MOONSHINE FOR BEGINNERS
Questions & Answers
Since 2019 new home distillers have joined our moonshine for beginners group. They come into the group looking for answers and guidance on how to get going in this wonderful hobby.
Our amazing admin team has compiled a comprehensive list of commonly asked questions and supplied useful answers in this downloadable Q&A document.
Check out out all the questions and answers right here on this post or download a copy of the Q&A in the form below.
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Q. What equipment do I need to get started in this hobby?
A. For the most simple washes you will need a large heat resistant pot. You will need a fermenting vessel, ideally with a sealed lid and airlock. This is preferable but not essential. If you can get hold of a large stirring spoon this will aid the mixing of your ingredients. That’s all you will need as a beginner.
As you become more experienced and progress to grain and fruit mashes, there are two types of hydrometer that may help you. The first detects the presence of fermentable sugar in your mash/wash and is called a triple scale hydrometer. This gives you a specific gravity reading. The second, a proof and tralle hydrometer is used when you have distilled your spirit and shows the alcohol by volume in your end product. Fermenting temperatures are also important, so a thermometer can be useful, and you might also need to check the PH of your water with a PH meter.
A wire mesh strainer or straining bag can also be helpful when dealing with grain and fruit pulp. However, there are many experienced moonshiners who stick to very basic equipment, so none of this is obligatory!
Finally, you will need a still!!!!
Q. I’m new to making Moonshine. What type of still should I start with?
A.The most common type of moonshine still is the pot still, the design of which hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Most stills these days are made of either copper or stainless steel which are both excellent heat conductors.
The pot still consists of a boiler which holds the fermented mash/wash and an arm which often accommodates a condenser. The pot still is the most commonly used still amongst moonshiners. It is popular due to its ability to retain the flavor profile of the original ingredients
The other type of still used is the reflux still which works on a slightly different principle to the pot still. We will not get into the differences here, but the reflux still has a different design and usually collects alcohol at a higher proof. It is used for more specialist spirits
There are an increasing number of manufacturers who sell ‘off the shelf’ stills. They can be copper, stainless steel or a mixture of both which can be bought directly or online. Many offer a hybrid or dual-purpose design which can be used as both a pot still and a reflux still.
Q. What is the difference between a Pot Still and a Reflux Still.
A. A Pot still has a simple and straightforward design incorporating a boiler, a separate arm, and a condenser. Its main purpose is to separate the alcohol (ethanol) from the water, send it through the arm to the condenser where it returns to a liquid form and is collected as spirit. This is done as a single distillation process.
Another component of the pot still, which is sometimes used, is the thumper or sometimes called a doubler. The thumper acts as a secondary distillation and is typically used to increase proof and can be used to carry subtle flavors to the distillate.
The reflux still has a column which sits above the boiler. The column is filled with packing material and has a pre-condenser at the top. The sheer surface area of the packing material causes the ethanol rich vapors to rise, condense, fall back towards the boiler and then commingle with rising vapor. This continuous process strips them of unwanted substances and creates purer, higher proof spirits. A reflux still is often used to produce more specialist spirits such as Vodka and Gin
The column packing can be replaced by bubble plates which perform a similar task.
Q. What is the difference between a copper still and a stainless steel still
A. Copper has long been the material of choice in commercial distilling due to its chemical properties and its ability to react effectively with Sulfur compounds which are released from the grain when activated yeast is added to the mash. Commercial distillers of Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey have been using copper pot stills for hundreds of years. Copper is readily available and easy to work with, which makes it ideal for moonshiners looking to build their own stills.
Stainless steel is more difficult to work with and requires specialist welding techniques to make a still. Food grade stainless steel is very easy to keep clean and it is a more durable material.
Many manufacturers now offer a whole range of stills in both copper and stainless steel, or a combination of both.
They are available directly or online in pot still, reflux still or combination still configuration.
Q. I want to buy a still. Where should I start?
A. There are a whole host of manufacturers with online shops from which you can purchase ‘off the shelf stills. Think about what you want to make, where you would operate your still, how much space you have available and your budget
Talk to the members on ‘Moonshine for Beginners’ about your requirements and get a feel for how they started out. The saying “patience is a virtue” was never more true than it is in this craft.
Q. I’m new to the craft but want to set up my own business. What type of still do I need for large scale production?
A. If you’re a complete beginner you would be advised to spend some time learning the craft before you try to go large scale. There is much to take in before you can consider yourself an accomplished distiller, and you may find that it’s not for you. Start small and learn the basics. You will then start to get some idea of what will be needed to go industrial. Be sure to check the legalities of commercial production in your area.
Q. What is a Thumper?
A.Many distillers who use a pot still add a Thumper to their set up. It sits between the arm coming off the pot (boiler) and the worm and is a sealed container with a long inlet pipe and a much shorter outlet pipe. The vessel is usually charged with unheated mash, feints, and/or some form of flavoring.
