Whiskey Still Co. Blog

Make your own Mead

I thought I’d stay in the sweet area for a little longer and move from discussing sugar to more natural ingredients, like honey. And what’s honey great for? Mead of course. Also known as Honey Wine, mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man. This is due to the easy making process but also availability of ingredients and great taste. If you want to give your copper pot still a break, all you need to brew some tasty mead of your own is honey, water and yeast.

Honey fermentation is a really easy process, even for beginner brewers so it’s worth trying out. If you don’t have access to large quantities of honey, buying some good, natural stuff can be expensive, which is why I recommend you start off with a smaller quantity, until you get the hang of it and perfect your own recipe.

The first step is getting your honey. It’s very important that you get some clean, natural honey and not the processed type you find in supermarkets, although the latter is usually cheaper. Try beekeepers directly, a farmer’s market or an organic shop for the real stuff, otherwise you might have trouble with it fermenting badly or having a poor taste. Depending on the predominant flower source around the hives, honey comes in different flavors. They’re all great for mead but some might taste better than others in combination with additional flavorings, such as fruit and spices, if you choose to add any.

Once you’ve got your honey, mix it with clean or distilled water. Quantities will vary depending on recipe but a good generalization is part honey to 3.5 - 4 parts water (although there are also European recipes which use only two units of water for one of honey). For mead, there is no need to heat the mix, this can alter the nutrients and flavor, and is unnecessary if you’ve used clean water, as honey is naturally anti-bacterial. Place your mix in a fermenter and then add yeast. As with most homemade drinks, the yeast you choose can influence the fermentation process and the taste of your final product. Bread yeast and white wine yeast work well. Place an airlock and let it ferment.

Fermentation can take somewhere between 2-8 weeks, depending on the honey, the yeast and the general environmental conditions. As the yeast eats the sugars, alcohol is produced. You can decide to end fermentation depending on how sweet or strong you want the mead to be. For this, use a hydrometer to measure the gravity and how much sugar is left. If you think it’s reached the strength you wanted, you can add preservatives to stop further fermentation, such as potassium sorbate. When the mead is clear and there are no more gas bubbles, fermentation is done.

Next step is transferring the mead into a second container to separate it from the yeast. You can use a siphon hose for this to make sure you leave as much sediment as possible in the fermenter. If you want to flavor your mead, this is the time to add additional ingredients. There are plenty of recipes with hops, fruit: berries usually work great or spices: cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg are common, especially for making mulled mead in wintertime. If you want to add flavorings, you need to let your mead absorb them for a while, weeks up to a few months.

Opinions on ageing are very different when it comes to mead. Most home-brewers I know don’t have the patience to wait for it to age. But there are some who say it’s worth waiting at least a few months before bottling, as this makes it a lot better.

The alcoholic content of mead can range from 8% to over 20% abv. You can also find it in a wide variety: still, sparkling, dry, semi-sweet or sweet. Because it’s had centuries of evolution, there are hundreds of mead recipes from America, Europe, Africa and Asia, each with its unique fermentation process and additional ingredients. But the great thing about it is that it kept its simplicity and more or less the same making process as hundreds of years ago.

Sugar and Moonshine

Even if you’re new to the ‘shiners club, you might have already figured out just how essential sugar is for making moonshine and all other distilled spirits. Basically, all you need, aside from your trusted copper pot still, is water, sugar and yeast as alcohol is obtained through the fermentation of natural sugars, with the help of yeast.

In fact, sugar is so indispensable that you can either obtain it through fermentation from fruit or cereal mashes or you can just use it as a sole ingredient, in what is called a sugar wash. Sugar washes are easy for learning to make your own moonshine as they’re fairly easy to prepare but can still yield a nice amount of clear, neutral moonshine, perfect for mixing and flavoring.

Types of sugar

Knowing the different types of fermentable sugars will help you distinguish variations in your final distillate. There are simple sugars, such as glucose and fructose, and compound sugars, such as sucrose and maltose. Glucose is usually found in fruit and plant juice; fructose is the sweetest of sugars and can also be found in fruit, vegetables, sugar cane and honey. Sucrose is actually formed through the combination of a molecule of glucose with a molecule of fructose and is found in sugar cane stems or sugar beet roots, while maltose is the least sweet of sugars and is formed through the germination of grains, the most important being barley, which is converted into malt (For more information on malting read: http://www.whiskeystill.net/blogs/whiskey-still-co-blog/12638473-malt-whiskey)

You can either base your moonshine on a fruit or grain mash, from which natural sugars will be extracted through fermentation, or you can use already processed commercial sugar. The main forms you can find this in are white sugar, brown and raw sugar. Among these, raw and white sugars are used most for home distillation: they ferment easily and are affordable. Molasses, a sugar byproduct, is also used in distillation, most often in the process of making rum (http://www.whiskeystill.net/blogs/whiskey-still-co-blog/12175097-how-to-make-homemade-rum). 

White sugar is a processed sugar obtained generally from sugar cane. It comes in many different forms and levels of crystallizing, from the standard granulated sugar, to coarse and sanding larger crystal sugars, to superfine and powdered sugar.  

Brown sugar is a sucrose sugar with a distinctive brown color due to the presence of molasses, which is between 3.5%, for light brown sugar, to 6.5% for dark brown sugar. Natural brown sugar, or raw sugar, is obtained from the first crystallization of sugar cane and can be found as unrefined or partially refined. Unrefined brown sugar contains molasses syrup, which is higher in mineral content. Turbinado and demerara are partially processed sugars, obtained through crystallizing raw sugar cane, then removing water and impurities through the use of a centrifuge. Demerara has less molasses than light brown sugar, while turbinado has a golden color and a mild brown sugar flavor. Muscovado is an unrefined, dark brown sugar with a stronger molasses flavor and a sticky texture.

Sugar wash

A sugar wash is easily obtained through mixing your chosen type of sugar with water and yeast. First add the sugar to some hot water and mix, then once it’s dissolved, add colder water. You can decide proportions depending on recipe, ingredients or the equipment you have but as a general rule, you can use about 3 liters of water for 1kg of sugar. Add your yeast and let it ferment for 4-8 days. Once that’s done fire up your moonshine still and get to the next stage: distillation.

A typical yield from sugar wash is somewhere between 40-50%, meaning you should get about 550 ml of pure ethanol per kg of sugar. So, for 5kg of sugar, you should get some 2.75 liters of alcohol. If you run your pot still at 40%, you can get up to 7 liters of distillate from 5 kg of sugar.

So, whatever you decide to make your homemade moonshine from, sugar is your best friend. Although it might not come out as rich and tasty as a distillate obtained from malt or fruit mashes, a sugar wash is easy and cheap to make.

