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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.
2. 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, 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."