Moonshine Still Safety Measures
Operating moonshine still, mainly homemade, may seem easy and harmless; but the procedure is still serious and sensitive. Safety, your and that of the still and as well as of the surroundings, is very important. In order for you to be successful in your distillation venture, safety is a key ‘ingredient’. In the following paragraphs, let me take you through a short trip regarding the safety measures to consider.
First of all, ‘attention’ is very necessary. You need to be very attentive and active while going through the steps mentioned in this tutorial. So, first things first! Before you start your adventure, safety is what you need to keep in mind. The process may involve you in working with heat, steam, gas, electricity, and explosive vapors therefore you need to be very careful while executing the techniques! Thus, you need to be very careful while working and you may want to wear safety goggles and gloves.
Many experienced moonshiners are faced with situations they never planned for. Your homemade still has a tendency to turn into a big fire ball. In this case, as the human logic prescribes, you must use the still outdoors because the fire will be much easier to extinguish and will cause less harm to you and the surroundings. As logical as it is, make sure you keep a fire extinguisher at hand if your distillation experiment turns into a fire drill.
DO NOT MAKE MOONSHINE TORCHES, LOL. Vapors containing ethanol are highly explosive. You will want to make sure that the still column doesn’t have any leaks.
A good way to do this is to run a batch of water through it. If you find any leaks, seal them there and then, after all a homemade still cannot be perfect in the first go, can it be? Well, what if the leaks develop during the distillation process? The situation might seem troublesome but it isn’t. Again you need to seal the leaks using flour paste. However, this is not a permanent fix. If the leaks persist, then shut down the operation and seal them using some solder. With that, make sure that you never leave the still unattended. This can cause things to go wrong without any one present at the location to control them. Finally, experienced moonshiners recommend the usage of all copper vessels. The reason is very obvious. Plastic melts and glass explodes into a grenade. Yes, if you use a plastic collection vessel, then the temperature and the strength of the shine may cause it to melt, which is a big failure as you will be deprived of the product and may also cause several fires. Finally, the ethanol will dissolve the plastic and leach nasty chemicals into your product, yuck. The most dangerous thing here is that strong moonshines burn with an invisible flame, which is of course deadlier than a visible flame.
Long story short; safety is very important and if not taken care of, can lead to disasters and may harm you and your hard-earned homemade still.
Note: Remember, the distillation of ethyl-alcohols is illegal without a permit per federal moonshine laws and is inherently dangerous because of ethanol’s flammability (never operate a homemade still indoors).
Moonshine pot still VS Reflux still
The picture you see above is of nothing else but a homemade pot still. Although it looks like an unfathomable, geeky arrangement of some containers, let’s get into the details. To start with, this still is ancient; not in the sense of the manufacturing of this particular still in the above shown picture, but in terms of its invention and development. Reported to be used by early moonshiners of Appalachia, a pot still, just like anything else which is in its early embryotic stages, is an uncomplicated beta version. Pretty ironic, isn’t it? To start with the process, all you need to do is heat the mash and once boiled, the ethanol will start to evaporate. A worm is a coil which is immersed in cold water, and as it suggests, it is used for condensational purposes. The evaporated ethanol vapors will spontaneously flow into the worm and will thereby be condensed.
The copper stills that you see on the right are in use for over 500 years. While inefficient and very simple, pot stills are the ultimate source of understanding the distillation process and using them individually in houses as they still do not require any complex technical knowledge.
Moving on, let’s describe and justify the ‘inefficiency’ of the still. Pot stills are used to separate substances with boiling points that differ with at least a 100° C. As you can guess, while the distillation of ethanol and bier is going on, due to the little difference in boiling points of substances instilled in the ethanol, a lot of impurities are submerged in the final product. This may be an advantage, enhancing the taste of the final product, or this may result in an unfortunate failure of the bier regarding the taste and other characteristics. Therefore, when using a pot still, you need to be very lucky! Interestingly, the more you re-distill the output, the purer it becomes. And mundanely, the more you re-distill the product, the more it dwindles. If you re-distill the product exceedingly, then it may occur that the product although purer, dwindle down to very less in volume or may even vanish completely.
