DISCLAIMER: Making moonshine without a liquor distiller’s license is illegal in most countries and can be dangerous if done incorrectly. The side effects of drinking poorly-made moonshine include permanent blindness, respiratory paralysis, and death. Please use discretion.
Moonshine is as old as it is infamous. From the rum runners of the 1700s to the tales of people going blind from drinking these alcoholic beverages during the prohibition of the 1920s, all the way to today’s homebrewers, moonshine has a long and scandalous past.
So what is it about homemade moonshine that draws us in? Why did people risk breaking the law for making it? Why do people still risk it? The answer lies in satisfaction. Moonshine has a unique, sharp flavor and is relatively easy to make. Many people take pride in making it themselves, and others still find it thrilling to toe the line of the law.
For whatever reason, if you are interested in making moonshine, you can learn all about it here. We have covered everything you will need to know about the basics of distillation, from how to make your own still to how the distilling process works. We will also give you some tips to avoid making rocket fuel. So, let’s start with the basics.
What Is Moonshine?
Moonshine (also known as corn liquor or backwoods whiskey) is a clear, unaged, homemade whiskey. It is made from corn, though you can make it from other things, and has a high alcohol content. Moonshine originated with Scottish and Irish immigrants and soon became a staple in North America. However, in 1791, Alexander Hamilton – yes, of the musical Hamilton – imposed a taxation law on moonshine that led to illegal, underground production.
The name moonshine is thought to have come about shortly after this as people began making and selling it at night to avoid taxation. Illegal moonshine production is still in practice today, but licensed distillers also produce it to be sold in liquor stores.
What You’ll Need
- Large stainless steel pot with a matching lid that seals well
- Electric hot plate
- 5-gallon bucket
- Cooking thermometer
- 20-foot refrigerator coil or copper tubing
- 3/8 to 3/8 inch compression adapter
- Teflon tape
- High-temperature hot glue
- Metal file
- 1/8 and 3/8 inch drill bits
How Does Distillation Work?
The art of moonshine distillation involves extracting and purifying alcohol from corn (or rye, barley, etc.) mash. The mash is first heated to extract the alcohol in the form of vapor. This vapor, once removed, is then cooled back to liquid, forming clear alcohol. It’s not a complicated process, but it is very sensitive and doesn’t like changes.
How to Make a Moonshine Still
While there are many options to buy a still, many people find it cheaper and more rewarding to make their own pot still. As you can see above, it doesn’t take much to build a still, and you can find most of the supplies at your local hardware store.
The process for making a still for pot distillation is relatively straightforward. You don’t need to be an engineer to make one; just follow these simple steps.
Step 1: Making the Lid
The very first step is to drill holes in the mash pot lid. You will need to make one 1/8 inch hole and one 3/8 inch hole. Drill these holes opposite each other, a couple of inches from the edge of the lid. Use the file to shave off any rough edges.
Step 2: Adding the Thermometer
Take your cooking thermometer probe and wrap Teflon tape around the post up near the dial. Either digital or analog thermometers will work. Do this until the thermometer fits securely in the 1/8 inch hole. Then, apply hot glue around the hole to make a proper seal. As long as you use high-temperature hot glue, you shouldn’t have to worry about it melting when you are distilling.
Step 3: Adding the Compression Adaptor
Place the male end (the bit with the threads on the outside) of the compressor adaptor in the pot lid from the bottom. Secure it with glue.
Step 3 ½: Shape the Coil
At this point, you will need to shape your coil. Adjust it so that most of the copper tube fits snugly in the bucket, leaving a few inches straight at the bottom end as a spout. This is very important for the cooling process. Straighten out the top end slightly to form an arch that will reach up from the lid across and down to the bucket. Be careful not to collapse the pipe.
Step 4: Attaching the Refrigerator coil
Put the female end (the nut with the threads on the inside) of the compressor adaptor onto the end of the refrigerator coil so that the open end faces out. Next, put the ferrule (the small bell-shaped thing that came with the adaptor) into the end of the coil. Finally, screw the adaptor together, connecting the coil to the lid.
Step 5: Setting up the Bucket
Using the 3/8 inch drill bit, make a hole at the bucket’s base about an inch from the bottom. This is where the coil will come out, so be sure to drill the hole at an angle that matches the direction of the coil. Run the end of the coil through the hole so that an inch or two sticks out. Glue all around the hole to make sure there are no leaks. This will be your condenser.
Optional Step 6: Extra Security
If the coil shifts too much in the bucket, use clamps or brackets to hold it in place.
How to Make Moonshine
Step 1: Make the Mash
While there are many recipes for moonshine that use different oats and grains, traditional moonshine is made exclusively with corn and a few other simple ingredients. To make a conventional moonshine mash, you will need corn, granulated sugar, yeast, and water. Start by grinding the corn into a meal or buy flaked corn maize. Next, soak it in water in the still before adding the sugar. Finally, add yeast and stir well. The yeast (either distiller’s yeast or bread yeast) is vital to the chemical process of fermentation.
