By now, you’ve probably learned a few interesting facts about moonshine and have a solid understanding of what moonshine is, how it’s made, and where it’s legal to drink. When I think of the word “still,” I can’t help but think of Granny Clampett and her jug marked “XXX” from the 1960s TV comedy The Beverly Hillbillies.
While hilarious, it painted a pretty stereotypical, and not necessarily accurate, portrait of rural folks from Appalachia, but however campy the show’s premise, making moonshine certainly figured as a top hobby in the Clampetts’ world.
So, where the law permits, and if you’re so inclined, you can join Granny, the Baldwin Sisters of Walton’s Mountain, and the many generations of real-life homemade moonshine makers and try your hand at making some yourself. But where to begin? Besides the ingredients for the mash, you’ll need a still to make the moonshine in.
Why Is It Called a Still?
The word ‘still’ is short for “distiller,” the distillation process mechanism.
Fun fact: From 1993 to 2013, Adobe Acrobat™ used a component called the Acrobat Distiller that processed postscript files into PDFs. This suggested a likening of its conversion process to the purification of a product by distillation, similar to moonshine and other spirits.
Distillation is the method of extracting a pure product from a less refined one via a heating and cooling process. More specifically, it separates a combination of liquids that have varying boiling points. Stills can also be used to turn salt water into drinking water in an emergency situation.
In the case of your moonshine still, the process extracts the “pure” alcohol (technically called ethanol) from the “impure” fermented mash. The alcohol vapors separate from the water because its boiling point (173.1 degrees F) is lower than that of water, and it is the first to boil off when the mash mixture heats up.
How to get started making your still
While many commercially-made stills are available to purchase, you can still build your own still, just like the old-timers (and fictional characters) did back in the day. So what better way to honor the moonshining tradition than to go old-school in the making of it?
If this sounds like fun and you want to try your hand at building a homemade moonshine still, this article shows you what you need and how to do it.
Let’s Start With the Ingredients
What you’ll be making is a “pot” still, which has three basic components:
1. A large pot in which to heat the mash, also called a kettle, vat, or boiler
2. A water jacket type condenser – a container of water and ice which collects and cools the resulting alcohol steam, thereby extracting the alcohol from the mash
3. A jar or other glass vessel to receive the alcohol after distillation
Here is a basic list of what you need to build your moonshine still:
- Stainless steel or copper pot with a lid
You can use a stainless-steel stockpot with a lid or a pressure cooker. Either will do; just make sure it’s large enough to hold the amount of mash you have. The lid needs an airtight seal to prevent the water vapor from escaping. A pressure cooker works well because the lid is already self-sealing. You’ll want to use an old unit that’s no longer good for cooking. Second-hand stores are great places to look for these items.
- C-clamps, clips, a bungee strap, or even weighted objects like bricks to hold down the lid if not using a pressure cooker.
Alternatively, you can seal the lid with flour putty. Use ordinary all-purpose flour and mix with a small amount of water to form a dough-like consistency. Roll the dough into a long enough coil to fit around the rim of the lid, and clamp down with your clips, bungee, or weights to seal.
- 5-gallon bucket or cooler to hold the condenser coil. It can even be an orange bucket from that hardware store.
A thermos-style container or picnic cooler keeps the ice from melting as quickly, but the walls are thicker than an ordinary bucket which you’ll have to drill a hole through them.
- Power drill with 1/8 inch and 3/8-inch drill bits for metal
- Metal file for smoothing off burrs
- Cooking thermometer. A meat or candy thermometer works well. Analog or digital readouts are both okay.
- Teflon Tape and/or hot glue gun with high-temperature hot glue sticks, a high temp silicone sealant, or epoxy glue.
- (2) 3/8-inch to 3/8-inch compression adapter (optional – see instructions for this method below)
- 10-20 feet of refrigerator coil or small-bore copper (3/8-inch, or 8-10mm) tubing
- Ice for the distilling process
- Stove, hotplate, or another heat source
People often ask…
Q: Can I use a pot or kettle that’s not stainless steel or copper?
