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March 1, 2013
Last updated

10 Most Important Safety Tips for "Moonshiners"

Owner of Clawhammer Supply

How to Distill Alcohol Safely

Folks often ask us how to make "moonshine". It isn't rocket science, but it's also illegal for those that are not commercial distillers. So one of the first things a potential distiller needs to consider is the legality of such an act. Though, before we get to that, a disclaimer: The information, data and references, provided in this article are provided for informational purposes only are not intended to be relied upon by any person, or entity, as a legal basis for any act or decision whatsoever.

1. Make sure to have the proper permits for distilling

Because of prohibition era laws and other legal precedents set in the early 1900's, only commercial distillers can legally distill alcohol for consumption. For those distilling at home, fuel alcohol can be distilled if one obtains a federal fuel alcohol permit. However, alcohol distilled with this permit cannot be consumed. State laws also vary, so anyone thinking of buying a still should check their local state laws before they even consider distilling. State permit requirements vary. For information on distilling laws and required permits for a particular state, try searching for "distilled spirits" and "fuel alcohol" in state general statutes, which can usually be found online.

Clawhammer Supply's distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only.  Please read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation.

2. Use Proper Distillation Equipment

A commercial distiller would only use a pure 100% food grade copper distiller assembled with lead free solder or a stainless steel still made from 304 stainless steel.

Stills made from old radiators, sheetmetal, plastic barrels and other such materials are questionable at best and extremely dangerous at worst. Always insist on using stills that are made from pure copper or 304 stainless steel. Old time moonshiners in the Appalachian hills used copper and modern commercial distilleries use it too. Also, a commercial distiller would always use lead free solder and water based flux to assemble a still. There are plenty of guides and videos on the internet on how to make a still.

3. NEVER distill indoors without ventilation

The best way to avoid being featured in the 5 o'clock news is to not operate a still indoors without proper engineering and ventilation. Typically, local code will require distillers to adequately ventilate their space before a permit is given for distillation equipment. In the event that your local code does not require this, adequate ventilation should still be carefully considered. The best course of action is to hire an engineer to provide these calculations and manage the installation of air handlers.

4. Control alcohol vapor

A leaky still could allow precious wash to drip onto the ground before the alcohol is separated, wasting the time and money invested in brewing it up. Even worse, a leak in a still's column could allow explosive alcohol vapor to escape. A commercial distiller is always very conscious of the fact that alcohol vapor is highly explosive and potentially very dangerous.  Before a commercial distiller uses a still, they will inspect the equipment to make sure there aren't any leaks. If a leak develops during the distillation process, the still should be shut down immediately.

However, here's an interesting fact: Popcorn Sutton, one of the most famous old-timey moonshiners to ever live, applied flour paste and then tied a rag around the connections of his still when it leaked. The rye flour would actually bake to the surface of the still, creating a seal.

Though, again, best practice is to shut down a still if a leak develops because alcohol vapor is very volatile and highly explosive.

5. Never leave a still unattended

An unattended still is an accident waiting to happen.  Murphy's law states that any thing that can go wrong will go wrong.  This doesn't always hold true, but why tempt fate by leaving a still unattended?  When planning for a distilling session, make sure to calculate how long it is going to take to run the batch. A commercial distiller will never leave their still unattended.

6. Keep a fire extinguisher handy

When distilling, the biggest single risk, as one might gather from reading the other safety rules in this article, is fire. Distilling not only involves the presence of a heat source for heating the wash, but also potentially explosive alcohol vapor and highly flammable ethyl alcohol.  A heat source malfunction, a leaky still, or a spilled collection vessel containing high proof alcohol could lead to a disaster. Commercial distilleries typically require fire suppression system. In the event that local code does not require fire suppression, a fire extinguisher (or several) would be a MUST HAVE item. Like an oil fire on a stove top, alcohol fueled fires should be put out with a fire extinguisher.  Having a bucket of water on hand is not sufficient and could actually make the problem worse.

7. Use a stainless steel collection vessel

Distillers should always collect the finished product in a stainless steel collection vessel. Why not glass or plastic? Glass is fragile and could break and some types of plastics will break down in the presences of high proof alcohol. Additionally, plastic could melt in the presence of a fire.

Here's an anecdotal story we pulled from an old message board which was was posted by a novice distiller. Before we tell the story, a reminder: Distilling at home is illegal without the proper permits. Do not do this.