 

Home Distillation of Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Although I own my own copper still, I am not particularly experienced in the distillation of hydrosols and essential oils as I have so far used my copper pot still exclusively for distilling moonshine and other spirits. I do however know of customers who have used our smaller 1 gallon alembic still for making their own essential oils and hydrosols. So, I’ve also started to look into the process and have assembled some useful information on the topic, in the hope that I’ll get the time to try it myself.

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids containing volatile aroma compounds extracted from aromatic plants. They carry the distinctive aroma or “essence” of the botanicals they are made of, which explains the name. They have been used for centuries for therapeutic, medicinal, culinary or cosmetic purposes and have especially contributed to a rise in the popularity of aromatherapy in the past few years. There are hundreds of plants that contain useful essential oils which can be extracted from their oil glands, roots, flowers, peel, veins and resin. And while some oils or hydrosols are very expensive to buy, they could be rather cheap to make at home, in your own copper pot still.

There are three main methods for making your own essential oils: distillation, expression and solvent extraction; out of which, distillation (and especially steam distillation) is the most common. Expression refers to mechanically extract the oils from a plant, such as the cold-pressing method known for extracting olive oil. For flowers or plants too delicate to withstand expression or the high temperatures of distillation, certain solvents can be used instead for extraction. Most essential oils today are obtained through distillation. Copper alembic stills are great for the process, especially since most only need a single process for extraction, but also thanks to copper’s antibacterial properties.

The first step is getting your botanicals. The quantity of oils in a plant varies depending on season, the origin of the plant and the method of harvesting. So, it’s important to read up on the specific plant you decide on before you start, so that you know when it’s best to harvest it, what part of the plant will yield the best results and when to begin and end distillation. Plants are usually very sensitive and need to be carefully handled in order to not waste any of their essential oils. It’s recommended to go for whole plants, not crushed, dried or powder, and, if possible, to pick them yourself. While distillation, especially in copper, removes impurities, it is best to use your own botanicals or organically grown ones, to make sure they were not contaminated by pesticides or other chemicals. After harvesting, some producers recommend drying the plants in order to increase the amount you can use in your batch. But make sure they are dried slowly, not in direct sunlight and not for too long.

Place your dried plants in the still over clean, either filtered or distilled, water. Once water reaches boiling point, the steam will pass through the plants, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The usual distillation process follows: vapors flow through the coil where they condense back to liquid and then reach the receiving vessel. The obtained recondensed steam is your hydrosol. You can make use of a separating funnel or an essential oil separator to separate the essential oil from the hydrosol. Hydrosols can be used on their own, such as rose water, lavender or pine hydrosol, lemon balm or orange blossom water, or re-used in distilling your next batch.

Result may vary in concentration from plant to plant. You should decide on whether you need an essential oil or a hydrosol would be more useful, and keep in mind that you need a large quantity of botanicals for a small amount of oil. The good news is, although essential oils keep for two years or even more, you most probably do not need large quantities for personal use, as they are extremely concentrated. This is also why it is advisable to dilute the result with other carrier oils or substances, depending on the final use. Almond or grape seed oils are usually preferred for this purpose. Store the oils or the hydrosols in clean colored glass or stainless steel containers, away from direct sunlight.

A very important thing that needs mentioning is that if you do choose to use a copper pot still for making both alcohol and hydrosols or essential oils, it is recommended that, for safety reasons, you use separate equipment. Cleaning the still may not be enough to make the distillation of alcohol safe if the still was previously used for the extraction of essential oils.

The Angel’s Share

Although very much about the loss of whiskey into thin air, there’s actually more to the Angel’s share concept than that. The term refers to the process of ethanol evaporation which occurs while the whiskey is stored in barrels, for ageing. The loss is called the Angel’s share because of the popular belief that guardian angels watch over the drink, as it matures. Angel’s share also occurs during wine or ale storage.

Barrels have been used for centuries for the storage and transportation of liquids, from water and olive oil to beer, wine and distilled spirits. But, aside from the technical advantages, that they were more resistant than clay pots and more easily carried over longer distances, quality benefits also came into play. It became obvious that the different types of wood improved the taste for many of the alcoholic drinks, such as beer, wine and spirits. The same story goes for the beginnings of using oak barrels for transporting moonshine. The distillate became mellower, rounder, richer in flavor and more complex after a longer contact with the wood. We now know that there are reasons behind every type of wood used for whiskey barrels: the new oak lets the moonshine soak up different aromas of vanilla, tobacco, spicy and nutty hints, while the charring generates sweetness, through a layer of caramelized sugars. The method used in making the barrel is also relevant to the flavoring and maturing process, whether it was sawn, hand-split, whether the staves were kiln or air-dried and bent through the use of steam, natural gas or wood fire.

Regardless of the type of wood or method used in putting it together, all barrels are porous. Oxidation is essential for the whiskey’s flavor, its acquired color and its final complex character. The angels take their share thanks to the nature of the material that lets the barrel breathe.

Barrels of whiskey get stacked in commercial warehouses for several years. Conditions also affect the produced distillate and the quantity of the angel’s share as storage is usually done at 60% humidity or higher. If it is a low-humidity area, more water will evaporate, making the liquor stronger. If the area has a higher-humidity level, then more alcohol will evaporate, lowering the proof. So, the process is not just about loss: as proof lowers, the whiskey can mellow and leave the barrel at a more enjoyable alcohol level, after having also allowed the more subtle sweet, spicy or nutty flavors of the wood to emerge.

The exact amount that is lost depends very much on conditions, as well as materials and methods used for making the barrels. This is why the process develops differently also depending on region: in America, especially in the South, where temperatures are higher but humidity lower, compared to Scotland or Ireland, where it’s colder but humidity higher. Producers estimate the angel’s share around an annual 2% loss per barrel. This means that a distilled whiskey which is maturing in a new charred oak barrel for 5 years, can lose up to 10% of its alcohol content to the angels.

In humid climates, the loss of ethanol is also what causes the growth of the dark fungus which can be easily noticed in areas where whiskey is distilled and stored. Especially around distilleries which have been around for a long time, the exterior of houses, trees, vegetation and anything located in the neighborhood are all visibly covered in the dark mold, also called Whiskey Fungus or Angel’s Share Fungus. During the Tennessee Whiskey Trail we were also told that this was a good way for revenuers to find illegal moonshiners during Prohibition, as the mold would give away areas in which whiskey and moonshine had been distilled and stored.

The market has referenced the Angel’s share theme in a series of products. Jim Beam launched a Bourbon called Devil’s Cut a couple of years back. They said it reclaimed the whiskey that had been soaked up by the wood in the barrels and then blend this pulled out whiskey with a 6 year aged bourbon. There’s also the Angel’s Envy Kentucky Bourbon, while Lost Abbey produces a strong ale called Angel’s Share which spends a year in freshly emptied bourbon and brandy barrels after having been brewed.