With growing population, in modern times, the demand for almost every eatable product that’s available in the market is skyrocketing. Regarding the bier, such enormous demands cannot be fulfilled by simply using the pot stills. Nevertheless, the pot stills are much easier to build and much easier to operate and rationally, it would be reasonable to say most of the homemade stills are actually of this kind. The mechanism does not involve rocket science (neither does the reflux still) and can be easily understood by anyone who has cleared 10th grade. With an easier working, it is of course easier to master and may allow you to quickly know the geeky how-to s so that you can extract the best tasting product ever and it may also be easy money, but mass production to satisfy the needs of the growing population is only possible by employing a bit more complex, the reflux still. But as the saying goes, no pain no gain.
Now let’s come to the reflux stills. The reflux still was developed in the late 19th century and is therefore more efficient and advanced. You may call it a stable version which superseded the beta pot still. A simple depiction of the mechanism the reflux still employs would go like this; the still contains a column which is mounted on top of a boiler. The inside of the column is designed in such a way i.e. it has internal trays, so that it provides maximum surface area, which accelerates the condensation process. When the liquid in the boiler boils, the vapor swifts up the column where it is condensed. The condensed liquid is then returned to the boiler. During its way to the boiler, the condensed liquid is enriched with the rising vapors. This cycle develops over time once the required temperature is reached. We call this cycle as reflux, and the more the liquid is refluxed, the purer it gets. Reflux is another name of re-distill; the only difference is that reflux is automatic once stared, just like a cycle.
It is no wonder that a still as advanced as the reflux still passed through several embryotic stages to come out as we know it today.
The picture above shows how the reflux still looked when it was born. This still was developed in 1801 by a person named Edward Adam. This still laid basis of the reflux mechanism employed in the modern day reflux still. It allowed a part of distillate from both the intermediary tanks to be re-circulated for re-distillation. Due to some problems such as extremely high pressure in the tanks, better versions of this basic design started to spring up.
The picture you see above is of a still which evolved from Adam’s still, this time by a person called Corty. This still embodied some basic principles of the modern reflux distillation technique. It had a column on top of the boiler and 3 built-in plates. These plates were designed to provide maximum surface area and the output on the first plate (the plate on top) was collected as the product.
Celleir-Blumenthal still succeeded Corty’s still and employed almost all of the general principles which are used in the modern reflux stills. The still was exclusively designed to operate continuously. The mechanism was such that once started, there was a continuous reflux involved and the majority of the distillate was refluxed with some of it collected as the output, again, continuously. An overhead condenser with a reflux holding tank was also added, which allowed the distillate to be collected and then further regulated the distillate through two streams; one led to the output collection and the other went back to the column for re-distillation.
In my opinion, the choice between the reflux and pot still will put you in no dilemma. It’s pretty simple; if you want to understand the basic mechanism of distillation on a smaller scale, you might want to choose the pot still which can easily be operated in your house. If you want mass production on a larger scale for commercial purposes, or to produce grain alcohols for fuel or vodka, then the more efficient reflux still is definitely the best choice.
What is a Valved Reflux Still? Boka Still?
Now we will be focusing on the valved reflux still. Unlike the internal reflux still, this model does not work on the internal reflux and neither does it employ a cooling flow for its working. To replace that, it uses a condenser and a reflux holding container mounted in the still head. Furthermore, you will find two needle valves at the bottom of the reflux holding container. The purpose of these needle valves is to allow the regulation of the reflux flow back into the column and the flow to the output collection vessel, which is where your product is collected. With a surfaced overview of how the still works, let’s get underground into the details.
Condensation is one of the two basic principles involved in the process of distillation. In homemade stills like these, the evaporated vapor is condensed using a condenser. The condenser for this particular model is embedded in the still head assembly which is further mounted on a collecting outlet which leads to the reflux column. From the column, the vapors are directed through connected tee fittings to the still head. Since the vapors are hot, they rise through a condensing coil fitted inside a 3” tubing shell. It is in this condensing coil that the vapors are condensed. After that, the condensed liquid streams down the still head shell, enriched as it passes the rising vapors, and is finally collected in the valved cap located at the bottom of the Still head. Here, the two needle valves control the reflux and the output flow. For more information about distillation, you can visit: http://www.wiredchemist.com/chemistry/instructional/laboratory-tutorials/distillation.
