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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.

  • 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 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.
    Thank you.

    Posted by 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:

    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
  • Will I be safe in cutting from heart to tails at 100 proof as I never see a sheen like gas or different smell

    Posted by Denny Senters on June 14, 2018
  • Should I have a still full of liquid when I’m done with the run.

    Posted by Lonnie on May 31, 2018
  • Hi, thanks for all the info! I’m from South Africa, and just gotten into distilling. We here distill from fruits and we get something rather amazing. We call it “Mampoer”.
    I really have learned a lot from this site and also from the comments.
    Thanks, from sunny (today it’s very cold) South Africa.

    Posted by Gerard on May 16, 2018
  • i see alot of you looking for a good recipe. well a good recipe also needs a good process. so try this recipe out and process. it is a tried and true and tastes great.
    i have a 7 gal (26.5l) fermenter. this will work for 5 to 7 gallons.

    5 lbs of cracked corn (i use whole feed corn and crack it myself because store bought cracked corn has an acid in it to preserve it. not sure this acid would hurt anything but i don’t want anything messing with my yeast)

    1 lbs Whole grain rolled oats.(be sure it says 100% whole grain)

    8 lbs sugar

    2 Tbs amylase enzyme (get this at any brewshop)

    1 packet of champagne yeast (or your favorite yeast to use)

    5 to 7 gals of water (my friend likes to use distilled water, i just use my well water and its fine)

    Boil 2.5 to 3 gallons of water. turn off heat and add cracked corn and oats. (this will be a little lumpy. just keep stirring and breaking up lumps. or you can add corn and oats when water is cold and it wont get lumpy but then you have to be real careful not to burn it when you heat it. easier just to break up the lumps.)
    this will be thick

    Let cool to 155*f stirring occasionally.

    add 2 tablespoons amylase enzyme stir this up for a bit and you will notice the mash thinning out. you now took all that starch and converted into fermentable Surgars

    when cool enough go ahead and put this in your fermenter.

    next heat 2 gallons of water enough to dissolve your 8 pounds of sugar.

    take 1.5 cups of this sugar water and cool it to 90* F and add your yeast to it. mix it up a bit with wooden or plastic spoon and leave it sit until you see it working.

    add rest of your sugar water to the fermenter and mix really well.

    add cold water to fill fermenter full. (leave some head room or it will get messy.)

    when mash cools to 90* f stir it one more time. do it harshly so you aerate the mixture. (yeast will like that)

    Add yeast bomb and stir. Cap your fermenter and airlock it.

    fermentation will take about a week depending on your yeast. you should get anywhere from 15% to 20% abv.

    Have fun

    Posted by Shanty on April 07, 2018
  • Every time I distill my rum I get about one quart full that is around 60-80%. But as I continue, the percentage drops really low and is very oily looking. I am only distilling about 2 gallons of wash but thought I would get more alcohol. What do I need to do to get a higher percentage in the remainder of my alcohol not just in one mason jar?

    Posted by Sam on March 25, 2018
  • Got the distilling figured, just how do you end up with either run, vodka or whiskey? What do people use as a wash in the thumper keg to flavour their distillate?

    Posted by KIm on February 18, 2018

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