The Basics of Making Your Own Moonshine
As you might have seen on our Facebook page, I was very happy to showcase our whiskey stills at the inaugural American Craft Whiskey Festival which took place at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City this past weekend. I was surprised at how many people there were interested in small-batch, artisanal whiskeys and bourbons and, even with a lot of big, commercial distillers present, the art of homemade spirits was still very appealing to everyone. And from my experience, you’ll always prefer your own spirits. Because of all the time and effort you put into the process, it’s not just a spirit you drink, it’s the result of your own work, which makes it so much more satisfying to enjoy.
While we were at the festival, we not only showcased our products, but also gave participants the opportunity to learn how to distill their own moonshine in one of our old-fashioned style copper whiskey stills. It was an amazing experience to go through the process with so many different people, especially since some of them were already passionate and experienced distillers, while others completely novice ‘shiners who were just getting into the art of making their own moonshine and whiskey.
So, I decided to write about the recipe we used in the demonstration (a detailed version of which you can also find in our Guide to making your own moonshine) and take you through the whole process.
The fundamentals of making alcohol from are based on the established principles of fermentation and distillation, which you need to be familiar with, either before following a basic recipe or experimenting with ingredients and quantities to make your own recipes.
The principal of fermentation:
Whether you’re making beer, wine, or moonshine, there are only three ingredients you need: water, sugar, and yeast. Yeast is that ‘magical’ microorganism that, in the absence of oxygen, converts sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide and other compounds that influence the taste of fermented foods and beverages.
The principal of distillation:
Once you have a solution of water and alcohol, you need to separate them. Distillation accomplishes this by taking advantage of the different boiling points of water (212°F) and alcohol (173°F). In theory, if the temperature of a water-alcohol mixture is raised to 174°F, the alcohol would begin to boil off, but the water should still be too cool to boil. You can then capture the alcohol vapor, cool it down, and you are left with liquid alcohol.
You can apply these principles on a 10 gallon moonshine recipe. Trial and error is the best way of learning.
The mash and the fermentation process:
Every recipe starts off with a mash which will take about 1-2 weeks until it begins to ferment, just before moving on to the distilling phase.
Make your mash out of approximately 2.5lbs of potatoes. Fill up your fermentation containers – a couple of 5 gallon buckets will do just fine – half way with hot water mixed with 20lbs of sugar. Then add the potato mash and stir until the sugar has dissolved. You can also add 12oz tomato paste in, as well as the juice from a large lemon, while stirring.
Top up to 9 gallons with water – alternate between hot and cold to reach a temperature of about 80°F. Once at target temperature, add 1oz (2 tablespoons) of yeast and stir until completely dissolved.
Place lid loosely on the fermenter to allow carbon dioxide gas to easily escape, set out of direct sunlight and maintain temperature between 70-80°F.
The mash should begin to fizz or bubble within the first 24-48 hours. Check daily until either all activity in the mash stops or the mash has been fermenting for two full weeks. You’ll then need to distill promptly, within 3 days.
After you’ve properly cleaned your new whiskey still and had a vinegar run through it, you will need to set it up for the next step: distilling.
Once the still is correctly set up, start applying heat until you can hear the mash boiling. Once you reach this point cut the heat to half.
Once liquid starts to come out of the condenser, you want to turn down the heat so that it is not a constant stream. You can monitor the temperature either by carefully watching the condenser or by using the thermometer, which should allow you to maintain the temperature at the top of the onion head between 174°-190°F.
As a precaution against methanol poisoning, you need to throw away the first ounce per 5 gallons of mash.
Frequently inspect the seam between the onion-top and the pot for escaping vapor. If any are found, simply plug with some flour-water mix.
Frequently monitor the condenser water temperature. Cold or cool water is great, lukewarm water is a warning that it needs to be cooler.
Once you get your heat set correctly it needs very little manipulation. This is one way to tell when you are done distilling. When you reach the end of the run you will notice that the onion top temperature will suddenly drop along with the moonshine coming out of the condenser. This will happen without any change in heat supply. Whenever you experience significant changes in this manner, you can conclude that the run is over, so turn off the heat and allow the still to cool completely before cleaning.
Once you have your moonshine, there are an infinite number of things you can do with it, from re-distilling, flavoring or ageing, if you want to turn your moonshine into a basic type of whiskey.
I found this recipe to be an easy start for me and many of my friends and the festival confirmed that it was a good way for a beginner to get the hang of the basics. Once you feel confident about your ‘shiner skills, you can try some of the recipes in my older posts and let me know which ones you liked.
Posted by Jason Stone on November 29, 2013