In the internal reflux still, the condenser was a little complex, being a jacketed flow condenser. The condenser in Valved Still is much simpler and thus, and would of course make it a tad easier to manufacture this part of the homemade still.
To start with, the entire structure is made out of only three soldering fittings. The core of the condenser is composed out of a small coil, looped about ten times, of ¼” soft copper tubing. Following this, the core is further fitted inside a 6” section of 3” copper tubing. It is easy enough to form the tubing around a 2” tubing or some other pipe. Note that kinks and twists may spoil the condenser assembly here. To avoid such twists, it is recommended, that you use a flexible wiring tube bender sleeve.
Once you are done with composing the condenser coil, it is now time to fit it into the casing. This part of the assembly, though not at all esoteric, may encounter you with some difficulty. The difficulty arises due to the fact that the ends of the coil run parallel to the inside of the casing wall and will resist when you try to pass through the hole which is drilled on the center of the casing. To fix and get through with this problem, here is the solution. What you do is that you terminate the coil when it is on its last loop using a 90° compression fitting elbow. This step will permit you to run a short piece of straight tubing from the outside of the shell into the compression elbow which is located inside the casing. After that, you can complete the outside connection by making use of another 90° elbow to fit the water inlet and the outlet tubing.
As you read about the needle valves in the introductory paragraph, let’s go back to them. There are two needle valve controls, located at the lower end of the still head. Both these needle valves are fitted in a 2” cap. The condensate from the overhead condenser collects in this cap and its collecting nipple, while the still is operating. As it is their purpose, the needle valves regulate the amount of distillate which is to be refluxed and the amount which is to be collected as the output.
With this, you now have the complete knowledge about the Valved Reflux Still.
How to operate a Valved Reflux Still – Homemade Copper Still
Designed to operate as a pot still when the packing is removed from the column, valved reflux still, unlike internal reflux still, is not equipped with cooling tubes, you can adjust the reflux flow to suit the task by a simple valve adjustment. Operating valved reflux still is much easier because the valve on still head provides you with direct control of distillation and the reflux rate.
As we did with the internal reflux, we will start by testing this homemade still using water. To do this:
- Fill the boiler with a gallon or two of water. When done, you now need to install down the top end with the aid of keg clamp screws.
- Shut each needle valve on the still head and set up the cooling hoses.
- Install a thermometer in the column cap.
With the apparatus now set up, turn on the heat to a high setting in order to bring the water to boiling, the same way you did with the internal reflux still and following this, turn on the water circulation. Just as the temperature rise up to 100° C, the boiling point of our liquid, you will notice steam rising up at the still head. At this moment, turn down the heat until the steam is no longer able to escape. However, make sure that you do not turn down the heat so much that it causes the temperature to fall below the boiling point, which, in this case is 100° C.
At this point, the water will still be boiling; however, the vapors are now being condensed in the coil in the still head. The condensed vapor will run down the still head and would be collected in the valved cap and would nipple at the bottom of the assembly. Next, open the collection valve which will allow you to measure the maximum distillation rate without any reflux. Just as with the internal reflux still, measure the time it takes for 250 ml of water to collect.
Since the maximum distillation rate has been determined, close the output valve and open the reflux valve. This will allow the system to operate in total reflux. When the system has operated in full reflux for a few minutes, adjust the output valve such that the collection rate is of about 1/3 of the maximum rate. This means that about 2/3 of the distillate will flow back into the column for re-distillation while the remaining 1/3 will be collected as output. At this point, you might also want to experiment a bit with the reflux valve to increase or decrease the amount of distillate returned to the column or retained in the holding cap.
