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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. 

Feints

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.

  • Very informative. Thank you.

    Posted by A. Hudson on May 12, 2021
  • I just bought a jar of moonshine, I’m not going to drink it until the end of March, where can a store it …….in the closet , the refrigerator?

    Posted by Joseph Barreiro on February 17, 2021
  • OG 1.070, 5 gallon wash, 9 cups in 9 jars. 1,2,3,4 are heads, 5,6,7 Hearts, 8,9 Tails.

    Posted by Jimmie on January 26, 2021
  • hi im using a 25l stainless steel pot for distilling
    how much heads should i toss away
    thank you

    Posted by etienne on January 18, 2021
  • Hello,
    YOu have some great info on this website, thank you.

    I have been using a 4l airstill, with Turbo Pure Yeast (not sure if this means anything to you)…however it says to only take the first 700ml and discard the rest.
    If I make a cut after the first 700ml and start a new jar, will the second 700ml be also ok to use? If so, how far can I take it?

    Thank you!!

    Freddie

    Posted by freddie on January 12, 2021
  • Hi was wondering if you can help me out with this question, I’m using a 4lt air still. I was told to throw away the first 50ml,and to keep the next 800ml top off with water to get 40% alcohol. Is this method correct? Also I’m using your recipe for corn mash.

    Posted by Ed O'Brien on January 11, 2021
  • I had around 70 gallons of muscatine wine..drinkable wine put it in a pot still and ran it the it seem that most was hearts&tells comparing to grain liquor …and was told that distilling this way didnt produce four shots is this. Correct just trying to be safe here

    Posted by jaymerritt00@gmail.com on July 20, 2020
  • If you have 20 gallon still how much wil be the forshots

    Posted by Jeff Zimmerman on June 11, 2020
  • thank that was great i made my own

    Posted by abraham on May 06, 2020
  • What happens when the mesh does not all settle to the bottom, ferm for 2 weeks

    Posted by Ernie on March 25, 2020
  • Very informative and easy to follow directions. Thank you 😊

    Posted by HARr bArtlett on March 02, 2020
  • How do you know when you’re past the “Heads” stage? Is it a percentage of the mash or is it something in the a shine to look for?

    Posted by Bear on December 20, 2019
  • I need the start-to-finish process to make Kentucky Moonshine.
    Please?
    Thank you.

    Posted by chrisng53@gmail.com on November 25, 2019
  • I’ve been making shine for about a year now and so far best recipe I’ve come up with after experimenting is 10 pounds crack corn 1 pound liquid barley 1 pound ground barley 1/2 pound molasses and 5 gallons water and between 12 to 16 pounds of sugar and 1 packet Brewers champagne yeast and if you feel like it instead of liquid barley use a bottle of pure cane sugar syrup my shine comes out around 185 proof I’ve gotten 195 proof couple times by tweaking my recipe here and there for all beginners practice and experimenting makes it happen!

    Posted by Adam on April 29, 2019
  • On making wash ,were using sweet feed. Cooking for one hour letting cool to 80 degrees,should we put all contence in fermenter?inclouding solids?

    Posted by Beau Bonin on March 01, 2019
  • Truo — a mistype, what is meant is that the still’s output drops to 10-20 proof.
    During a run, a still will slowly put off lower and lower alcohol percentages.

    As an example, my heads are often in the range of 150 proof, hearts 110 to 80 ish, and tails slowly drop down to 20.

    Posted by Deke on December 27, 2018
  • i have sider an want to make appel brandy . is it the same presses . looking for help with this . any one

    Posted by mark little on October 01, 2018
  • wHAT DOES “wash has reduced to somewhere around 10-20 proof” MEAN?

    Posted by truongpm on September 26, 2018
  • From a 20 litre wash at around 15% ABV made from just granulated sugar, turbO yeast and nutrient, theoretically this should give 3 litres of 100% spirit.
    What would be the expected volume of:
    Foreshots
    Heads
    Hearts
    Tails.

    Posted by STuart on August 27, 2018
  • is there a better time of year to distill liquor .. is it better when it is cooler out and or dryer.. and when I make my mash is there a certain temp the water should be when adding the yeast and should that temp be maintained throughout the beer making process.. Thank you!
    Posted by Joel on July 09, 2018


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