses and the concept that an eau de vie is like a poem written to honor the summer fruit.

How Does a Still Work?

If you boil water when it’s cold outside, the kitchen window steams up. If you boil lots of water, droplets run down the window pane. Those droplets are distilled water. If you direct the steam from the kettle spout into a tube rather than letting it flow freely into the room, and if you coil that tube through a bucket of cold water, then what comes out of the tube will be distilled water. Fill the kettle with wine rather than water and you produce eau de vie.

The distilling run is divided into three groups: heads, hearts and tails. The heads is measured in tablespoons from a small still. The first compounds to vaporize from the wine are acetone (yes, nail polish remover), methyl alcohol and other compounds with lower boiling points than water.

There isn’t a clear dividing line, but as soon as you stop smelling acetone, you are into the hearts. (Some people save the heads and tails to re-distill with the next batch.) Start collecting the hearts in a clean container. The hearts run goes on for a long time. At some point the smell and taste begin to change for the worse. Also, what comes out may no longer be clear. I collect my still runs in a series of jars to minimize the risk of contaminating a big jar of lovely hearts with the tails. To monitor what’s coming out of the still, periodically smell and taste. Stop the run as soon as you’re no longer happy with the taste — that’s when you’ve entered the tails. Keep what you like, toss the rest.

Choosing a Still

I recommend stills of two sizes. Use a small still first because it lets you work out your technique. Buy a bottle of wine, pour it into the still along with freshly grated orange peel, seal the seams with a paste made of flour and water, put water into the condenser, turn on the heat under the pot — and you’ll be up and running.

I’d buy a 2-liter still, at about $170 with shipping. A 2-liter still is also the size you’d want to distill herbs and flowers (although you can’t use the same still for both).

If making 5 gallons of a fruit wine seems doable to you, then you’ll need a 25-liter copper alembic pot still. The cost, including shipping, will be about $500. You can also find instructions on how to make your own sun-powered still in How to Make a Solar Still.

The fresh fruit brandy will be clear and “hot,” with some harshness. It will soften with age as some compounds vaporize.

Offering visitors a small glass of homemade fruit brandy is an old custom that many people are reviving. Let’s hope home-distilled eau de vie will once again be the way to welcome guests.

Read more: Learn the ancient craft of home distilling and make eau de vie with these easy and safe directions in Step-by-Step Home Distilling.


Additional Resources

Interested in trying your hand at this ancient art? Learn more about home distilling with these resources.

Online forums 

The Home Distiller Forums
A lively electronic forum with a good mix of beginner’s information and advanced knowledge.

Artisan Distiller
With some areas for beginners, this board also attracts more experienced and skilled home distillers.

Books 

The Home Distiller’s Workbook: Your Guide to Making Moonshine, Whisky, Vodka, Rum and So Much More! by Jeff King

Traditional Distillation Art & Passion by Hubert Germain-Robin

Distilling Fruit Brandy by Josef Pischl

Copper Alembic Stills 

Destilarias Eau-de-Vie 

Reflux Stills 

Mile Hi Stills 


Food writer William Rubel lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. He is co-founder of Stone Soup, the magazine by children, and the author of The Magic of Fire and Bread: A Global History.