When you have become comfortable with the operating controls, it is now time for you to shut down and clean up the apparatus. Unlike the internal reflux still, the valved reflux still can be shut down in any order where a specific one is not present. The reason behind this advantage is that there is no danger of implosion as the column is always vented to air at the top of the column head. In spite of that, it is recommended that you first remove the column cap and the thermometer. Use gloves to avoid any injury as the column cap might be hot. This step would eradicate any chance of breaking the thermometer while removing the column from the boiler. You need to be very careful when dealing with the almost-boiling water which is remaining in the boiler and when disconnecting the heat supply, both, electric and gas. Once you have disconnected the water hoses, you may remove the top end from the boiler in order to clean up the apparatus.
Although easy to operate than the internal reflux still, make sure that you operate this homemade still in a manner which causes no harm to you.
How to Operate an Internal Reflux Still
To know how something works, we need to know about the ultimate purpose of that thing, and in this case, we need to know about the reflux distillation technique. In simple terms, this technique involves condensing vapors and returning this condensate to the system from where it originated, and this magic is definitely worth your time on a homemade still!
With an idea of what this is about, let’s move forward on how to operate the still.
Prevention is better than cure, and in this case, it is better that you test your apparatus by distilling some water, probably a gallon or two, to make sure that the apparatus is free of any loopholes which, otherwise, may cause potential harm to you and the apparatus. This test would ensure some of the essential things, such as enough heat to boil the liquid, and the joints don’t leak, that there is enough cooling to control the distillation. Moreover, it would also clean up any flux from the joints soldered during construction.
Start off by pouring a gallon of tap water into the boiler and by mounting the boiler on top of the heat source. Once you are done with this, attach the column to the boiler. Then, attach the cooling hoses on the column to the water supply and drain. At this time, however, do NOT let the cooling water circulate the apparatus. Your next step is to turn on the heat to its highest setting and insert the thermometer in the top of the column, where the bulb should be resting on the level of the upper column tee connection – the point where vapor flows into the condenser.
In some time, approximately 10 to 15 minutes, the water should be boiling to the point where vapor and liquid could be observed exiting the condenser and the thermometer should indicate that the temperature has reached up to 100° C. (This temperature may vary with different liquids as it corresponds to the boiling point of the liquid poured into the boiler).
It is now time to determine the maximum distillation rate of still. In order to do so, open the cooling flow to the maximum. On the other hand, increase the boiling rate to the point where the condenser fails to condense the entire vapor.
At this point, slowly back down the heat until the vapor can no longer exit the condenser, but do not drop the heat so that the temperature drops below the boiling point, which in this case is 100° C. You will now be at the maximum distillation rate settings for the still. Upon reaching this point, measure the time it takes to collect 250 ml of the distillate precisely.
But why do we need to know the maximum distillation rate? It is so because it forms the basis while estimating the reflux flow. Note that for different liquids, you will need to repeat the exercise each time.
After a successful execution of the process, it is equally important to conclude the process successfully. The fact that the process is very simple complements the fact that the still is a homemade still. The following is the shutdown sequence:
Remove the thermometer cap from the top of the column. (You may use gloves as it might be hot);
Turn off the heat;
Finally, shut off the cooling water circulation.
The sequence is important because the tubing used to collect the distillate might get obstructed, sealing off the apparatus from air. If this happens while it is cooling down, a vacuum would be formed, resulting in the crushing of the still by external air pressure.
Once the still reaches room temperature, you should disconnect the cooling hoses, back-flush the column with water, remove the cover and clean the boiler. With this step, you are finally through!
Moonshine History Poison additives to NOT put in your own Homemade Still
Mass production is something that all business firms crave and compete for, be it a sports equipment company or some restaurant. Mass production is thought of as a necessary ingredient in the recipe of success by most of the CEOs around the globe, however, the question arises; can mass production compensate for the quality, and purity in our case, of the product? If your answer is in negative, then surely, you are in the right perspective. With this, it is reasonable enough to say that purity is what customers look for, or in other cases, the quality of the product. Because no one wants to flock together bier bottles if they are contaminated and lethal. See? Plus, the fact that you would be using homemade stills in lieu of industrial ones will going to make you even more concerned about the purity of the distillate.