Hot vapor from the still arm enters the Thumper through the inlet pipe. It is high content Ethanol and mixes with the contents of the Thumper reverting to liquid as it does so and increasing the alcohol content of the liquid in the vessel. In turn, this liquid heats up and produces an even higher Ethanol content vapor. As the vessel’s content heats up, the bubbling liquid produces a low thumping noise which gives the Thumper its name. The new vapor escapes through the outlet pipe and is condensed in the worm. Additional care must be taken when running a Thumper as it creates a closed system.
Q. What size Thumper should I use?
A. The current common wisdom is that a Thumper should be between a third and half the size of your still boiler.
Q. What should I put in my Thumper?
A. Most people tend to add mash or feints, but you can also add some fruit if you want a hint of flavoring to be carried through. It is advisable not to fill the thumper too much as it takes more energy to heat up the liquid in it.
Q. What is a Worm?
A. A worm is a condenser. It is made from a length of copper tubing formed spirally which sits in a larger bucket or barrel filled with cold water. The vapor from the still or thumper passes through the worm and condenses back to liquid exiting the system to be collected.
Q. How much tubing should I use to make my Worm?
A. Again, it can depend on the size of your still, but most people seem to think 20 feet of copper tubing will make you an effective Worm.
Q. How do I clean my new still?
A. If you have bought a new still or built your own it is likely to have some impurities in it from the build process.
The best way to clean the still is to run a solution of white vinegar through it and follow up by running a sacrificial wash. This is a simple sugar wash, the output of which will be discarded. The sacrificial run cleans any residual vinegar from the still. This is really only necessary on a new still or for a still that has sat unused for an extended length of time.
Q. What is a mash and what is a wash?
A. There is no absolute definition of the two in distilling. Most people seem to refer to a mash where grain or fruit is present and a wash when sugar and water or molasses and water are mixed together.
Q. How do I know how much grain to use in my mash?
A. You will have an idea of the size of your mash from the capacity of your fermenting vessel. You should then decide what you want your starting specific gravity to be. Using the PPG method (explained later) you can work out your grain bill.
Q. What is the correct temperature to mash grain?
A. When using malted grain, the aim is to release the amylase enzymes to convert the starch in the grains to fermentable sugars. The correct temperature is between 63 and 70 degrees Celsius or 145 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
If your temperature is below this range, you will convert fewer starches into fermentable sugar and if you go above the range, you will kill the enzymes thus preventing any conversion.
Q. What is malted grain?
A. Malted grain is a grain that has been germinated and then dried. The germination releases the enzymes that convert the starch within the grain into fermentable sugars.
Q. What is flaked grain?
A. Flaked grain is one that has been pre gelatinized (see later question and answer) and is ready for starch conversion once it is rehydrated, but it has not been malted and therefore, does not contain conversion enzymes.
Q. What is Amylase?
A. Amylase is an enzyme that converts starch into fermentable sugars. In malted grains both alpha and beta amylase is present and together they break the long glucose chains in starch into simple sugars.
Q. What is gelatinisation?
A. Starch gelatinization is the process where starch and water are subjected to heat, causing the starch granules to swell. As a result, the water is gradually absorbed in an irreversible manner. This gives the system a viscous and transparent texture preparing the starch for the enzymes. As yeast cannot eat starch, the starch must be converted into fermentable sugars. Gelatinization opens the starch to the amylase enzyme to allow the conversion process to take place.
Q. What is saccharification?
A. This is the process of breaking down the complex carbohydrates (starch) into simple sugars.
Q. Is the PH of my water important, and should I test it?
A. PH stands for the potential of hydrogen. It is a scale from 0 to 14 showing the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Anything below 7 is acidic and anything above 7 is base(alkaline). The ideal PH for a mash/wash is 5.2. A clean water source is essential for a good end product. The PH can be adjusted by adding Citric acid if it is too high and sodium bicarbonate if it is too low.
Q. What is SG and why do we measure it?
A. SG stands for specific gravity. It is defined as the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water at a specified temperature. The specific gravity of water is 1.000 and can be measured using a triple scale hydrometer.
As a mash or a wash should contain sugar, it will be denser than water and will have a different SG. As an example, if you test your mash/wash before adding the yeast and the reading is 1.040, then the density of the solution is 1.04 times that of water.
We test the SG at the beginning of the process to give an indication of the fermentable sugars present in the liquid. It also gives us a reference point to know when the fermentation has finished. At the end of fermentation, the SG should read close to 1.000 which means that the sugars have been eaten by the yeast and fermentation is complete. For a more detailed article about how to use SG.
Q. Why do we need 2 different hydrometers and what are they for?
A. We test our mash/wash with a triple scale hydrometer which gives us the specific gravity reading throughout the fermentation process. This hydrometer is only calibrated to measure the sugar in solution. It can only measure the potential alcohol content up to about 15-20%
Once we have distilled our product, we need a hydrometer with a higher scale that is calibrated to measure the amount of alcohol in solution. For this we use a proof and traille hydrometer which can measure alcohol at up to 200 proof or 100% ABV (tralle)
Q. What is PPG
A. PPG stands for Points per Pound per Gallon and represents the Specific gravity you would get if you dissolved or mashed one pound of the ingredient in one gallon of water. It is a useful method for working out your grain bill. Here’s how to calculate PPG for a recipe
Q. What is DADY?
A. DADY is Distillers Active Dry Yeast.
Q. What temperature should I ferment at?
A. Most yeasts seem to be active in the 65 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit range. Some modern yeasts will accommodate temperatures up to 90 degrees and beyond, but they are specialized.