Step 2: Ice
Fill the condenser with ice. This ice is vital as it will help cool the alcohol vapor back into liquid. If the coil is too short or you do not use ice, most of the moonshine will be lost to vapor.
Step 3: Heating
Turn the hotplate on to just below boiling. The exact evaporation temperatures come down to preference, but the idea is to evaporate the alcohol slowly, so generally, lower is better. 172-210°F (78-99°C) is the ideal range, but I recommend staying around 200°F (93°C) for the best results. Keep the cooking temperature consistent.
Step 4: Sit Back and Wait
Now that you have set everything up, all you have to do is wait. As the mash cooks, alcohol will evaporate and rise into the pipe. As it travels down the length of the coil, the ice will cool it and turn it back into liquid. The liquid will then drain slowly out of the end of the pipe into whatever waiting glass container you have. This is the quality product you’ve been waiting for. Tada!
We all make mistakes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but when those mistakes can have dangerous consequences, you might want to read up a bit before starting. Here are some of the most common mistakes distillers make.
Math is not everyone’s strong suit, and neither is following recipes, but when it comes to distilling, you may want to double-check your calculations. Too much or too little of any ingredient can throw off the whole delicate process.
Lack of Testing
If you are using a homemade still, you need to test it. Test it rigorously. Retest it. There are so many issues untested stills can cause. Trust me. You don’t want to find a leak halfway through distilling or have a connection point explode.
Using the Wrong Materials
Using the wrong materials for a homemade still is just asking for trouble. You should always avoid using a plastic container or metals like aluminum that can melt and leech toxins. Don’t endanger yourself just to save a couple of bucks.
Too Much Heat
Though it may be tempting to speed up the process by upping the heat, that is a bad idea. Not only will turning up the heat ruin the brew and leave it with a burnt taste, but it can also lead to pressure build-up and explosions. Also, be careful if you have to handle an operating still. Touching a boiling hot still will lead to bad results for any exposed skin.
Make sure you clean your entire setup after every batch of moonshine. If you feel particularly lazy and don’t want to be bothered cleaning your still after each run, think again. Leaving residue, especially around the adaptor, can lead to unpleasant flavors in your next batch.
There are many mash recipes for corn moonshine. As I wrote earlier, cornmeal is the primary ingredient for traditional mash. Corn mash makes a smooth, full-bodied, strong whiskey. While this is the old-fashioned method, some people do not enjoy the subtle corn flavor tones of the whiskey. There are many different ways to make a mash and so many recipes to choose from. If you are skilled enough at making moonshine, you can create your own brews. Keep in mind that you will need yeast for the fermentation process, no matter what moonshine recipe you use.
Other popular flavored moonshine recipes include sugar shine mash, hybrid mash, and fruit mash. A hybrid mash usually uses equal parts of corn and sugar content. This helps to balance out that corn flavor without changing the classic taste too much.
You can also add sugar to fruit mashes, but you don’t have to, as there are natural sugars in fruits. If you choose to add sugar to a fruit mash, there are many great resources for balancing the amount of sugar to each fruit and how much sugar each fruit starts with. I recommend you read up on this if you want to make a fruit mash as, depending on your chosen fruit, you will need different amounts of sugar. Adding too much sugar can add a cidery flavor to your finished product.
To make a hybrid mash, you will need ten pounds of cornmeal, ten pounds of sugar, and half an ounce of yeast. You will also need ten gallons of water and an appropriate pot. Boil the water and add the cornmeal. Stir and cook until the meal is paste-like, then add the sugar and yeast. Mix thoroughly and cook.
To start the fermenting process, remove the mash from the heat and cover it with a cloth. Store it in a cool dark place like a cellar and leave it to ferment. As fermentation occurs, brown or tan foam will bubble up. When it stops rising, all the fermentable sugar has been used up. This should take about two weeks, but you’ll know when it hasn’t bubbled for a few days that it’s ready.
Once the mash is fermented, strain it with a cheesecloth. You can discard the remaining solids. Add the strained mash water to the distiller, and you are ready to start making moonshine.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you still have some unanswered questions regarding the process of making moonshine, check out these frequently asked questions.
Why is moonshine dangerous?
The number one thing that makes drinking moonshine hazardous is alcohol poisoning due to the presence of methanol (methyl alcohol, also known as wood alcohol). When you do not distill moonshine properly, you may leave traces of methanol. Drinking as little as 10ml of methanol can cause permanent blindness, and 30ml can cause death.
Can I buy ready-made moonshine stills?
Absolutely. There are many moonshine kits and stills available, though most of them are pretty expensive. You’d be hard-pressed to find one for under $100 if you choose to purchase a ready-made, quality still.
Can I distill other things in the moonshine still?
Yes. You can distill almost anything alcoholic in a moonshine distiller. So long as there is alcohol to be extracted, it should work. This goes for different grains and oats as well as wines and liquors.
Can I make fermenting any faster?
While there are ways to speed up the fermenting process, most will not work with moonshine mash. The only tip that will genuinely help you speed up fermentation is to do as the name implies and mash. Mash the corn. Mash the fruit. Mash anything that’s going to be fermented. This creates more surface area and allows more sugars to be fermented at once.