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This blog provides information for educational purposes only. Read our complete summary for more info.

November 12, 2015
Last updated

The Commerial Spirits and Fuel Alcohol Distillation Process

Owner of Clawhammer Supply

Before we get started, a reminder: Distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirit plant permit as well as relevant state permits. Our distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only. The information below is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon by any person, or entity, as a basis for any act or decision whatsoever. Please read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation.

That said, the following information is a description of how a small pilot system in a commercial distillery might be used to distill spirits or fuel alcohol.

 1. Permits

Before distilling alcohol, the proper permits are needed. Distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirit plant permit as well as relevant state permits.

  • For distilling fuel alcohol, a fuel alcohol permit is needed.
  • For distilling alcohol for consumption, a federal distilled spirits permit is needed.
  • State laws apply to the ownership and operation of distillation equipment. Rules on distillation vary from state to state, but in general, it is illegal to produce alcohol for consumption or for fuel, on the state level, without proper permits.

2. Equipment

  • Fire Extinguisher: Safety first!! Make sure it is rated for class B fires. Additionally, your local code may require fire suppression.
  • Mashing and Fermentation Equipment: Basic equipment is needed to make a mash. A kettle and grain basket is a great start.
  • A Copper or Stainless Steel Still: A still is needed to distill water, alcohol, and essential oils. 
  • Heat Source: It is always recommended to use a flameless heat source. Using an electric heat source helps minimize risk as there is no open flame like there would be with a wood furnace or propane turkey fryer.
  • Proofing Hydrometer: A hydrometer is an instrument that measures the density of a liquid compared to the density of water. Using a proofing hydrometer is an easy way to proof the product coming out of the still. Check out this article for more information on using a proofing hydrometer.
  • Proofing Parrot: A proofing parrot is a very easy tool to use. A parrot is the easiest, most convenient, and most reliable way to monitor and measure alcohol proof when making moonshine. 
  • Collection Containers: Glass jars are the best container for collecting and storing spirits, essential oils, and fuel alcohol.
  • Permanent Marker: When a commercial distillery is trying out a new recipe the jars should be labeled during the run. A commercial distiller would label the jars starting at 1 and go up from there.  This will allow the distiller to review the run and dial in the cuts for the final recipe.

3. Review Safety Procedures

Distilling can be dangerous business if a distiller does not know what they are doing. Always make sure to review the safety producers for each piece of equipment

4. Make a Mash

  • Making a mash is the first step a distiller would take in the process of making distilled alcohol.

5. Separate the Solids from the Liquid in the Mash

  • Most pilot systems in commercial distilleries are direct fired (placed directly on a heat source). The solids must be removed from the wash or else the solids will scorch and burn onto the still.
  • The easiest way to keep this from happening is by removing the grains from the liquid before fermentation. 

6. Ferment the Mash

  • Fermentation is the process that makes alcohol from the mash. Yeast is the active ingredient which creates alcohol from the sugars in the mash. Without yeast and fermentation we would not have beer, wine, or any distilled spirit. So, to start the fermentation process, yeast needs to be added to the mash. 

7. Prepare the Still For Use

  • A commercial distillery with a small pilot system will need to make sure sure the equipment is clean. If there is any build-up it is critical to thoroughly clean the equipment. For a detailed write-up on cleaning the inside of a still checkout this article on cleaning a copper still.

    8. Transfer Fermented Wash Into the Still

    • Once the mash has finished fermenting it then needs to be transferred into the still. For more information on how to tell when fermentation is finished checkout our article “How to Know When Fermentation Is Finished".
    • There are two ways to transfer wash into a still. One can simply dump the wash from the fermenter into the still, but this is not the preferred method. Dumping the wash will transfer yeast and other undesirables into the still which can cause cloudy spirits. The preferred method is to use an auto siphon to transfer the wash into the still. Using an auto-siphon will only transfer the wash into the still, leaving behind yeast and other sediment in the fermenter.

      9. Column Packing with Copper Packing Material

      • Copper packing material remove sulfides and other undesirables from the wash. Copper packing will also slightly increase the final proof of the distillate. Check out this article for more information on the benefits of packing a column with copper.

        10. Attach the Column to the Boiler on the Still

        • If using a copper still apply flour paste to seal the two parts of the still together. Apply the flour paste when the boiler thermometer reads 120F. The flour paste will bake on creating a tight seal between the two parts. If using a stainless steel still there is no need to make a flour paste as it is sealed with a gasket and a clamp. 

        11. Condensing Water

        • Once the boiler thermometer reads 150F the condensing water should be turned on.  Attach a hose from the faucet to the lower tee on the condenser. The lower tee is always water in. Connect the waste water hose to the upper tee. A slow trickle of water is all that is needed to cool the condenser. The waste water should water plants, go down a drain, saved for cleaning or mashing. If distilling is taking place in a desert climate or an area where water is scarce always recirculate the water.

        12. Running a Still

        • A commercial distiller would continue to crank the heat after turning on the condensing water. They will monitor the heat until the still starts producing product. They don't worry about thermometer temperatures until the stills starts producing. Once it starts producing they would dial the heat down to until the still is producing 3-5 drips a second. At this point if a column thermometer is installed it will be registering a temperature most likely in high 170's and the boiler will be registering close to 200F. For questions on thermometer temperatures check out the article 'Making Moonshine: Still Temperature'.

        13. Collecting the Distillate

        • A commerical distiller will always collect distilled spirits in a glass or alcohol safe container- never use plastic. They will remove the foreshots as they can contain methanol, which can be deadly. Our article titled 'Making Moonshine - The Dummies' Guide' explains the distillation process in great detail. Alcohol higher than 150 proof (but ideally more like 175 proof or higher) can be used as fuel for cooking. Engine fuel needs to be 195 proof or higher.

        14. Clean and Dry

        • It is important to keep the pilot system clean. They will clean the boiler, column, condenser, remove any copper packing. PBW works great for keep a pilot system clean. Once everything has been cleaned, it should be dried stored for next use.

        Key Points of This Article

        • Obtain necessary permits.
        • Gather required equipment.
        • Make a mash around 8% ABV and ferment it.
        • Make sure the still is clean and ready to use.
        • Insert copper packing material into the column.
        • Transfer the wash into the still leaving behind as much yeast as possible.
        • Connect the hoses to the condenser and make sure they are secured.
        • If using a stainless steel still make sure all of the gaskets and clamps are secured.
        • Crank the heat to high on the heat source.
        • Once the boiler is at 120F apply flour paste (Clawhammer Supply copper still only).
        • Once the boiler is at 150F turn on the condensing water
        • Once the boiler is at 170F make sure collection jars/parrot are ready for production.
        • Once production starts turn the heat down until 3-5 drips of production a second.
        • Make sure ditch the foreshots and make good cuts.
        • Take notes during the run.
        • Continue to add heat as necessary to continue 3-5 dips of production a second.
        • Continue to run the still until the tails are between 10-20% ABV.
        • Once production is finished turn off the heat source to the still.
        • Carefully dump the leftover wash from the still ***Caution it will be extremely hot!
        • Carefully remove the copper packing material from the column ***Caution will be hot!
        • Toss the copper packing material into a bowl of PBW for an hour/overnight and rinse extremely well with clean water and dry well.
        • Clean the still.
        • Dry the still.
        • Store the still in a safe dry location. 

        Remember, it is illegal to distill alcohol without the proper permits.

        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.

        • Very informative just waiting to see how much taxes I have to pay before ordering lol.

          Posted by Greg Adams on March 10, 2022

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