A recent Scottish movie also called Angel’s Share has been quite popular in Europe; it follows a young delinquent in his discovery of Scotch and the Angel’s share, which is about to change his life from hopeless to rich and refined.

 

 

 

Your Basic Moonshining Gear

Every now and again, I like to go back to the basics and not just write about ingredients and recipes for moonshine or other spirits, but also the equipment and utensils you need to make delicious moonshine.

So, to start from the beginning: you’ll need a fermenting vessel. This can be made from a wide variety of materials, as long as it can handle heat and temperature variations. Glass demijohns are a good choice but I would also recommend plastic food grade barrels or 5 gallon buckets, as they’re easier to move around and very resistant. Just make sure they are made from the special hard plastic or polythene (marked as type 4 plastic).

After you’ve decided on a moonshine recipe and made your mash, I would recommend getting an airlock in place. The airlock is a plastic device, with a water trap, which lets the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation out. Its role is to make sure this escapes without letting any air into your vessel, to protect the mash from oxidation and contamination. Make sure you fit it tightly onto the plastic lid, cap or cork to efficiently seal the container.

I guess the next one is pretty obvious: for distilling you will need… a moonshine still! I can’t help but be a little subjective here and recommend a copper moonshine still which is great for home distillation made in batches. Pot stills give an incomplete separation of water from alcohol, which is desirable if you want to retain the flavors of the mash. This is preferable if you’re making moonshine, whiskey or brandy at home, as pot stills make thick-textured and really tasty spirits. Reflux stills are more efficient for the commercial distilling of higher proof, clear and neutral flavored spirits.

Your moonshine will also benefit from a copper still thanks to the material’s well known properties: it removes sulfur compounds, it distributes heat evenly, it is resilient but also resistant to corrosion, has proven antimicrobial effects and improves the overall quality of your final product.

The choice of heat source depends on your preference and distilling conditions, as long as it’s efficient. Both gas and electricity are suitable, but electricity is probably safer than open flame. Distilling your moonshine indoors? An electric stove or a portable hot-plate are both excellent options, especially for moonshine stills of ten gallons or less. Avoid using natural gas or oil stoves indoors. Prefer distilling outdoors? A propane burner could do the trick. There are portable burners for backyard parties, tailgating and camping. Cookers need to be specially designed for safety, function and strength. It is advisable for the burner to have a 10 PSI regulator which could reach 55,000 BTUs.

Another useful tool for your moonshining is a thermometer. Especially for the novice distiller, the thermometer helps monitor the evolution of the process and indicates when you’ve reached the boiling point and when the right cutting time is. It should also allow you to maintain the top of the onion head at the right temperature. Our copper pot stills come with one affixed to the onion head but, if you’re using a different moonshine still or you chose to make your own, you can find one at any local hardware store.

Cutting times are best identified by using both a thermometer and a hydrometer. The two instruments can help you determine what type of alcohol is being produced at a certain time and when it is time to cut your heads and tails. The hydrometer measures the gravity, potential alcohol and sugar content of your distillate. It's a little float that sinks or floats according to the density of the liquid it's floating in. The further it sinks the higher proof alcohol in your moonshine still. Hydrometers can also determine when the fermentation has ceased activity. Experienced distillers can also identify cut off points by monitoring the taste, smell and cloudiness of the distillate.

Depending on what you plan to do with your moonshine after distillation, you can either get some mason jars for storing or, if you want to turn it into a homemade whiskey, get yourself a new charred oak barrel. If you can’t wait that long, just get yourself a glass and enjoy your fresh homemade moonshine!

Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey, and especially single malt, might sound a little sophisticated to some but actually, it is just as easy to make if you know what you’re doing. I’m sure many copper pot still owners out there know what I’m talking about but, if you’re new and are thinking about giving it a try, I’ll try to offer some more information on the malting process and the characteristics of malt whiskey below.

In America, regulated malt whiskey needs to be made from a fermented mash of no less than 51% malted barley and aged in new charred oak barrels at less than 125 proof. Malt whiskey can also me made from the same amount of rye but then will be called rye malt whiskey. If it’s been aged for at least two years, with no added coloring or flavoring and has not been blended with any other spirits or type of whiskey, it can also be called straight.

The malting process is basically creating the necessary conditions for grains to sprout, and then germination needs to be stopped by applying heat. Germination is produced through repeatedly soaking the grains in water which is followed by drying them with hot air, or in a hot environment. The malting process is used in order to develop the necessary enzymes to transform the starch into sugars. Malting also helps develop other enzymes, such as proteases, which give the grain a form that can be used by yeast.

Commercial breweries or distilleries perform the process in designated spaces which they call malthouse or malting floors. The specific flavor of different distilleries is obtained through the type and quality of the grains, but also the water they use for soaking and even the type of wood or fuel they use in the drying process. When the grain reached a moisture level of about 45%, it gets transferred to the malting floor, were it is constantly turned for about 5 days while it’s air-dried. The sprouted barley gets dried in a kiln to specific colors, from pale to crystal, amber, chocolate or black malts. Large industrial fans are now also used to blow hot air through the germinating air beds.

But to malt your own grains at home, all you need is some improvised equipment, which can hold your grains for sprouting and germination, and an oven or a kiln for drying and roasting. You can also try malting other grains, such as rye or wheat, then go on to brewing your own beer or making your homemade whiskey, by following the entire whiskey making process from choosing your mash bill, fermenting and distilling in your copper pot still.

Malting barley

Place about 3-4 pounds of raw barley grain (feed barley works well) in a bucket or a pot and fill it up with water until covered completely. Let it sit for about 6h – some prefer 4h, some 8h so just see what works for you, then drain it. Let it rest for another 6-8h, then fill it back and repeat over 48h.

After this you’ll want to keep your grains moist, at a warm temperature but stir often, about 3 times a day, to avoid mold from forming. You can have them laid on a tray (or a large terracotta pot as some think it absorbs excess water) and covered for about 3-5 days in order for the grains to air-dry at room temperature. You can also use a malt roller with a self-turning timer for this, which you can easily build yourself following some online videos; this can make the process faster and have your grains ready in about 2-3 days.

You’ll know it’s ready for the next step once the main shoot, the growing acrospires or plant embryo, has grown to approximately 75-100% the length of the grain – so make sure you cut open a few grains to double check that this is the case with the majority of them. At this stage, the grain is called green malt.

