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I've been studying the art and the science of how to make moonshine for almost 15 years now. I've figured out how to make moonshine strong enough to fuel a rocket, but the process is much more "art" than it is "rocket science." In other words, it's only as complicated as you make it and there are a lot of tips and tricks i've picked up along the way that make the process a lot easier. I'm going to share all of this and more in this helpful guide on making moonshine.
Table of Contents
What is Moonshine
Moonshine is a very high proof spirit made primarily from cereal grains such as corn, barley, and rye. It's clear because it isn't barrel aged. Often called, "white lightening," moonshine is technically a white whiskey. Although the majority of the grain used to make moonshine is corn, it typically is made using malted barley and rye as well.
Moonshine actually got it's name because it rose to popularity during prohibition in the United States. During this time, making alcohol was illegal and distillers took to the back woods, working under the light of the moon as to not get caught. However it has actually gained popularity as a commercially produced product and is now available in stores.
Is Making Moonshine Illegal
Is it legal to make moonshine at home? No, it's not legal to make moonshine at home. How about if you don't sell it? No, it's not legal to distill moonshine even if it isn't sold. What if you don't even give it away? It's not legal to produce moonshine in the United States even just for personal consumption. For more information, check out this article which answers the question of whether or not making moonshine is illegal.
For the record, I've named this article How to Make Moonshine for search optimization purposes only. It's an educational article and is not meant to be used to actually make moonshine.
Mash, Distillation, and Fermentation Equipment
In order to make moonshine some basic equipment will be required. Old-timey moonshiners made due with what they had and figured out ways to complete this process with the bare minimum of equipment, for better or for worse. For example, most antique moonshine stills were constructed with leaded solder, which can leach into the wash and distillate, creating toxic moonshine. A car radiator makes for a great condenser, however, many of these used to be partially made with lead, which will definitely leach into the distillate and cause the same problem.
Commercially produced distillation equipment is a lot more refined these days. It also doesn't contain toxic metals. Stainless steel stills are made with 304 stainless, which is a food safe metal alloy. Copper stills are made with C-110 which is 99.99% copper and is the purest grade of oxygen-free copper.
As I mentioned above, using the equipment listed below to make spirits such as moonshine should only be done by licensed distillers. Here's the entire list of equipment required to make moonshine:
Brewing system - Brewing equipment will be required to make the moonshine mash, which is the process where grain is cooked and starch is converted into sugar. This cannot be done with household cooking equipment using the recipes below because the volume of the ingredients will be too large for most standard kitchen utensils.
Mash paddle - A mash paddle will be used to stir grain into the liquid and break up any clumps of flour that stick together.
Brewing hydrometer - Brewing hydrometers are used to measure the amount of sugar created during the mash and the amount of alcohol created after the initial fermentation.
Fermentation bucket -A fermentation bucket, or some sort of fermenter, will be required for the fermentation process. It should have a tight fitting lid and an opening for an airlock.
Bucket opener - Bucket openers are more or less indispensable when using plastic fermenters because the lids are extremely difficult to remove without them.
Heat source - To heat the still I recommend using a digital electric controller. Our controllers are designed to be integrated into our 5 and 10 gallon copper stills as well as our 8 gallon stainless steel distillers.
Distilling hydrometer - Distilling hydrometers measure the proof of the liquid exiting a still.
Proofing parrot - A proofing parrot makes the use of a distilling hydrometer much easier.
For a much more in-depth look at the equipment needed to produce high proof spirits such as moonshine, check out our copper vs. stainless steel stills article.
This article explains the entire process for making moonshine. Check this out if you're only looking for a moonshine mash recipe.
I've talked to a lot of folks over the years who know an awful lot about making moonshine. Here's are some of the best moonshine recipes I've come across:
- Traditional All Grain Moonshine Recipe
- "Thin Mash" Moonshine Recipe
- Easy Sugar Shine Recipe
- How To Make Mead and Honeyshine
Traditional Moonshine Recipe
This traditional moonshine recipe should be considered gold standard as far as classic American moonshine goes. It's an all-grain, corn based moonshine that will be very similar if not exactly like the real moonshiners used to make
Making moonshine with these ingredients and this procedure will produce a pleasant, sweet corn aroma, a rich, full bodied flavor. The barley will provide body, corn will be the predominant flavor, and the rye will provide some spice. The high ABV will provide a feeling of warmth, but the finish will be smooth. In fact, the flavor of the corn will likely mask how strong this drink really is, which makes this stuff dangerous.
