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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.

  • Hi,

    What temperature should I cool my distillate to in the condensor? Does it make a difference how cool you make it?


    Posted by SYT on December 14, 2017
  • Looking forward to reading the book

    Posted by CHris on June 02, 2017
  • Can someone go into more detail on cooking temps and time lapse of the whole cooking process by chance?

    Posted by NIck on June 01, 2017
  • Can someone tell me how to make moonshine from the first step to the finish

    Posted by STeve on May 25, 2017
  • Hi i have used my smart still many times now with fantastic results i always trow away my first shot glass that comes through then use the first 500ml for my pure stuff like whiskey and the second and third 500ml for sambuca etc as it is not as pure and you cant tell but is the copper gorse essensial as i have ran out and wondered if it is needed.

    Posted by Marinda M. Bartsch on April 09, 2017
  • I sent request for ebook and didnt recieve it … attn. Emmet

    Posted by Jerry on January 04, 2017
  • How long does a 8gal batch take to cook? I’m looking into using propane…. need to do figure up costs of fuel

    Posted by Spirit Dancer on January 02, 2017
  • Damn it to hell. *Correctly. Like you imbeciles would notice.

    Posted by Joe on November 12, 2016
  • Why is it that no person posting on this site can spell words correct? FML

    Posted by Joe on November 12, 2016
  • having noob question
    ok distilling came from fermented wine or other fermented alcoholic beverage
    methanol exist in first place so if mix from foreshot to tail it should keep the ratio as it were in fermented one is it make you still blind or just nasty headache due more concentrated dosage of that?

    Posted by amin on November 12, 2016
  • 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

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