Next thing to do is dry the grains to stop germination and lock in the enzymes that convert the starch into sugars. This is usually done in a kiln or an oven, although I’ve also heard of people just leaving the grains in the sun during summer. Set the oven at about 100-125F for 24h. Try a grain and if it’s crunchy, it’s dry. Next, turn up the heat to about 210-215F and roast the grains for 2-3h to get your final product. You can then also run them through a sieve to get rid of the roots.

How to Make Homemade Gin

I have to say, gin is not a spirit that I’ve always been a fan of. In fact, I used to see it as more of cocktail spirit and not so much about flavor. But maybe I’d simply had the wrong gin. It was in Europe when I started enjoying it more. I then read up more on it and, finally, decided to try making my own. I started with compound gin and after, once I found a flavor I liked, I also distilled my own in my copper pot still.

What makes gin special is its predominant flavor of juniper berries. It’s been around since the Middle Ages, when it was used as herbal medicine and then evolved towards one the most popular spirits worldwide. The spirit has its origins in Dutch and Flemish distilleries in the 17th century and spread to England later on as a cheap and easy to produce spirit, especially after taxes on all imported spirits were raised. English gin history is actually very exciting, as gin became so popular with all social classes that it was thought to have highly contributed to various social problems of the time, such as high death rates and population growth. The state tried to limit the distilling of gin and impose stricter regulations throughout the 18th century, attempts which lead to a series of street riots. In 18th century London, there were thought to have been around 1,500 residential stills, producing legal gin in Londoners’ homes.

Gin became popular in the US during Prohibition, in the 1920s. That’s when the term Bathtub gin also appeared and referred to the poor quality homemade gin of the time. It was called that because it usually came in tall bottles, too tall to be topped up with water from a sink, so the bathtub tap was used. Some stories also talk of fermentation and distillation having taken place in bathtubs. It was predominant in cocktails as other ingredients could mask the awful taste of the poorly produced drink. In America, gin is currently defined as an alcoholic beverage of a minimum of 80 proof with the characteristic flavor of juniper berries.

There are two main types of gin: compound and distilled gin. As I was saying, I started off with compound gin as it is much easier to make. It is basically made through infusing neutral spirits with essences or natural flavorings, without redistillation. Although the predominant flavor for the infusion needs to be juniper, you are free to make a very wide variety of combinations from ingredients such as:coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, sweet orange peel, lemon, lime, licorice powder (root), cloves, cinnamon sticks, anise, fennel, rosemary, cardamom seeds, cassia or others. You can even add the chosen mix of botanicals to spirits you’ve made in your own copper pot still, such as vodka or moonshine.

Distilled gin involves the distillation of a grain mash and then redistilling it with the same type of botanicals, juniper in particular, to obtain the aroma and necessary flavor. The earliest type of known gin was produces in pot stills, through the fermentation of a grain mash, of wheat, rye, barley or other grains, then redistilling it with the natural flavorings. A double gin can be produced by redistilling the first again and adding fresh botanicals. Alcohol content is not high, around 135 proof after the first distillation and 150 proof for a double gin, but the use of pot stills gives it a stronger flavor.

But even for distilled gin, there are several different methods in use, from the ingredients you choose to use, to how you add them to the recipe and different ways of distilling. It is believed that you get the strongest juniper flavor through soaking the botanicals in the mash first, as well as afterwards inside your pot still, during the distillation process. A different method is soaking the botanicals for up to 24h in the base spirit, filtering them out and then redistilling. Commercial distillers such as Gordon’s, Beefeater and Plymouth use his method, soaking their flavorings for 24h or less. A lighter type of gin can be produced by using the “gin head “ still, which involves the suspension of a gin basket in the head of the still, making the vapors go through the spices and plants for a lighter, softer taste. Bombay Sapphire Gin is obtained through this method in column stills.

For a homemade distilled gin, I would personally go for variations on traditional Dutch gin (genever) recipes. Starting with a mash from wheat, rye and malted barley and distilling it in your copper pot still. Add juniper berries for your second distillation and then add a more varied mix of spices, alongside fresh juniper, for the 3rd run. A 4th run can also be done, for a stronger flavor and higher proof. You can add the botanicals loose in the pot still or place them in a cotton sack.

As a basic rule, you can add about 1oz of botanical mix per liter of alcohol. Typically, a fine gin contains between 6-10 botanicals but the combination depends very much on taste and quantities, as long as you make sure that juniper is predominant.

Gin is a great drink with a very particular aroma. You can experiment with different combinations of ingredients and try them out through a simple infusion process but also put your copper pot still to good use in a redistilling method, once you’ve found a flavor you like. I also highly recommend you read up on gin history, it is truly fascinating how the drink was invented as herbal medicine, then became popular as a spirit and tailored its flavor and production processes to the different regions it travelled to.

The Sour Mash Process

You may have heard the term Sour mash being used many times when talking about making whiskey and have also probably seen it on many whiskey, and particularly bourbon bottles. But, if you’re a novice distiller who is looking into making his own homemade sour mash whiskey, you might still be trying to figure out what it is and how it works.

First of all, you need to know that Sour mash has nothing to do with it being sour. It gets its name from the process of making sourdough bread as it uses the same technique: it reuses material left over from the previous run in the process of fermenting a new batch. Secondly, to avoid confusion, remember that sour mash also goes by the names of stillage, spent mash, spent grain, backset, spent beer and some others, probably depending on the area you’re in.

Before hitting your copper pot still for distillation, you need to go through the process of fermentation. Your mixture of grains, water and yeast is what the mash consists of. Yeast is your essential micro-organism that lives in water, eats sugar from grains or starch, and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as waste. In the sour mash process, your mash will also benefit from additional spent mash – a part of the old mash from your previous distillation (could be about 1/3 or a ¼ of it), which still contains live yeast. This spent mash is added for a number of reasons. First of all, it is used to control the growth of bacteria which could impact the whiskey’s taste and create a pH balance for the yeast by controlling acidity levels. Another reason is that using the established or known fermented active live yeast, it is easier to control flavor consistency and continuity between batches. This is a key aspect for commercial producers who want to keep their liquor just as tasty with every new batch they make, but it can also help you once you’ve found a recipe you enjoy.

Sour mash is a traditional and widespread process in bourbon making and a legal requirement for Tennessee Whiskey. Traditional sour mash bourbon is also double distilled in pot stills.

Sour mashing is also a process which can be used in brewing. Brewers use it to enhance the quick production of lactic acid, which gives beer its sourness. Some beers that use the sour mash process will be fermented together with brewing yeast but no boil, while other sour mashed beers will be boiled and then fermented with brewing yeast.

Sour mash is presently a very common process in the commercial distillation of whiskey but home distilling can also use the spent mash benefits, especially in the creation of a healthier, more efficient fermentation, together with consistency in flavor.

