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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.

  • Can you age and store the spirits in new beer cans? I am pretty sure I have read somewhere not to put it in metal cans but I can’t find anything now.

    Posted by Bill on October 29, 2013
  • Hello : I am ready to make the cap for my 10 gal. boiler , but if I rool the piece for the cap it will not fit the 4 inch disc . Am I looking at this the wrong way ? Plus the flat piece that needs rolled is concave on one side and convex on the other { sides without the riviet holes } . Thank You for your time

    Posted by David Davis on October 20, 2013
  • Hi guys . I Always thought copper its not a best material to make still out of , as if the acids contained in mash (or whatever we trying to make an alcohol out of ) does eat the copper which is harmful to your health ?

    Posted by toni on October 17, 2013
  • I’m using kapp free solder. Is there any chance of the solder being remelted from the burner that heats up the still? Thanks Glenn

    Posted by Glenn Murray on September 04, 2013
  • Fermenting? can you ferment in a 55 gallon plastic drum? how airtight should it be, ive heard that if you dont release the pressure, it will blow up

    Posted by tim on August 29, 2013
  • Lawd have mussy

    Posted by ken on August 18, 2013
  • I would like to know what you typically use for your solder and flux -have done plenty of soldering before but never had to worry about food grade fluxes and solder -any information would be helpful to me and I’m sure others that have the same questions and to keep us all safe .Thank you and I am looking forward to your response

    Posted by scott on August 05, 2013
  • My boyfriend and his brother just got a copper still and have been cooking forever now. I don’t know much about this so forgive me but the second part of the still, you know where the finished product comes out into a container/jar whatever. It sweats, like there is water always running down the outside of it almost like it’s leaking so it is hard to tell if it is or not. Is it just from it being warm and the ice/cold water cooling it down makes it sweat? And I could have sworn I saw a leak, like vapor in the air or something but they said it’s fine…Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s fine… I don’t think anyway. Please any advice I could give them so they don’t blow themselves up would be appreciated thank you.

    Posted by Ashley on July 25, 2013
  • a 10gl bach how mush corn .how mush suger how mush yest just .to make corn wisky. iwont corn wisky resape ..

    Posted by grumpy on July 22, 2013
  • Don’t use PVC for anything other than sewer pipe, use glass, copper or stainless. Really?

    Posted by JDoug on June 18, 2013
  • A friend gave me a new still made from a 7.75 gal keg. and has an electric element in it. Is this okay to make shine? All the other parts are copper.

    Posted by colvin on June 14, 2013
  • So I set a sweet feed mash about 2 months ago and due to circumstances I haven’t been able to run it thru my still would it be ok to run it now or is there a specific amount of time before you just have to start over it smells like real strong beer

    Posted by Steve on June 08, 2013
  • Wbrn I get to the right temp when I’m cooking my mash how long will it take for my still to produce liquor?

    Posted by Josh mabery on June 06, 2013
  • can i stir my mash while it’s cooking

    Posted by sparkie lewis on May 27, 2013
  • I was running a wash through my still and before it showed my still was hot I had to shut it down for a family emergency will my wash still be good? It’s still in my still. And has been for a couple days or is it wasted or should I try it and see what shows?

    Posted by Jeremy on May 22, 2013
  • is there a chat room or something i could go to to get some answers? i am a first timer with lots of question and i cant find the remedy to anywhere. thanks beginners luck not so lucky

    Posted by beginners luck on April 06, 2013
  • have my first batch going right now and i am getting nothing. i have been cooking it at 185F for about two and a half hours, nothing. my column seems to be cool at the top of it, i have lots of question and nobody that will answer any. going to shut is down, now does that mean i loose the four gallons of mash? please somebody.

    Posted by beginners luck on April 06, 2013
  • what happens if you do not heat the water before adding it to your mash mixture? Will the fermentation process still take effect?

    Posted by jeremy on April 02, 2013
  • Hey, i really need to know how long it takes for the first run to reach its first plateu? No one wants to gicve any kind of estimation and i have done a scorched run that didnt pay nothing hardly, and on this one i have had low flame on it for 2 hours. that cat possibly be right. can i get some help, it is going as we speak.

    Posted by Jo Jo on March 30, 2013
  • got my first sweet feed mash fermenting right now. is the ideal cooking temp 180 F and where should i place the thermometer

    Posted by beginners luck on March 30, 2013

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