A: No. Do not use aluminum, lead, tin, or any other metal for your moonshine pot. Stick to stainless steel, copper, or a blend of stainless steel and copper, such as a stainless-steel pot with a copper bottom. Look for 304 stainless steel and C100 copper for the best quality.
Q: Can I use a wood stove as a heat source?
A: Many water heating options will work, but the temperature must be controlled and kept steady during the distillation process. This is why a thermometer is critical. The optimum thermometer reading to heat your still is anywhere from 175 to 205 degrees F.
Q: How long does it take to make one batch of moonshine?
A: Making moonshine is not a quick process and takes some patience. It depends on the amount of mash you start with, the temperature, your equipment, and other factors. Expect to spend around 4 to 7 hours for a 5-gallon batch of mash.
Alcohol is highly flammable. You should always operate your still outdoors or in a well-ventilated area if outdoors is not practical to give any stray alcohol vapors time to dissipate.
Check your system for leaks with plain water before making a run. Anything that allows the escape of alcohol or vapor is a hazard, given its flammable nature.
Keep a fire extinguisher on hand. Do not put out any alcohol flame with water.
Always use a glass collection vessel, and arrange your apparatus to keep it well away from the heat source.
Never make the bad choice to leave your still unattended while in operation.
Read about moonshine safety in more detail here.
Step 1: Readying the kettle (the vat)
- Drill 2 holes in the pot or pressure-cooker lid
- Drill a 1/8-inch hole a few inches from the edge of the lid. This is where the thermometer sensor will fit through.
- Drill a 3/8-inch hole on the opposite side of the lid from the first hole. This is where your cooling column (one end of the copper tubing) will fit through.
- File off any rough metal burrs left by the drill.
Step 2: Attaching the thermometer to the kettle
- Slide the sensor end of your thermometer through the 1/8-inch hole.
- Leave enough above the hole to seal it to the lid, using a strip of Teflon tape, your trusty glue gun, or silicone sealant. This makes a tight connection that prevents vapor from leaking through the opening and holds the thermometer gauge in place so you can read it easily.
Step 3: Coil the copper tubing to make the condenser
- Keep about 12 inches of one tubing end and three to four inches of the other end straight.
- Coil the middle section of the tubing to fit inside your bucket or cooler. Use a paint or coffee can or another cylindrical shape with a diameter slightly smaller than your bucket to wrap the tubing into a spiral shape.
Note: Keep in mind, the coiled spiral has to proceed in a smooth, downward direction so that the vapor is constantly traveling downward with gravity through the tube. So, avoid any humps or bends that could cause the vapor to pool or impede the flow in any way.
People often ask:
Q: Do I need a special tool to bend copper tubing?
A: Copper tubing is fairly soft, and you can shape it by hand. You can use a copper bending tool if you prefer, but be careful not to crimp the tubing too much, or it will affect the vapor flow.
Step 4: Attaching the copper tubing to the kettle
- Slide the longer straight end of the tubing into the 3/8 hole and seal the opening the same way as you did with the thermometer hole. The tubing should stand upright from the kettle before bending into the coiled section, creating a “swan neck” shape. This allows the vapor to rise for a short distance before condensing down via gravity.
If using compression fittings:
If you prefer to use a compression fitting, you can buy them in the plumbing section of your hardware store. They come in a set of male and female ends. You’ll need two sets, one for the kettle and one for the bucket. Note: If using a cooler-type container, the fittings are probably not long enough to fit through the thickness of the cooler wall.
- Place the male-threaded nut into the 3/8 hole in the kettle lid. Seal with hot glue or silicone sealant.
- Place one end of the copper tubing into the corresponding female-threaded nut. The ring-shaped ferrule will hold the tubing in place.
- Thread the female end of the fitting onto the male end that you’ve sealed to the lid.
People often ask:
Q: Won’t the hot glue melt once the kettle is hot?