How to Make Homemade Rum

As you might have seen on our Facebook page, this past weekend we packed up our shiny copper pot stills and took them to Vegas. They sat pretty on display at the Golden Nuggets Whiskey Fest, while we kept busy doing distilling demonstrations for those interested in the process and our copper stills. I even had the opportunity to try out some homemade rum made in one of our very own copper pot stills by a customer, which was absolutely delicious. So I thought that’s something I haven’t made in a very long time and should definitely go back to distilling: rum.

Rum is usually made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses or directly from sugarcane juice or brown sugar. The distillate is then aged in oak barrels for color and flavor. The liquor originates from the Caribbean and Latin America, where the majority of rum is still being produced today as the area is rich in sugarcane and sugar beets. Molasses is the dark, sweet, syrup-like byproduct obtained through the extraction of sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets. Molasses varies by amount of sugar and method of extraction, and age of plant.

I’ll only go through the process, steps and ingredients but you can decide on quantities depending on personal preferences. So, what you need for your own homemade rum are the following: molasses, brown sugar, yeast, water, your trusted copper still and a barrel of your choosing for the ageing process. To start off, dissolve your sugar and molasses into boiling water. Cool off the mix by adding colder water until it reaches approx. 80F, and then add yeast to your base ingredients to kick off fermentation. Distillers prefer faster-working yeast for lighter rums and a slower-working one for dark rum, as the latter causes more esters to accumulate during fermentation which results in a fuller taste. Install airlock and let it ferment. Fermentation is complete once bubbles stop passing through the airlock. After that, wait for 3-7 days until the mix is ready for distilling.

Distillation in a pot still is preferred because this gives the rum a richer flavor. Rum is usually distilled somewhere between 85-96% ABV. Fill the boiler up and follow the standard distilling procedure. After you’ve obtained your distillate, you can move on to the ageing process. Ageing is not necessary but does mellow the rum and give it its color and more flavor.

Many countries require for rum to be aged for a minimum of one year but the process can also take up to 12 years… though you’re probably not going to be waiting this long to enjoy your homemade product. Ageing is usually done in bourbon casks but other types of wooden barrels can also be used; stainless steel tanks are also an option. As with whiskey, the liquor takes its color and flavor from the wood: new casks contribute to a lighter flavor, while heavily charred ones to richer flavors. When aged in oak casks, the rum becomes darker, while the one aged in stainless steel usually remains colorless. Due to the warm climate rum is usually produced in, it matures at a much higher rate than whiskey or cognac, the angel’s share going up to 10% each year, compared to products aged at lower temperatures, which only reach 2% per year. After ageing, rum is usually blended. Light rums might undergo filtering to remove any color gained though ageing, while caramel might be added to darker rums for color adjustment. You can easily caramelize your own sugar and add it to the distillate.

After your copper still has done its job, you can also make your own spiced rum, by ageing the distillate together with your choice of spices, such as vanilla, peppercorns, cinnamon, star anise etc.

Rum is a delicious, cheap and easy to make drink which is preferably made in copper pot stills. You can adjust the recipe to your own preferences – you can only use molasses, for example, or decide between different types of yeast; as well as choose what type of cask to age it in, if you choose to age the rum at all.

 

 

 

 

Make Your Own Homemade Vodka

Vodka is a neutral, colorless and mostly flavorless spirit with a worldwide reach, both in terms of production and consumption. US regulations require that vodka produced in the US be "neutral" and be sold "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color". Although it can very much be enjoyed neat, it’s also perfect for infusions and combined in cocktails. Vodka originates from Eastern Europe, although pinpointing a specific country and an accurate starting point seem to very controversial topics. So, let’s not get into that. The fact that it does not need ageing and that it can be made from a variety of common ingredients makes vodka easy and cheap to produce, in a relatively short amount of time. So, why not put your pretty copper pot still to good use and make some homemade vodka of your own?

Starting with the ingredients: what to make it out of? Most vodka today is made from grains such as wheat, rye, barley or corn – rye and wheat vodka is generally considered superior. But grains are not mandatory, as you can also make your vodka from potatoes, molasses, grapes, rice or sugar beets. The important thing is that the base ingredients are rich in starch and sugars. There are, of course, many possible mash recipes and, depending on the source you choose, different techniques might apply. So prepare your mash, strain it and let it ferment. Add your yeast of choice and make sure you keep the mash at the right temperature, about 80-85F for a good, efficient fermentation. If you’re not so lucky with natural temperature, you can always use a heating belt.

Next step: distillation. Transfer your fermented alcoholic wash into your copper pot still and fire it up. After the wash heats up, alcohol and other substances vaporize and condense in the water-cooled area of the still. Remove the heads – maybe discard around 2oz of liquid to 5 gallons of wash. After that, your pot still will contain ethanol, water and some other compounds. Watch your copper still closely through the rest of the distillation process and don’t forget to also remove the tails towards the end. Vodka gets its clarity and purity through its many distillation stages. That’s why it’s necessary to run it through your copper pot still at least three or four times. This leads to a high purity distillate with high alcohol content. Heads and tails need to be removed each time you redistill.

Something which sets the process of vodka production apart from other spirits is the extensive use of filtration, which takes away the roughness, making it smoother. Filtering can be done in the pot still, during distillation, as well as afterwards, when the distilled vodka is filtered through a carbon filter to absorb certain unwanted volatile substances and flavors. For the home distiller, this can easily be done through a funnel, with a cotton ball at the bottom. Add some activated carbon and pour the distillate into a bottle. You can repeat this as many times as you see fit. Traditional Eastern European producers prefer to use very accurate distillation and minimal filtering, as they aim to preserve the flavors and characteristics of the initial product.

The next step is diluting your vodka. Because of the high alcohol percentage obtained through repeated distillation, vodka is one drink which needs diluting in order to be safely enjoyed. You can add purified water to the distillate to reach a desired strength. An alcoholmeter is necessary to help you measure the alcohol percentage. Commercial vodka is usually bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV in the US and 37.5% ABV in the EU.

That’s it, your vodka is ready to drink neat or flavored. Vodka puts your copper pot still to good use, it’s fast and relatively easy to make, but most importantly, cheap. You can choose from a wide range of ingredients and then mix the final product with anything you like, either by infusing it with flavorings or simply being creative with some cocktails.

Rye Whiskey

It seems I’ve dedicated quite a few posts to bourbons on this blog but have left out another great American classic: rye whiskey. Different in taste, less smooth but with a strong spicy character of its own, rye whiskey has just as impressive a history as bourbon.

