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How to Distill Alcohol Safely
Folks often ask us how to make "moonshine". It isn't rocket science, but there is definitely a lot to consider. In fact, one of the first things to consider when making moonshine is safety. Here is a list of 10 of the most important safety issues that moonshiners should know and understand:
Make sure you have the proper permits for distilling.
Thanks to prohibition era laws and other legal precedents set in the early 1900's, the only way to legally distill at home is to possess proper state and federal permits. There is only one federal distilling permit that needs to be obtained and it can be found. State permits vary from place to place. In North Carolina, for example, one must possess a distillers permit or a fuel alcohol permit, both of which can be found here. 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.
Use Proper Distillation Equipment.
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, 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 moonshine still.
NEVER distill indoors.
The best way to avoid being featured in the whole house barbecue section of the 5 o'clock news is to not operate a moonshine still indoors. Following the safety procedures outlined in this article will keep one relatively safe, but from time to time even the most experienced moonshiners encounter dangerous situations that they haven't planned for. If you do happen to make a mistake while distilling, and your moonshining session turns into a fire drill, it's going to be a lot less of a downer outdoors than it will be in a kitchen or living room. When it comes to location, always follow this one simple rule: always distill outdoors!
Control alcohol vapor.
A leaky moonshine 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. Always be very conscious of the fact that alcohol vapor is highly explosive and potentially very dangerous. Before using a moonshine still, run a batch of water through it to clean it out and make sure there aren't any leaks. If leaks are found, seal them with a bead of solder. If a leak develops during the distillation process, seal it with some flour paste. Here is a tip from Popcorn Sutton, one of the most famous old time moonshiners to ever live: applying some flour paste and then tying a rag around the leak may help seal larger leaks. Though, if the leak persists, it's best to shut the operation down and properly repair the leak with some solder.
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. Set your TiVo to record Moonshiners, make sure you have plenty of leftovers from dinner, a few jars of goodness from your last run, perhaps some fiddles and banjos to pass the time, and stick around for the long haul. This actually brings to light another rule which we'll include here as a bonus. If you're one of those people who feels like running around naked in the streets after taking a few sips of the good stuff, you probably shouldn't be drinking it while distilling it.
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 jar of high proof moonshine could lead to an out of control fire. Always have a fire extinguisher handy to put out flames. 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.
Use a glass collection vessel.
A now experienced moonshiner posted a story from his early days as a distiller on a popular moonshiners forum that describes exactly why moonshine should not be directed into a plastic collection vessel. The still operator was standing in his kitchen watching shine drip from the condensing arm and noticed that the plastic collection vessel appeared to be melting before his eyes. He thought that the shine was so strong it instantly started breaking down the plastic and melting it! That, however, was a dangerously incorrect assumption. It was definitely some strong shine. So strong, in fact, that when it caught on fire the flame could not be seen (very high proof moonshine burns with an 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. Moral of the story: always use a glass collection vessel.
Direct the finished product well away from your moonshine still.
Always use a glass, small mouth collection vessel and place 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 moonshine 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 moonshiners will tell you: always locate collection points at least 10 feet away from any heat source.
Always discard the "foreshots."
One of the risks associated with making and drinking moonshine is creating or getting a hold of a batch that is laced with 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 a batch of shine, it should boil off before the ethanol because methanol has a lower boiling point. For this reason, the old time moonshiners would always discard the first bit of shine that comes off of the still. This part of the run, known as the foreshots, smells like high powered solvent, tastes even worse, and is potentially poisonous. There is absolutely no reason to keep it, so always make sure to discard this portion. Checkout our article "Making Moonshine - The Dummies' Guide" for more information on foreshots and making proper cuts.
Never sell moonshine.
The risks associated with making moonshine don't stop after one has successfully transformed a bushel of corn into a few jars of tasty moonshine. Always keep in mind that home distilling is illegal unless one has a fuel alcohol permit and selling alcohol is illegal unless one has a federal and state distillers permits. Whether one chooses to navigate the permitting process or not is their own business, but we suggest that you retain the proper permits. Permitting laws vary from state to state, but in most cases a distillers permit is too cumbersome and expensive for the average moonshiner. That said, if one does not have a permit to sell whiskey, they should not sell whiskey. We've never heard a story about the casual moonshiner getting a knock on the door from ATF or ABC agents, but a simple Google search will produce dozens of stories about "for profit" moonshiners getting busted for selling illegal liquor. In most states selling moonshine is a very serious offence that could result in thousands of dollars in fines and jail time. The easiest way to avoid becoming the target of a federal raid is to NEVER SELL MOONSHINE.