Varocketry
3/21/2015 8:52:46 PM

Legalizing Home Distilling in the US - One Year Later. Posted on behalf of the Hobby Distilling Association with their permission. On March 19, 2014 I posted an introduction to the Hobby Distillers Association that thus far has had 19042 Views. I hoped to accomplish several things at that time: 1) make all the HD fans aware of HDA, 2) explain that our only goal was to legalize hobby distilling in the US– we have not sold the first Tee-shirt, and 3) ask everyone who is interested in our cause to join the HDA. 549 of you have replied to the posts and quite frankly, the initial replies were not very positive since many did not know or trust me. One year later, we are still alive and working to get our hobby legalized with approximately 1300 members. As posted previously, membership only costs $30.00 a year and can be anonymous if you chose. For lots of information and membership options go to http://www.hobbydistillersassociation.org. The HDA is set up as a non-profit organization and all of the funds collected are being used to pay our lobbyist in DC. Everyone on the leadership committee is a volunteer and no expenses are ever reimbursed. One thing we have learned is that in DC, timing is everything. It was practically impossible to talk or meet with any representatives last fall because they were all out politicking for the mid-term elections. Senator Rand Paul showed some initial interest and then backed off. The encounter with his office allowed us to get a professionally written draft bill that we hope is close to what will be introduced. Senator Cornyn of Texas has also shown interest in sponsoring our bill – if you live in Texas or know someone who does, send him a note that you support the efforts of the HDA. We met with the top Administrator of the TTB, John Manfreda, and 3 of his administrative staff. Their job is to protect the revenue but with the Sequester cutting staff in all government agencies, they have to pick their investigations carefully. Mr. Manfreda was given a copy of our draft bill and we all felt that our proposal was well received. We asked about the raids in Florida last March and while we did not get a direct answer, it was my feeling that the ones who were arrested had been selling illegal moonshine and the TTB added 40 some hobbyist to the raid to see what kind of reaction they would get. The hobbyist’s names and addresses were obviously taken from the list of customer’s names sent in by still suppliers. I believe all of the raids were in the Jacksonville area. We also met with the Asst. Secy. of Tax Policy at the Department of the Treasury. Again the intent was to clear our proposal with the policy makers to get ahead of the curve if and when members of Congress have questions. As with the TTB, our proposal was not met with any objections. There seem to be two primary concerns about home distilling from congressional members and government staffers/employees. These are methanol poisoning and house fires resulting in injury or death. We found two studies concerning residential fires done in New Zealand where home distilling has been legal for 19 years. The result was a very insignificant 0.14% of all house fires were caused by home distilling. We all know that our booze is safer than what you buy at the local liquor store; however the stories about methanol poisoning got their roots during prohibition. In the 1920s, bootleggers added methanol, antifreeze, and all sorts of poisons to their products to increase profits. Another source of methanol poisoning was the federal government itself. In a sick effort to stop people from drinking any alcohol they could find, the feds required the manufacturers of denatured commercial alcohol to add huge amounts of methanol to their products – the idea was if they put poison in the commercial alcohol, nobody would drink it – Wrong. During Christmas season of 1926 (I think), over 800 people died in New York City alone from drinking commercial alcohol that had been methanol poisoned by their government. The purpose of this long post is to ask one more time for your help. Contact your Senators and district Congressmen/Women. Tell them that you support our legislative efforts to legalize home distilling for personal consumption. There is plenty of information on our website to use as lead-ins when discussing this topic. Believe it or not, time is of the essence. Hobby distilling is not a hot button issue for Congress and our small bill will most likely have to ride on another bill’s coattails. We need a sponsor in the Senate and the House and you can help. In 17 or 18 weeks Congress will leave DC for their summer recess and will be out of their offices for about 6 weeks after which the only thing they will care about is the 2016 elections (or re-elections as the case may be). Someone on this forum has an idea we can use to get Congressional attention. Someone out there knows someone who knows someone who can help. Our lobbyist, Keith Nelson, is contacting congressional offices on a regular basis so if you know a legislator he should call, let us know. Questions can be addressed to our website. You are welcome to email or call me. The HDA is the real deal – no other group has come as far or made as much of an effort as we have. Your support is welcome. Thanks for reading. Tom Cowdrey Tocowdrey3@gmail.com 804-296-6194


Tedsgettingdrunk
5/3/2014 12:35:27 AM

I just got a still from http://www.copper-still.net and definitely not to make whiskey strong enough to take the hair off a mule's ass...Nope only essential oils for me ;) I agree with Earthbaby 10 honestly. The feds are always tryin to keep the people under its thumb, its up to us to remind them who really has the pwer around here and that we elect them!


Meisfree
8/18/2013 5:26:14 PM

@Rcockran and THoffman...U can take your little un-intimidating jackboot fascist "Fed above all" attitude and shove it right up your ***. STATE LAW TRUMPS FED and my state allows personal production and use of a LEGAL substance...guess what? Thats right...I think your collars have some brown stuff on em...JACK!







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