In the United States, rye whiskey is, by law, required to contain a minimum of 51% rye in its mash. It is distilled to no more than 160 proof and aged in the same charred, new oak barrels I’ve already mentioned numerous times. As it leaves the whiskey still, it must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof. It is bottled at no less than 80 proof. The labeling rules are the same as for bourbon: it is considered “straight rye” if it’s been aged for at least two years, if aged for less than four years, the label must state the age. If the exact age is not stated, that means the whiskey has been aged for a minimum of four years. If it’s a blended whiskey, then it needs to state the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend. It should contain no added colorings, flavorings or additional sprits.

Although many refer to Canadian whisky as “rye whiskey”, there’s no justified reason for that. It’s true that historically Canadian whisky contained more rye than the American, but it wasn’t necessarily made from a majority of rye. Canadian Food and Drug regulations actually state there is no requirement for rye to be used to make whiskies with the legally-identical labels "Canadian Whisky", "Canadian Rye Whisky" or "Rye Whisky" in Canada, provided they "possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky". Today, most Canadian whiskies are blended to achieve that character, adding a flavoring whisky made from a rye mash (and distilled at a lower proof) to a high-proof base usually made from corn or wheat. In fact, Canadian whiskies with most or all of their mash consisting of rye are an exception. Unlike US "straight rye whiskey", a minimum of 3 years aging in 180 gallon wooden barrels is required for a “straight Canadian rye”; barrels don’t have to be new oak though, nor charred.

Compared to bourbon, rye is noticeably spicier, fruitier and drier. As bourbon gets its sweetness from corn, this also impacts the rye taste, depending on what grains the rest of the 49% is made up of and how much of that is corn. Usually, those grains include corn, wheat, malted rye, and malted barley, in any combination. The proportions used by large commercial producers are usually 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley. Large Kentucky distilleries generally use this formula, but since rye has regained its popularity in the last few years, craft distilleries are also producing more rye, as well as experimenting with different grain options and even 100% rye mashes.

Rye whiskey was very popular, especially in the North-East, in states like Pennsylvania and Maryland but was produced in other areas too, each region adding a distinctly unique character to the liquor. Pittsburgh was the main rye production spot in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the beginning, the rye made in Pennsylvania was actually 100%, with some malted rye in the blend but no corn or barley; this was known as Monongahela-style. Rye largely disappeared after Prohibition and since Kentucky remained the main place where it kept being produced, many of the other regional styles died out.

George Washington was famous for his distilling and his rye recipe. The distillery on his estate, opened in 1797, was one of the most successful business enterprises at Mount Vernon and the largest in America by 1799.  Five copper pot stills produced whiskey using Washington’s original mash bill: 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.  When George Washington died, an inventory listed peach, apple and persimmon brandy, plain whiskey, and cinnamon whiskey stored in the mansion’s basement.  It is thought that all these items were made at Washington’s distillery and served to guests.

Anchor Distilling in San Francisco were the first to dust off historic recipes in 2003 and make rye in the style of George Washington: with small copper pot stills and little aging, which is generally what mellows the spirit. Anchor takes pride in their small batches of rye and their use of beautiful custom-made copper pot stills (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/travel/rye-whiskey-is-back-with-flavors-of-american-history.html?_r=0&pagewanted=1 ).

Mount Vernon Distillery  has set out to recreate the original recipe in the slightest details, including the same place, and was asking, earlier this year, for $95 per bottle of the most authentic Washington rye available today (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/george-washington-whiskey_n_2955062.html).

Ageing and Flavoring

Although it’s proverbially wine that’s known for getting better with age, we all know it is the same with whiskey. Even more so, whiskey doesn’t even turn into whiskey without the ageing and flavoring processes, which simultaneously happen inside the “magic”barrels. I’ve touched upon the subject quite a few times before, especially when talking about Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky Bourbon, but I find it a very complex topic which I could write many posts about.

After leaving the whiskey still, the raw liquor, moonshine at this stage, enters barrels for ageing. The wood is where the whiskey gets about 40-70% of its distinctive aroma and color. Maturing is the ultimate goal, not a specific age but, it’s a general rule that the older the whiskey, the stronger the flavor. Wood to whiskey ratio is also very important, as the bigger the contact surface, the stronger, or quicker to obtain, the flavor. What is interesting to observe during visits to distilleries is that, no matter how many revolutionary, accurate, modern equipment has come out in the past decades (gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and computersthat can break down chemical components to the very last cell), it is still a man-mastered art, completely dependent on a skilled master distiller and his senses.

For American whiskeys, the standard whiskey barrels of 53 gallons are made from new white oak. American white oak's durability, as well as its ability to hold water and oxygenate it, make it favorable for whiskey barrels; the wood is denser and harder than French oak, making barrels less prone to leakage. French oak also has a different flavor profile, it’s spicier; the wood is also lighter, allowing oxygen to interact differently with the spirit. In United States, the barrels have to be new so that as much of the flavor as possible gets soaked out of the wood by the whiskey and many commercial distilleries now re-barrel their whiskey in new charred oak barrels to reinforce the wood notes.

For drying the new oak staves, before turning them into barrels, some choose to use a kiln, which is obviously faster, but many distilleries still use the traditional, natural option of air-drying. They usually leave the wood outside for 9-12 months as they believe exposure to the elements prepares it much better for its next task: flavoring. The exposure is believed to reduce the level of certain chemicals which are unfavorable to the whiskey aroma. This is not a general rule though, as some distilleries also air-dry their wood indoors.

Back in the day, the wood was held over fire to make it easier for it to bend and turn into barrels. In time, the fire was replaced with steam. Although steam was much more efficient for softening the wood, whiskey makers discovered they were missing some of the flavors that originated from the fire. That’s why, today, barrels are toasted on the inside: the process modifies the wood’s chemical components, turning some into sugars. The sugars caramelize in the heat and give the whiskey its caramel-vanilla sweetness and its amber color. It’s also where the smoky flavor comes from. The charring process, which we’ve seen before with bourbon, is different from the toasting. It’s an additional quick burning of the inside of the barrel, which produces more caramel and creates a thin charcoal layer which filters the liquor during its maturation.

Once the moonshine’s out of the copper whiskey still and moved into barrels, the maturing process begins. Many distilleries have observed that storing their freshly-filled whiskey barrels at the top of the warehouse for the first 2-3 years, helps exert more pressure onto them. In this way, the spirit is pushed deep inside the whiskey, bringing out more intense flavors. They then move the barrels in the lower half of the warehouse, where the temperature variations throughout the year are more moderate, compared to the hot top half. Other distilleries simply leave their barrels in place for the length of the maturation, then make a selection of barrels from the top and lower areas and blend them together. And for some, aging has even gone beyond stationary warehouses: such as Jefferson's Reserve with their Ocean-Aged Bourbon, which was left to mature on a ship for nearly four years. The founder of the distillery said the Panama Canal's extreme heat pushed the whiskey deeper inside the wood, causing the wood sugars to caramelize and add a rum-like black hue. He said the bourbon also breathed differently at sea, and the salt air added a unique briny taste to the whiskey.