The still operator was standing in his shop watching alcohol drip from the condensing arm into a plastic collection vessel. However, the plastic appeared to be melting before his eyes. He thought for a second that the alcohol was so strong that it instantly started breaking down the plastic and melting it! That, however, was a dangerously incorrect assumption.

The alcohol was definitely very high proof. It was so strong, in fact, that when it caught on fire (which was actually what had happened) the flame could not be seen. This is because very high proof ethanol burns with an almost invisible flame. The operator grabbed for the plastic bowl and spilled some while attempting to pour it into another container, starting a kitchen fire and burning his hand in the process.

So, always use a stainless steel collection vessel. Also, distilling at home can be very unsafe and is illegal without proper state and federal permits.

8. Direct the finished product well away from the still.

A commercial distiller would suggest always using a stainless steel, small mouth collection vessel and placing it away from the heat source. Small mouth collection vessels minimize the amount of alcohol vapor that escapes from freshly distilled product and will also minimize the amount of product that gets spilled in the event that the container of alcohol ever gets knocked over. If a container does happen to end up on its side, the further away it is from heat the better. Also, if distilling over an open fire there is always the risk that an ember will pop off of the fire and land in the collection vessel. Experienced commercial distillers use self contained heat sources, (not open fires) and direct the finished product well away from any potential sources of combustion.

9. Always discard the "foreshots."

A commercial distiller realizes that one of the risks associated with making and drinking spirits is concentrating methanol. Methanol is a potential byproduct of the fermentation process and its presence in a wash is a legitimate danger. Fortunately if there is any methanol in fermented wash, it should boil off before the ethanol because methanol has a lower boiling point. For this reason, commercial distillers will do one of two things:

  • They will discard the first bit of alcohol produced by the still. This part of the run, known as the foreshots, smells like high powered solvent, tastes even worse, and is potentially poisonous. 
  • Or, they will combine and mix everything thoroughly (if lower quality alcohol is being produced), which eliminates the concentration risk.

10. Never sell "moonshine"

We already hit on this in point number one, to reiterate: distilling alcohol without the proper permits is illegal unless one has a fuel alcohol permit and selling alcohol for consumption is illegal unless one has a federal and state distillers permits.

Federal and state permits are required and permitting requirements vary from state to state, so make sure to check local laws. If one does not have a permit to make and sell spirits, they should not do so.

A simple Google search will produce dozens of stories about "for profit," illegal, at-home "moonshine operations" getting busted.  In most states selling moonshine is a very serious offense that could result in thousands of dollars in fines and jail time. The easiest way to avoid legal trouble is to get the proper permits for distilling, if available, and never sell "moonshine."

Kyle Brown is the owner of Clawhammer Supply, a small scale distillation and brewing equipment company which he founded in 2009. His passion is teaching people about the many uses of distillation equipment as well as how to make beer at home. When he isn't brewing beer or writing about it, you can find him at his local gym or on the running trail.

  • do some homework before you dive in. distilling does take some thought and preparation. Get the right tools. Dont try to make the perfect product, but work towards that. learn from your mistakes, take notes. dont overthink it. too many mistakes are made from over thinking. keep it basic, simple. have fun.
    its not hard, unless you make it that way. be safe.

    Posted by Tom on July 18, 2022
  • I was making my own homemade moonshine steel and when I soldered the bottom plate on I can see a little bit of Sauter coming through the inside is that OK it’s leadfree solder so it should be OK?

    Posted by Seth on March 10, 2022
  • Hey I recently did a run and after throwing out the foreshore I blend my whole batch which altogether came to 20 proof so I redistilled it using the slubber box that they sent me but I’m affriad that there maybe be foreshots in my new batch also when I ran my first batch I thought my slobber box was a thumper and idk if the foreshots got mixed in my thumper with the rest of my licker before it pured out does that make it dangerous to drink or does the foreshots come out first Everytime even if it mixed up in my slobber box?

    Posted by Adrian on November 13, 2021
  • All not so is simple, as it seems

    Posted by gamesellru on November 13, 2021
  • Theres books telling stories how things used to be done and of course moonshining is one of them. Moonshiners used to have many methods of avoiding being caught. Like having someone deposit money one place, then having the customer pick up the liquor. One of the ways avoiding being caught. It’d be good if someone put a book together telling how others avoided capture while selling the liquor.

