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February 11, 2014

Making Moonshine - The Dummies' Guide

Making Moonshine - The Dummies Guide

What is Distillation?

Distillation separates chemicals by taking advantage of differences in boiling temperatures. Moonshiners make high proof alcohol by using distillation to separate alcohol from water. Note, distillation does not produce alcohol; it only concentrates the alcohol that is already present. 

Distillation is actually the last step in the process of making moonshine. In the first part of the process, moonshiners essentially make a low proof beer, which gets distilled later. Here are all of the steps one needs to complete in order to make their own moonshine:

  1. Make a mash using grains (such as corn) or sugar.

  2. Ferment the mash by adding yeast.

  3. Distill the fermented wash.

How Does Distillation Work?

The alcohol that moonshiners are after is called ethanol. It is able to be separated from water in a wash because ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water (pure ethanol boils at 172 degrees Fahrenheit, while water does not boil until 212 degrees). In a nutshell, wash is heated up in a still to a temperature above 172 degrees, but below 212 degrees. Ethanol starts to boil and turns into a vapor, separating from the wash water. The vapor is then condensed (turned back into a liquid) and drips out of the still into a mason jar or some other collection vessel.

The overall process of distillation is pretty cut and dry, but it is complicated slightly by the fact that there are several different types of alcohol (as well as many additional chemical compounds) that will be extracted during the distilling process. These are known as congeners (remember this word, it will come up again) and some are desirable in small quantities, while others (such as the foreshots) are not. Like ethanol and water, these compounds have different boiling temperatures.

When making vodka, as many congers are removed as possible because it is supposed to be a very pure, flavorless spirit. When making whiskey, the congeners are desirable because they add flavor and complexity. One of the reasons whiskey is aged is to smooth out the flavorful, but somewhat harsh cogeners present in the final product.

Phases of Distillation

Because the various alcohols and chemical compounds in a wash separate at different boiling temperatures, there are several phases of each distillation run: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails. During the different phases of a run, taste and smell may vary considerably. Generally, only the "hearts" portion is kept for drinking. The tails are set aside to be distilled again in the future.

1- Foreshots

The foreshots are the first vapors to boil off during distillation.  These contain the most volatile alcohols and should not be ingested, as they contain methanol and other undesirables. Moonshiners always discard the foreshots and never consume them. This portion makes up roughly 5% or less of all liquid collected during a distillation run. For more info on foreshots, read this article on moonshine blindness.

2- Heads

The heads contain "lighter" compounds such as Acetone, Acetaldehyde, and Acetate. These compounds taste bad and they smell like solvent. Additionally they are said to be the primary culprits in causing hangovers. There is little to no sweetness in this part of the run and it is far from smooth. The heads are not worth keeping for drinking and should be set aside. In general, roughly 20-30% of the liquid collected during a distillation run will be heads.

3- Hearts

The hearts primarily contain ethanol and it is the most desirable part of the spirit run. One can tell when a still starts producing hearts because the harshness of the heads has dissipated and the smell is no longer harsh. This is the “sweet spot," which isn't just a metaphor. The whiskey produced during this phase is very flavorful, but also very smooth and, (depending on the recipe) slightly sweet.  It is by far best tasting alcohol produced during a spirit run. The skill of the distiller comes into play as they must recognize the beginning and the end of the hearts portion of the run. However, in general, this phase will make up around 30-40% of all spirits collected during the entire distillation process.

4- Tails

The tails start once alcohols with lower boiling points has all evaporated. This portion of the run contains fusel oils such as propanol, butanol, and amyl alcohols. The tails are not very good tasting and are mostly water, proteins, carbohydrates and less volatile alcohols with higher boiling points. There are several ways that one can tell when heads end and tails begin. First, the flavor profile of the distillate will change significantly. The rich flavors present during the hearts will start to fade, as will the sweetness. Spirits collected during this phase will taste somewhat "thin." Additionally, the fusel compounds will create an ever so slight oily sheen on top of the distillate, which can be viewed at an angle in the right light (just as gasoline can be seen floating on top of water). The distillate will also be slightly slippery to the touch when rubbed together between a finger and a thumb. Tails make up the final 20-30 percent of liquid collected during a spirit run.

When to Stop Distilling

Experienced moonshiners generally run their stills until the alcohol from the wash has reduced to somewhere around 10-20 proof. It is not worth the time and energy to distill further to separate the little remaining alcohol from the water.

Making Distillation Cuts

An experienced distiller knows when to make a "cut" from the heads to the hearts and also from the hearts to the tails. In distilling a "cut" is when you stop collecting in one jar and start collecting in a new jar. This is a skill that is learned over time and required a bit of practice.

If the spirits will be aged, often times a small percentage of the heads and tails will be kept, along with all of the hearts, and added to the barrel. These cogeners, along with flavors extracted from the wood, provide the flavor and body of the final product.

Cuts can have a dramatic impact on the final product. Commercial distillers will tell you that It is best to make the head cut late and collect a bit of the hearts with the heads than to make the cut early and have heads mix with your hearts. Along the same note, it is better to make tails cut early and have a bit of hearts in the tails than vise versa. 


The tails that have been saved from a run and kept for future use are called feints. Distillers sometimes add them to the wash of the next distillation run or they'll collect enough to make an all feints run, which is called "the queens share" by some folks.

  • Ounces of wash x abv x 85 x 35%=how many ounces of hearts you should expect to collect from your mash. Now you can play with the numbers on your own and determine your own results (or desired results).

