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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.

  • can you heat ur thumper ,,, my pots thumpin just n output

    Posted by bud ringo on September 05, 2016
  • This is my first time making Rum, so it’s my experimental round. If I made a 1 Gal batch of rum with 12 ABV and I’m using a pot still, Can someone tell me how many ml of foreshots to discard. The whole “blindness” thing has me paranoid. A suggestion of how many ml of heads to discard will aslo be much appreciated. Thank you!

    Posted by RIngo STarr on July 11, 2016
  • Thisay seem like an odd question but can you restart your still if you have to turn it off mid run? For example you have an emergency come up and have to shut things down to handle it? Can you come back x hours later and continue distilling the same wash that was in the still?

    Posted by Misty on April 28, 2016
  • Jay, based on your formula the tails will also be 35% of what is collected, is that correct?

    Posted by Shane on April 08, 2016
  • Has anyone tried crab apple moonshine?

    Posted by Danielle on April 06, 2016
  • On a 3 gallon batch of fermented mash. How much foreshore and heads do I need to cut? Or through away? Or do you throw away first 50ml away no matter what?

    Posted by CLark on March 04, 2016
  • I’m cooking my mash and I’m having a problem with no alcohol coming out at the lower temps. As of 175 – 185 . I won’t start coming out until it gets over 200 . There are no leaks
    What do you think is my problem?

    Posted by DAnny on January 27, 2016
  • I am a new guy at this my mash stoped working after two days what do I do.

    Posted by Lee Galloway on December 24, 2015
  • On condenser which one is inlet and the outlet for water or does it matter?

    Posted by DAn on December 16, 2015
  • With the foreshore is there a problem with residual methanol staying within your worm? Should you wash it out or should some of the heads and discard to be safe? Also the heads and the tails contain compounds. Are any of these harmful? Would it be advisable to hold your heat if at all possible to distill off all of the methanol?
    Thank you

    Posted by KEn on December 09, 2015
  • I am a beginner, this is my first shine with corn mesh , what can I cut it with that will not mess it up?

    Posted by OAkley on October 04, 2015
  • As I was distillimg my whiskey it is coming out a cloudy color not clear like water did I do something wrong?

    Posted by Matt on August 27, 2015
  • Can u shake a gallon batch of mash after it has started fermenting or will it kill the yeast?

    Posted by Jmcghee on August 23, 2015
  • When running with a thumper the distillate goes through the same stages as without a thumper. The boiler temperature reading will much higher than the norm before the first drops appear at the spout. I hear my boiler rumble at about 140 degrees, but the drops rarely appear beofre 180 degrees(boiler temp)…Be patient and do not over fill thumper. Just an inch over bottom of thumper input tube. The remnants I just toss…Usually have enough tails to use for charging the thump keg so I dont bother…I am after flavor and that aint where it’s at.

    Posted by ShineDown on July 12, 2015
  • My distilling process, the alcohol never came threw the cooper. Is it ok to distill again?

    Posted by shay on June 09, 2015
  • Oh and as for using my pool water to cool. The return water heats the pool water too! Even though live in the Bahamas. Our pools get chilly too.

    Posted by some guy on May 31, 2015
  • For you newbies out there asking a lot of questions. Heres some helpful info. I live at 1230 feet above sea level. I have a 8 reflux gal still with electric heating element. I use my swimming pool water to cool. Plenty of water and will never overheat. My last batch of mash was 10% abv. Should have been close to 20 but I think it needed to ferment longer. The reflux still produced 160 proof with it though. Lower the abv the more heat needed to pour. I bought a submersible fountain pump 90-360 gph which cooled too much. I got a steady drip at a steady 183 degrees F. I put a garden hose valve on and restricted the flow and a perfect steady stream at 186 degrees f. As it cooked the temp had to be increased with the adjustment of the cooling water. When you restrict the water flow. The pot will heat up faster. Every once in a while I will open the valve all the way and let the pot temp decrease. The temp setting on the heating element doesn’t matter cause the vapor temp on top of thr flute stays the same as long as the water is running with no air in the line. Just make sure its not set too low. Its taken me 3 batches to get it right. Now im drunk as fuck lol. Just make sure you do your research on the cuts. Methanol smells like those orange candy peanuts. I brew took about half a pint to burn off. I have a methanol test strips to make sure. Then cook your heads until the nail polish rremover smell goes away then keep going a little longer. Then start collecting your hearts. I collect until either the temp is 205 ish, or its 10% alcohol in the parrot, or I feel a oily residue and leaves a colored film on top. When I get close to the tails. I switch containers and collect a little at a time to evaluate it before I pour it into the big jug. I hope this helps. Oh im am not brewing in the United states so make sure you’re legal wherever you are at.

    Posted by some guy on May 31, 2015
  • I am very new to this. Am I missing something on this formula? It seams that this is assuming that what comes off still will be 100% alcohol. I could not figure this out because I am getting from my pot still almost exactly double your numbers but mine is coming off at an average of 100 proof. Should I be getting a higher proof?
    I have been very fortunate (lucky) so far. The stuff I have made from different batches and recipes have been good to really good.
    I have been throwing away the first 2 oz for every gallon of wash. The next 4 oz I keep separate but the next 12 oz or so has been 80 – 100 proof good tasting shine. It really drops off in strength and taste after that.
    I am getting ready on next molasses rum run to add a thumper to the mix. Thinking about mixing some dunder from previous run along with tails from earlier batches To load the thumper Any suggestions?

    Posted by john on May 25, 2015
  • 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

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