All Grain Moonshine Mash
Below is a video of an all-grain mash made with a bit of malted barley to initiate starch conversion. Unfortunately, I don't have a distillers permit so I start the video by explaining the all-grain corn whiskey mash recipe, but then adding sugar to turn it into a fuel alcohol recipe.
Traditional Moonshine Ingredients
- 6.75 gallons of water
- 9lbs. flaked maize (corn)
- 2lbs. malted and crushed barley
- Yeast (distillers yeast, or even bread yeast)
- Granulated sugar (optional)
Moonshine Mash Procedure
- I heated water to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- I added the corn (in a nylon strainer bag or in a steel mesh basket) and cooked for 20 minutes.
- I then dropped the temperature to 148 degrees Fahrenheit.
- I stirred in the malted barley and allow to sit for 60 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.
- I remove the grains, allowing them to drain into the kettle.
- I pasteurized by heating to at least 170F for 10 minutes (optional step).
- I cooled the mash to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Moonshine Fermentation Process
- I transferred to a fermentation bucket, aerated, and added yeast.
- I allowed to ferment for 7-10 days.
- Once fermentation is complete, move on to distilling.
"Thin Mash" Moonshine Recipe
The full procedure illustrated in the video above, with the inclusion of the sugar addition, actually more accurately describes the process of making a thin mash. Essentially, thin mash is part grain and part granulated sugar. But why?
Corn is somewhat difficult to work with during the mashing process because it gets extremely thick before starch begins to break down into sugar. This means that making a mash with corn that's higher than 8-10% alcohol can be somewhat difficult. However, if making a mash for fuel alcohol, as is what I actually did in the video, starting alcohol percentage can and should be fairly high to maximize the yield. By adding granulated sugar after the mash I were able to increase starting alcohol content.
To make thin mash, I followed steps 1-6 above then simply added granulated sugar before moving on to step 7. Note, I typically also add yeast nutrient for any mash that either is not made with 100% grain or that exceeds 10% ABV.
Below is a table illustrating ABV increases caused by the addition of sugar. According to the table, to boost a 5 gallon corn mash from 10% to 19.5% (which would require an increase of 9.5%), 8lbs of sugar would need to be added.
Added Sugar vs. Potential Alcohol in Mash
|Added Sugar vs. Potential Alcohol in 1, 5, and 10 Gallons of Mash|
|Pounds of Sugar||1 Gallon Mash||5 Gallon Mash||10 Gallon Mash|
As you can see, the more sugar that is added to a mash, the higher the potential for alcohol creation. Though, this only works to a point and then stops. The reason for this is because the yeast that is used to ferment mash (i.e. turn the sugar into alcohol) can only tolerate so much alcohol in their living environment before they actually die and stop converting. This table is continued in our detailed article on increasing the proof of moonshine.
I use the term "sugar mash" loosely here. It essentially describes high proof alcohol made with only granulated sugar and zero grain. It doesn't require a mash to convert starch to sugar and the procedure for making it is very simple. It is made by dissolving white table sugar into water, heating to pasteurize (optional), adding yeast nutrient (very important) and adding yeast.
How Mead and Honey Moonshine
Here is a scaled down version of one of the best recipes of all time: Honeyshine. There aren't many examples out there of folks doing this, but they do exist. This recipe is perfect for testing on a small-scale pilot distillery system. It's basically a no frills distilled mead but the wildflower honey should provide quite an interesting final product.
This procedure is different from others in that it uses actual honey as the sugar source. For example, this Montana Honey Moonshine uses grain and cane sugar for the base and only is only back sweetened with honey. That's probably because honey is quite expensive. For example, small-batch local honey fetches about $75 per gallon! This makes honey whiskey quite an expensive small distillation project, but it would probably be worth the cost and the effort.
The following is how a commercial distiller would likely make honey whiskey on a small pilot system.