A: Be sure to buy high-temperature glue sticks for use with this project because they will be in direct contact with hot steam. Look for glue sticks with a melting point above 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point of water. You’ll only be using heat well under that temperature, so any high temp resin will do.
Step 5: Attaching the coil to your bucket or cooler
- If necessary, press down on your tubing coil to close down the rings to fit the height of your bucket or cooler. Remember that the coil has to spiral smoothly downward. Similarly, you can stretch out the coil to fit a taller bucket or when you need to elevate the condenser unit higher.
- Drill a 3/8-inch hole in your bucket or cooler a few inches from the bottom. PRO TIP: Plastic can split easily. Start by drilling a pilot hole with the 1/8-inch drill bit, then enlarge the hole using the 3/8-inch bit.
- Remove any plastic burrs around the hole left by the drill.
- Place the coil inside the bucket. Place the remaining open end of the tubing through the hole from the inside until it sticks out about one inch outside the bucket. This will be the outlet, or “spout” through which the distilled moonshine will drip out. Seal the opening on the outside of the bucket with hot glue or silicone sealant.
- When setting up for operation, elevate the condenser bucket by placing a can or other object underneath it. This helps the condensing vapor to draw down through the tubing. You’ll also need the space to place your collector jar underneath the exit spout. If necessary, you can stretch out your coil to raise the height of the condenser unit.
If using compression fittings:
- Place the male end of the second set of compression fittings into the bucket hole and seal the same way you did with the lid. The part of the fitting that sticks out from the outside of the bucket becomes the “spout” through which the distilled moonshine will drip out.
- Place the corresponding female end of the fitting onto the remaining open end of the coil inside the bucket.
- Thread the female end of the fitting onto the male end that you’ve sealed to the bucket.
Step 5: That’s it! You’ve made a pot still!
When you’re ready to make your moonshine, add your mash to the kettle and fill the bucket with ice. Don’t forget to place a glass container under the spout to collect the alcohol.
Fruit or pickling jars work well for this and come with sealing lids when you buy them from the store. They come in many sizes, so have a few different ones on hand for catching the various stages of your moonshine.
These types of jars were common in rural agricultural communities to preserve fruits and vegetables. This is why you might picture moonshine in a glass quart jar, not because it’s the best container for the job (though they are), but because they were always on hand!
Frequently asked questions:
Q: How much moonshine will I get?
A: Expect to get about 20% of the volume of your mash; 1 gallon of mash will yield approximately 3-6 cups of ethanol and 5 gallons of mash between 1-2 gallons of ethanol.
Q: How do I clean and store my homemade still?
A: Clean your moonshine still with a 1:1 solution of vinegar and water, or use a product called PBW (powdered brewery wash). Add several cups of this mixture to your kettle and boil for 60 minutes, allowing the mixture to evaporate and condense through the tubing.
Repeat with clean drinking water, and test the water coming out of the tube to ensure the vinegar taste is gone. If needed, you can scrub the inside of the pot using a brush with non-abrasive bristles. If you use flour putty, the heat process will harden it. Soak the hardened putty with water and scrape it clean with a steel-wool scouring pad.
You should clean and dry your still after the end of each run, before you start your next run, or when unused for more than a few days. Store your homemade moonshine still in a dry, dust-free place and keep the parts dry between uses.
Q: Does drinking moonshine make you go blind?
A: Moonshine is pure ethanol, a grain-based alcohol that is the intoxicating ingredient of alcohol-based drinks. It does not cause blindness
Methanol, or wood alcohol, will cause blindness when drank. However, methanol is not a distilled product, and therefore cannot come out of your still! Likewise, grain fermentation does not produce methanol. Even so, according to the FDA, a 1% level of methanol by volume or up to 600 mg per day is considered safe.
Q: How long does the moonshine last?
A: Sealed DIY moonshine usually lasts up to 2 years on the shelf. You don’t need to refrigerate it, but you can do so if you prefer. An opened jar of moonshine lasts about six months.