Not at all intended to horrify you, but let me take you through a little journey to enlighten you about the dirty tricks they have got up their sleeves. By ‘they’, I am pointing towards those hundreds of thousands of small distilleries that employ homemade stills that add unfit to consume substances to their ethanol for the sake of taste). Before I go to the tricks, it is no wonder that people as filthy and inhumane do not find it inappropriate to use sickening and mind blowing (in a negative sense, I mean) equipment, or to be more specific, filthy, a tad horrifying homemade stills. They would add all kinds of noxious, deadly and venomous substances to make up for the poor quality and, interestingly, improve the appearance and other physical and chemical characteristics of the ethanol. Disgusting and terrifying at the same time, they would even go as far as adding just simply repelling manure and fertilizer to the mash just to speed up the fermentation process. To elaborate on the ‘toxic, deadly and venomous substances', as I mentioned earlier, the list goes on like this; you would find Common lye, a corrosive alkali, leading the list, added to imply a higher proof of spirit. Our next magic ingredient would be a blend of cleaning products manufactured by a company called Clorox® again followed by our next special ingredient known as Sterno®, a company which makes burning gel. Our list ends at two more toxic materials, namely, rubbing ethanol and paint thinner. All these “ingredients” would simply be added to cover up the hard-to-swallow, the often present, fusel oils.
By this time, I think, or ‘believe’ would a better word to use here, that you have started to realize the importance of purity and quality of ANY product, let alone food items. If not, then I have something more for you. During the same frame of time, in which the above mentioned crimes took place, something very shocking was unmasked. A disease of rare kind, named “Jake Leg” was diagnosed in people numbering from around 35,000 to 50,000. As the name hints, the disease paralyzes the legs and the feet of the patient. “There are thousands of diseases on Earth, what are you trying to imply?” you ask. Surprisingly, the disease’s causes and origins were more or less related to our topic here. The latter was traced down to a chemical called triorthocreysl phosphate, which was an ingredient used by a popular drug store. A tincture of Jamaica Ginger, the tonic being 90% ethanol was mixed in with wood ethanol, also known as methanol, to magnify the effect, but very dangerous……methanol kills and blinds.
These drastic and extreme outcomes of irresponsible distilling coupled with incapable equipment is what makes me concerned regarding the purity of the distillate you extract using the homemade stills you will manufacture. So what’s in a pure spirit? To start with, contents of the mash and distillate purity are related to each other. Here’s an inside look,or rather more of a chemical breakdown, of a typical distillate excluding water and ethyl ethanol, produced after a molasses based bier breaks down. The distillate instills in itself, 0.152% of organic acids, 0.071% of Esters, 0.015% of Aldehydes, 0.00019% of Furfurol, 0.412% of higher ethanols and 0.0006% of nitrogenous substances. After adding up all these percentages, we find that they account for less than 1%, where no methanol is present and neither do we find the presence of any component in toxic levels. Due to the negligible amount of these above mentioned substances, measure of purity mainly depends on the volume of water present in the distillate. But how do we estimate that? There are many ways of doing this, but the best option is to use a hydrometer to determine how much water is present in the distillate. Just like everything has its limitation, so does the hydrometer in the event of this experiment. The hydrometer cannot measure the minor amounts of other impurities present in the distillate (ethanol), which the human senses of odor and taste can easily do.
Companies are coming to realize about the necessity of producing a pure product. No company wants its products to be banned because of the maladies caused to the consumers. However, at the same time, no company wants its sales to drop either. Does purity has something to do with sales? Yes, it does. It is a simple observation that while the customers want a chemically pure product, they do not compromise on taste. Perhaps that is the reason why some companies are ahead of others. Unfortunately, the betterment of taste depends on the addition of ingredients that are unfit to consume from the health point of view. Nevertheless, I hope that the distillate you extract using the stills in this guide is pure as it should be. Good luck to your venture of manufacturing homemade stills producing ethanol that is pure, yet, tastes good!
Note: Remember, the distillation of ethyl-alcohols is illegal without a permit per federal moonshine laws and is inherently dangerous because of ethanol’s flammability (never operate a homemade still indoors). For more moonshine laws and other moonshine still permit information, visit: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml.
Gweedo Decker, 2014 http://stilltutorial.com