Honey Whiskey Recipe
- 1 gallon of wildflower honey or honey of choice
- 5 gallons of water
- Super Start distillers yeast or yeast of choice
- Yeast nutrient
- Heat 2.5 gallons of water to 160° F and stir in 1 gallon of honey until completely dissolved.
- Add an additional 2.5 gallons of room temperature water to the honey solution.
- Cool to 70F using an immersion chiller.
- Aerate by pouring mash back and forth between two buckets.
- Add yeast of choice.
- Add 2.5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient (Follow the directions on the label)
- Transfer to a glass carboy, install air lock, and allow to ferment around 70 F for at least 2 weeks or until it is finished fermenting. Check out 'How to Know when Fermentation is Finished' for information on fermentation.
- After fermentation is finished allow to settle for 10-14 days.
- Siphon (do not pour) into a 5 or 10 gallon copper still.
- Distill the fermented product.
- The distiller would make extremely tight heads and tails cuts if they did not plan on aging.
- The distiller would be tight with heads cut but more liberal with tails cuts if they were planning on following aging instructions below.
- It could be aged for 2-3 weeks using lightly toasted american oak chips.
- It would probably be good without aging if a bit of honey was added to the finished product.
As I've said several times in this article and hundreds of times on this site, distilling alcohol without the proper permits is illegal. Don't do it unless you're properly licensed and permitted. We're describing it here for educational purposes only and this isn't meant to be relied upon by any person or entity as a scientific basis for any act or decision whatsoever.
What is Distilling?
Distilling alcohol is accomplished by heating a mixture of water and alcohol (beer) to at or above 174 degrees. This will cause ethanol to boil, but will leave water behind. Why? Because ethanol boils at 174 and water boils at 212.
Before we get started, let's talk about distillation safety. These are the top safety rules that one would want to observe while distilling.
- Ensure that the liquid completely covers the heating element at all times
- Secure chilled water supply and drain hoses to condenser before heating still
- Properly ventilate the distillation area at all times
- Ensure there is no vapor leaking from the still for every run
- Ensure that the still is not completely sealed for every use
- Always ensure that distillate is not hot, (slightly warm is acceptable)
- Collect distillate in a sturdy container away from the heat source
Here are the steps that one would take to distill moonshine:
Filling the Still
- Measure the final gravity of the wash and write it down
- Fill the still with the wash (it's better to siphon than to pour)
Moonshine Stripping Run
A stripping run is a "quick and dirty" distillation that serves to only slightly concentrate the alcohol from the wash. A final distillation run, called a spirit run, will increase proof further. The steps for creating a stripping run are as follows:
- Install the condenser and turn on the cool water supply
- Heat the wash to 174 F or higher
- Discard the first 100ml of distillate, it could contain methanol
- Collect the rest of distillate in a sturdy container
- Keep collecting until the distillate being produced is 5-10% ABV or less
- Empty and rinse still
Note, If a spirit run will be completed, 2 more stripping runs with the fresh, undistilled wash will be necessary to fill the spirit run still.
Moonshine Spirit Run
- Add liquid from all three stripping runs to the still
- Install the condenser and turn on cooling water
- Heat the liquid to at least 174F
- Discard at least the first 50 milliliters, as this could contain methanol
- Begin collecting spirits in pint sized containers to make cuts, explained below.
Making Distillation Cuts
This next section is for commercial distillers only! It's the process they will use to improve the flavor and aroma of their spirits. This is accomplished by separating different parts of a distillation "run" into separate containers and blending only the best parts, called the hearts.
What do I mean by this? Well, to over simplify, there are several types of oils and alcohols contained within a batch of fermented mash. Each of these compounds has a slightly different boiling temperature and they will be volatilized and removed from the still at different points during the distillation process.
The first 10% or so of distillate is called the foreshots. This needs to be thrown away, as it could contain methanol and might be poisonous.
The second part of the run is called the heads. Heads contain compounds such as acetone, acetaldehyde, and acetate. These compounds are not desirable and smell bad. Set them aside.
The hearts contain ethanol and other desirable compounds. They have a rich aroma and taste, and are quite smooth. Keep this.
The richness of the middle part of the run will fade into what are called the tails. This section of the run has a dull, watery taste. Keep this and blend with heads for future runs.
Again, distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirits plant permit as well as relevant state and local permits.