Many distilleries have tried to come up with new, tastier or more interesting products. As seen with experiments like the one above, most distillers choose to alter the wood or the aging process. The Woodford Reserve Distillery put standard 6-7 year-old Woodford Reserve in a maple wood barrel as well as former sweet wine casks to lend more chocolate, nutty and dark cherry flavors not usually found in bourbon. The former fortified wine barrels had wine soaked into the wood and the fruity flavors that remained from the barrel's former alcohol enriched the flavor of the bourbon.

In an effort to create a spicier-finishing whiskey, Maker's Mark added toasted French white oak staves to its existing bourbon barrel for its 2010 Maker's 46 . When the bourbon hit the barrel and mingled with the French and American oak, it took on both woods’ profile characteristics and became a combination of French spice and American sweetness.

The owner of an upstart distillery from Ohio called Cleveland Whiskey decided the conventional method of producing whiskey simply wasn't fast enough to meet that demand. But rather than water down an existing recipe, he also started experimenting with wood. His new method: he ages the whiskey in a new oak barrel for the first six months, and then deposits it in stainless steel tanks. He cuts up the used barrel, processes the wood and adds it into the tank. In the tank, the spirit is agitated and undergoes a series of differences in pressure to squeeze in and out of the wood pores. After a week in the tubs, the hyper-aged whiskey is ready for bottling. Cleveland Whiskey hopes to produce 20,000 cases of the whiskey in 2014.

But the Buffalo Trace Distillery  is said to hold the record for whiskey experimentation. Since 1987 the company has conducted more than 1,500 barrel experiments for its Experimental Whiskey collection. The tests included studying sections of the tree to determine which heartwood should go into which stave and making a French oak barrel three times the size of a standard barrel. In the latest experiment the distillery charred a regular bourbon barrel for 3.5 minutes instead of the standard 55 seconds. 

The wood and the ageing are the points where the most important differences between American whiskey and Scotch whisky come up. Very few Scottish distilleries use new oak casks and most Scottish distillers don't even want new barrels since they claim the flavors from the wood would overpower the character of their distillate. Traditionally, 132 gallons sherry casks called butts have been used. But these became scarce during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s and that’s when many Scotch distilleries turned to used bourbon barrels as an alternative. Sometimes, other cask types like port, rum or wine are used as well.  The process of re-filling whisky into a fresh cask for the final months of the maturation is called finishing. Most whisky casks are re-used several times by Scottish distilleries. During maturation, the spirit extracts flavoring and coloring both from the wood and the remains of the previous cask filling, which makes the flavor palette much wider. The longer it stays in the cask, the darker the whisky gets. But every cask is different: there are 5 year old whiskies that are dark brown, and there are 30 year old whiskies that are only slightly yellow.

Maturation, too, differs between American whiskey and Scottish whisky. Although Scotch can legally be sold once it is three years old, it’s usually decades that create distinction. But that is mostly to do with the climate. As an experiment, Maker's Mark swapped barrels with a Scottish distiller to see how much the environments of the two places affected the whisky's maturation. The experiment's outcome was that one year in Kentucky, with its hot summers and cold winters, was roughly equal to four in Scotland, with its much more constant and humid climate.

The list of experiments can go on for many more pages, but the essential process has been the same for centuries: fermentation, distillation, most often in a copper whiskey still, ageing and flavoring in new or “second-hand” wood barrels. And although the first two are key foundations for the final product, it’s the last two that give the spirit its unique flavor and distinctive notes.

 

Sources:

www.scientificamerican.com

www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2013/05/29/cleveland-whiskey-ages-bourbon-in-one-week/

www.economist.com/node/457125

 

 

 

Tasting Whiskey

As the end of 2013 is getting close, I have to say it’s been a pretty good year. I’ve enjoyed my family, had awesome adventures with my friends and, of course, managed to spend some quality time with my beautiful copper whiskey still. I’ve succeeded some incredibly tasty moonshine recipes… and failed a few too. But hopefully I also learned a thing or two in the process.

I think you’ll agree that discovering and learning new things is one of the most important things in life. So I thought I’ll share with you an essential set of tips which every whiskey still owner and whiskey passionate should know: how to taste whiskey. I got most of my information from the tastings and visits to distilleries that I’ve made in the past, but also from chats both with fellow moonshiners and master distillers. Although certain details differ between different countries, areas and even distillers, some things they all agree on.

The trick to get you to spot certain characteristics is to build up experiences of tasting different things, even unrelated to whiskey, and taking 'taste snapshots' of the characteristics of the flavors. The more you do this, the more precise your whiskey tasting becomes. What I think is most important is that whiskey shouldn’t be gulped down in shots. It’s a fine drink that needs to be sipped and savored so that all the flavors have time to reach your taste buds. It’s also important to remember that tasting is a very personal and subjective thing. There’s no right or wrong answers and there’s certainly very few chances you’ll pick up the same aromas as your friends, especially if you’re not experts. 

The first thing to do is choose the right glass for nosing and tasting. The so-called ‘snifter’, a tulip-shaped sherry or brandy glass, is ideal for this or something similar; even a wine glass will do. Some come with an additional glass plate which, placed over the top of the glass, helps trap the aromas inside. The essential thing is that it has a stem and is narrower towards the top, so that it forces the bouquet towards your nostrils and lets you capture the whole aroma. The shape also helps you swirl the drink and still keep it in the glass, without wasting any of it. Make sure the glass is at room-temperature and that you only hold it by the low end of the stem, as it’s important that you don’t transfer body heat to the drink.

Pour about an ounce of whiskey, which should be enough for a tasting. Take note of the color while you are waiting during this short time - holding it against a white background is a good tip.  Swirl it around for a bit, so as to allow oxygen to get to the liquid and evaporation to begin. This is important as the whiskey has been taken out of a whiskey still and trapped in a cask or a bottle for all of its life until this point and needs a little time to express itself and start to show its true characteristics. Once you have swirled, allow the spirit to settle so that your first sensations will not be full of alcohol. 