Q. How long should fermentation take?
A. Unless you are using a ‘Turbo’ yeast, most fermentations will take 7-10 days.
Q. Do I need to ferment in a sealed vessel with an air lock
A. Whilst that set up does prevent any external bacteria invading your mash, it is not essential. Most commercial distillers use open mash tuns.
Q. My fermentation has stalled. What should I do?
A. Yeast needs several essential ingredients to work properly. It needs to be hydrated in slightly acidic water (PH 5.2). It needs to be oxygenated. It needs a particular temperature range, and it needs sugars to eat. If your mash has stalled, look to those issues first. If you are fermenting a sugar wash, you will also have needed to add yeast nutrient to your fermenter.
Q. Is it OK to ferment in plastic?
A. Yes, it’s best to look for food grade plastics but not essential.
Q. Can I ferment with the grain in the fermenter
A.Y es, you can ferment ‘on the grain’ or ‘off the grain’.
Q. How long will it be until my fermentation goes bad?
A. If you have fermented in a sealed bucket with an air lock, and your mash is kept at a cool temperature it should be ok for a few weeks.
Q. What is a stripping run and what is a spirit run?
A. If you have a large volume of mash, a stripping run or runs will reduce that volume and produce a higher alcohol content in what then becomes ‘Low Wines’. It is said to improve the final taste of the product. It is usually run quite fast, and no cuts are taken.
When you have collected your low wines, you do a final spirit run to produce your end product. These techniques are used by commercial distillers who mash vast quantities, and it reduces the amount of mash they have to put through their spirit stills.
Q. How hot should I run My still?
A. At Still’n the Clear and Moonshine For Beginners we have a mantra “Low and slow”, which refers to the way you should run your still. Each still is different and can be heated in a number of ways.
Typically, the following still head temperatures should give you an idea of what is happening within your still
Foreshots generally come off at around 174 degrees Fahrenheit, Heads come off between 176- and 195-degrees Fahrenheit, Hearts between 196- and 201-degrees Fahrenheit and Tails 201 to 208 degrees Fahrenheit.
For those distilling at altitude, these temperatures will need to be adjusted.
Q. What are foreshots and how much should I take off?
A. As you run your still, the product coming off can be split into four sections. These are the foreshots, the heads, the hearts, and the tails
The foreshots are composed of volatile substances such as acetone, methanol and undesirable esters and aldehydes and come off at the front end. They have a harsh smell. On a 25-liter run you would normally take off between 100ml up to 250ml.
Q. Can I put tails back into my next run?
A. This is a question that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. Some distillers always put their tails into their next run and swear by the process. Others believe that the tails contain some unpleasant esters and oils and always discard them. Some people keep all their tails from several runs and then perform a ‘tails’ run through their still.
It is a matter of personal choice.
Q. What is neutral spirit?
A. A neutral spirit is defined as ethanol above 190 proof.
Q. Why is my moonshine cloudy?
A. There are four main reasons why moonshine becomes cloudy. The first is that the still ‘pukes’ during the run and pushes some of the boiler contents into your collection jars. This is avoidable and if it happens, reduce the energy to your boiler. The second reason is down to the water you use, normally when proofing down. If the water is high in minerals it can cause cloudiness. If this happens, try using distilled water. Thirdly, if yeast is transferred from the fermenter into the still it can cause a cloudy end product. Try to let the yeast settle before transferring your mash into the still. Finally, cloudiness can be caused by taking bad cuts. It usually happens if some tails have made it into your final product.
Q. What is sour mash?
A. A sour mash is a spirit in which some of the backset from a previous distillation is used in the fermentation process. As each new generation is started the mash is said to get more sour.
Q. What is sweet water?
A. Sweet water is the distillate that is taken off the still at the end of the hearts run and just before the tails. If taken off slowly and carefully it is said to be loaded with grain flavor. It has a lower proof than the hearts and can be used to proof down or temper the finished product.
Q. How do I make ‘Cuts’
A. This is possibly one of the most important stages in the distillation process due to its impact on your end product. If you are distilling a 6(US) gallon mash, you will probably take off the first 250ml and discard it.
If you are new to distilling, line up several small jars and start collecting your distillate. Get used to the smell and feel of the liquid in between your thumb and forefinger and taste a small amount. Number your jars as you fill them until your run has finished.
Cover the jar tops with kitchen paper and leave them overnight to breathe.
The following day try to split the jars into heads, hearts, and tails. Use your senses of smell, feel and taste. You need to decide which jars you are going to keep, and you may find that a jar at the end of the heads section has got good flavor, and a jar at the beginning of the tails is nice and sweet so you add them to your finished product. Put them with your ‘hearts’ jars as the spirit that you want to keep. Go through this process a couple of times until you are happy.
There is no substitute for experience when making cuts, and the more often you do it, the better you will become.