    Posted by Jay on March 17, 2015
  • How much hearts will my mash produce? (FORMULA included)

    Ok, I have done quite a bit of research and have come up with a formula to determine the amount of Hearts a person will collect during the distillation process. Many times over I have seen the question asked, "how much of the “good stuff” will I get out of 1,2,3,5,10 gallons of mash?" Being new to distillation, and all that is involved, has been an exciting journey so far. But, as many of you, I’ve had questions upon questions. This particular question though, I haven’t found a direct answer (be patient I’ll clue you in soon). So, I did the research and must disclose that this information is only theoretical and may not apply exactly to real world. But it’ll be damn close. I’ve been making homemade wine for about 3 years now and that has helped quite a bit in the process of making wine into brandy, as well as, making moonshine.

    So, without further ado, here is the formula:

    There are 128 ounces of liquid in 1 gal. Of mash or must. Now comes the fun part, abv. If your wash ferments to 10 abv then that means that total mash is 10 percent alcohol. That comes out to 12.8 ounces of alcohol in a 1 gal. Mash. Now, a good rule of thumb is that you will only collect about 85% of that alcohol (because when you get to the tails, the proof drops substantially and most moonshiners won’t collect anything under 10 to 20% alcohol). So, 85% of 12.8=10.88 ounces of all alcohol collected. You also have to keep in mind that hearts make up about 30 to 40% of all alcohol collected in a run. So, we have to calculate how much of 10.88 ounces is hearts. I use the safe number and go with 35%. So, 35% of 10.88=3.80 ounces.

    Ounces of wash x abv x 85 x 35%=how many ounces of hearts you should expect to collect from your mash. Now you can play with the numbers on your own and determine your own results (or desired results).

    Additional info:
    Foreshots make up about 5% of all alcohol collected.
    Heads make up about 20-30% of all alcohol collected.
    Hearts make up about30-40% of all alcohol collected.

    Posted by Jay on March 17, 2015
  • Awesome guides! really helpful for beginners!
    I made a litle chart here so it’s easier to have a litle hunch about how much there is in each cut!
    If you have a 25l mash with a abv of 20%you will have 5l of 100% abv liquid
    0,25l will be Foreshot
    1.25l will be Heads
    1.8l will be hearts
    1.25l will be tails

    Happy moonshining y’all

    Posted by Joey on March 10, 2015
  • Chris, let your jars sit out overnight to help dissipate the methanol present. Mark your jar with a line to monitor evaporation.

    Posted by Travis on February 04, 2015
  • Made my first run ran a gallon I threw away the first ounce or two every think looks right little worried about metanol though any suggestions

    Posted by chris on January 25, 2015
  • I made my first batch of shine today December 20th 2014 I threw away the beginning of itprobably a little more than two ounces and then started collecting in new jug I probably have a half a mason jar and it tastes like it’s been watered down can you tell me why

    Posted by brad on December 21, 2014
  • With 5 gallons of mash at 14% how many heart pints should i get?

    Posted by Jay on December 17, 2014
  • JAMES ARMSTRONG- Most likely the reason for the harsh smell and blue tint is that the copper piping has corroded. To fix this you can soak it in lemon juice or some type of citric acid for a couple of hours. Then afterwards rinse it out with a mixture of baking soda and water to neutralize the acid so it won’t corrode from the acid you soaked it in.

    Posted by Issac on December 05, 2014
  • need a easy recipe for straight clear shine can anyone help a beginner out thanks

    Posted by chuck on December 02, 2014
  • What to do with a sugar wash after it’s distilled?

    Posted by Big T on November 30, 2014
  • To the guy making honeyshine, it didn’t ferment completely. I used 5 lbs per gallon and used a wine yeast. Even on top of the wine yeast I still had to add a yeast nutrient. Fermax. It took the yeast about 1 month before the airlock stopped. My abv was 22%.

    Posted by Chuck on October 10, 2014
  • Hi, if i want to make a 10 liter of shine what would all my ingredients consist of? For a very easy basic recipe! Quantity of sugar? corn? yeast?

    Thank You

    Posted by Willem on September 14, 2014
  • Tried to make some honey shine this past weekend. After my fore shoots, my shine tasted like yeast. Could you help?

    Posted by Darby on September 02, 2014
  • re send info about my order deleted my shipping order, my bad you guys are quick and i have not received my order

    Posted by darrell johnson on August 16, 2014
  • I ran a sugar wash and it has a slight blue tint, and smelled really harsh. I discarded the first pint and it still had a slight blue tint. would carbon filtering help? Re run? or discard. The middle ran about 90 proof !

    Posted by James Armstrong on May 27, 2014
  • When running a still with a thumper do you still have a problem with foreshots and what do you do with what is left in the thumper

    Posted by Joe Henson on May 25, 2014
  • with a five gl, still how many heart pints should i avg. and at what percent alc. do the tails start to run?

    Posted by jimmy on May 02, 2014
  • At what point do you add your heads and tails back to your wash, before or after it has work off?

    Posted by JR. on April 16, 2014
  • How flammable is the liquid I take off the mash for
    the distillation. I think it would be 80% water and only 20% alcohol. Will the vapors of alcohol if any escapes be flammable when using with electric elements with contact points.

    Posted by D. Story on April 05, 2014
  • For Garrett: rum is made out of sugarcane molasses.

    Posted by Doug Borba on March 30, 2014

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