    Posted by on June 04, 2020
  • Theres books telling stories how things used to be done and of course moonshining is one of them. Moonshiners used to have many methods of avoiding being caught. Like having someone deposit money one place, then having the customer pick up the liquor. One of the ways avoiding being caught. It’d be good if someone put a book together telling how others avoided capture while selling the liquor.

    Posted by on June 03, 2020
  • Wow, reading the comments is scary. I really hope some of these people take the time to learn what they are doing and don’t end up poisoning them selves or worse someone else. everyone knows the foreshot is bad I hope. The heads have acetone and other things that your really don’t want to drink. use that stuff as fire starter or cleaning car parts. Keep the tails to add to your next still run or better yet add a thumper to your setup and put the tails in the thumper. if you don’t know what a thumber is was popcorn sutton’s last run. He will teach you how to use it right.

    Posted by Jeff on April 12, 2019
  • I have always run a reflux still with very positive results with a thermometer at the top of the stack. I want to try to bring across some flavor so I bought a short stack that I can use like a whiskey still use but there is no temperature Gage. How do I Ensure I am getting ethanol and nothing else in my finished product. My still is a very popular stainless with double condensers on the tall stack hat comes right out of the milk jug and down a condenser into my Parrot and collection vessel. My short stack comes right out of the stainless milk jug goes up a few inches and immediately comes down through the condenser. Any help to my email would be greatly appreciated as it is Strawberry Festival down here in Florida and I have a really nice strawberry Mash ready to be distilled. Thank you!

    Posted by Bob on February 08, 2019
  • Had some shine but drank it all

    Posted by Bubba on February 08, 2019
  • If you do your reseaRch properly, i think 90 percent of those postiing questions have no business trying to operate a still. It is not rocket science but can quickly become rocket science if you don’t do your research! Get it?! Like the question of “i only got half a gallon of good stuff out of five gallons of mash”. What were you expecting? I only get about 10 percent finished product out of my mash, but im picky. I throw out 250 milliliters per five gallons of mash as foreshots and heads, and don’t run below 100 proof. This keeps the methanol and fusel oils to a minimum, not to mention the stinky cogeners that can taint the flavor. If you want a quality product, do the necessary research! It can and wiil save your life!

    Posted by Emmett on September 04, 2018
  • why discard anything? just start collection of the spirit “after” temperature is above that of ethanol condensation

    Posted by Kris on June 13, 2018
  • Guys, this is a “comment” vehicle, not a “question” forum. Questions go to email, as the fine print above states. You will get answers, as i did.
    Now for my comment: i love my 10 gal. Clawhammer still!

    Posted by Pesto Pete on August 11, 2017
  • Can the heads be used when cutting your shine with distilled water? I have 7 quarts of product ranging from 160-80 proof. I’m about positive the first quart of 160 proof is the heads due to stronger smell.

    Posted by MAtt on May 30, 2017
  • I have a question about making the mash they call it beer on the top before you distill it is that safe to drink if you filter it was like a coffee filter

    Posted by Dan on November 09, 2016
  • I’ve boiled off 5 gal of mash, two times now, and just steam comes out of the top. When does it turn to likker and where does it run out? I’m confused.

    Posted by MArk on February 04, 2016
  • Why do they pit a stick in the spout where the shine comes out jw

    Posted by jack on January 08, 2016
  • made sugar shine got almost 30% from my 5gal mash. malted barley malted corn made a couple runs with malted corn. love the corn liquor tastes so much better than sugar shine. best recipe I know of is ground corn, some malted corn,couple pounds malted barley for flavor , and sugar. 18pnds. per five gal. water. turbo yeast . you figure this recipe out and you should get close to 25-30% high grade shine. I also cooked the ground corn and add amalase enzyme and that batch ran of just fine got almost 20%

    Posted by Rev. J on December 26, 2015
  • (Q) can moonshine go bad? i have it stored in a glass jar (sealed) and in a dark place. he gave it as a favor for some help ( white corn whisky ) had it for ooo about 3 months in the conditions i said above. if its the same as normal whisky then i know its still good, but i dont know and cant seem to find if moonshine is any different this store bought. hope you all can help.
    have a good day.

    Posted by chaz S. on December 20, 2015
  • WOW, The more I read comments, look folks. Please research, study, learn before yall distill. It’s simple, yet dangerous, it’s fun, but please make shure your equipment is right.

    Posted by Troy on December 10, 2015
  • can someone help me brew moonshine? if its all gravy baby ;)

    Posted by Mariano camacho on December 02, 2015

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