Then on to the ‘sniffing’. Some distillers actually say this is the essential step and that the actual tasting will only confirm what your nose has already told you. But you need a pretty well-trained nose for that… I guess the most important thing is to do it right, slowly and carefully, and pay attention to every single note. Firstly, stick your whole nose into the glass and gently sniff it. The alcohol vapors will be the first thing you encounter so that’s why you need to pull back, swirl it in the glass for a bit, wait a few seconds, then go back to it. Go back a third time, bury your nose into the lip of the glass, and roll the glass from one nostril to the other. Even if you don’t recognize all the aromas, some distillers encourage you to try and associate the scents with memories, which might lead you to remember a certain room (a desk, wood, leather, age), a memory related to home (Christmas cake, dried fruit, spices), summer holidays (grass, smoke, salt) and so on. From this, try to predict what the taste of the whiskey will be like.

The next step is adding a bit of water to bring the whiskey down to somewhere between 20-35% abv – this depends on personal preference. Adding the water opens it up, gives you more information on the drink and makes it easier to identify the palate. Distillers say that especially for whiskeys 12 years or younger, water is always advisable. For whiskeys 15 years and up, don't add water before you first taste it. But no matter what the age of the whiskey is, if it still bites when you take a sip, that means it's too strong and you should add water a little bit at a time, otherwise it will just numb your nose and your taste buds. Don't use sparkling water. Any good still water will do, but distilled water is best. Don't use ice, it will only mask the flavors. Some distillers actually recommend you don’t add water at all and just try it as it is first, to then decide for yourself how much water would help you discover the remaining flavors after the first sip.

Finally, taste it! Take a small sip into your mouth and move it around. Start by putting the whisky in the middle of the tongue, then under the tongue, then back in the middle of the tongue. Keep it there a few seconds and assess the flavors, then let it go down. As it goes down, the tongue will reveal more interesting flavors. Let the flavors linger for at least 20-30 seconds. Always take a second taste, which usually reveals different layers of flavor than the first. After two-three slow tastes, tip the rest back for a good finish. The finish is the after taste that comes once you have swallowed the whiskey. Some people say the complexity of the finish in whiskey is what differentiates it from all other spirits. Also, ask yourself whether the flavors remain for a short, medium or long time. This is called the length of the finish.

If you want to compare different types of whiskey, there are two types of processes you can try: the vertical or the horizontal tasting. Vertical tasting refers to comparing two (or more) whiskeys belonging to the same distillery, while for a horizontal tasting you can choose whiskeys from different distilleries or areas, but which still have some common elements – either try two different Kentucky Bourbons or try an American and a Scottish rye whiskey, of more or less the same age.

Although this is a topic you can never know enough about, I hope this adds a small point to your list of ‘interesting things I learned in 2013’. I also hope you have an amazing new year and that we can learn more new things together.

Thank you for your love of copper whiskey stills and for being part of The Whiskey Still Company community! Wishing you all lovely holidays and a ‘shining 2014!

Kentucky Bourbon

Kentucky Bourbon is probably just as famous as Tennessee Whiskey worldwide but, unlike it, it isn’t an official brand but more of a generally-agreed proof of quality as, although it can officially be made anywhere in the US, it’s usually associated with the South and, especially with Kentucky. The main reason for that is history but also the fact that even today, most bourbon distilleries are still in the state of Kentucky. According to USA Today, as of this year, approximately 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon that are currently aging – a figure that exceeds the state population. 

The history of bourbon probably has just as many versions as distilleries. It’s generally thought that it began in the 1700s with the first European settlers in the area. Since, essentially, any type of grain can be used to make whiskey, and the practice of aging whiskey, and even charring the barrels for better flavor, had also been known in Europe for centuries, the use of the local American corn for the mash and oak for the barrels was simply a logical combination of the materials at hand for the settlers. Like most farmers in that time, they discovered that turning their corn and grains into whiskey made it a lot easier for them to make a profit, than having to struggle with transporting their crops to the market, because of the rough landscape. Back when Kentucky was still part of Virginia, in the late 18th century, some of its original counties formed Bourbon County, named to honor the French Royal Family. Farmers made liquor in copper stills, then stamped their oak barrels with “Bourbon County” and shipped their whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip, allegedly, aged the whiskey and the oak gave it its distinct mellow flavor and amber color. As the whiskey from the region became more and more popular, it was already known as Bourbon whiskey. An alternative origin for the name was offered by a historian who suggested it actually came from Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, where the Tarascon brothers' shipments of Kentucky whiskey sold well as a cheaper alternative to French cognac. In 1964, the 88th Congress of the United States declared Bourbon Whiskey ‘a distinctive product of the United States’.

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits is the regulator which states that to be labeled as bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the US, from a mixture of at least 51% corn. Different distilleries use different recipes, some use more corn, some add rye, barley, wheat and other grains, but the minimum 51% corn is non-negotiable. When bourbon leaves the whiskey still, it cannot exceed 160 proof and it needs to be no more than 125 proof when it’s put inside the barrel. It’s also general practice that if it’s a higher proof, when coming out of the whiskey copper still, to be cut with water until it reaches 125 proof. But the watering down has to be done carefully and professionally, as Maker's Mark found out the hard way earlier this year, when it tried to ‘stretch supplies’ of its flagship spirit by lowering alcohol content and adding extra water. Their announcement was followed by a wave of complaints and so, within a few days, they came out with a statement cancelling the plan.

When bottled, all bourbons must be at least 80 proof although, some distillers we met on the trail said many exceed this requirement and it’s common to find bourbon whiskeys anywhere between 90-127 proof. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels and cannot have any artificial colorings or additives. This also includes natural coloring agents like caramel, which can be used in other types of whiskey.

Kentucky distillers say it’s the sweet, iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone, unique to the area, which give Kentucky bourbon its unique flavor.

As distillers agree that 40-70% of the flavor comes from the wood, the barrel is a central point for the taste and quality of the product. After leaving the whiskey still, the spirit gets its color and distinct flavor from the caramelized sugar in the charred oak. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they mature. Maturity, not a particular age, is the goal. Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period so you can find products aged for as little as three months that are sold as bourbon. Bourbon that has been aged for a minimum of two years qualifies as straight, but if it’s less than four years, the duration of aging must be stated on the label. Blended  bourbon has to be at least 51% straight bourbon.

A refinement which came with time was the sour mash process, by which each new fermentation process was conditioned with some amount of spent mash (the wet solids strained from a previous batch of fermented mash, which still contain live yeast). As of 2005, all straight bourbons use a sour mash process.

As with every whiskey, although there are strict regulations producers need to follow to meet the requirements, each distiller needs to add that extra something to make their bourbon different. Many make the difference in the mash, as the grain combination added on top of the corn adds to the flavor palette: barley can add a bit of a nutty tinge, rye makes it spicier and wheat adds softer, caramel and vanilla aromas. Four Roses claims to be the only Bourbon Distillery that combines 5 proprietary yeast strains with two separate mashbills to produce 10 distinct bourbon recipes. Woodford Reserve produce twice-barreled bourbon, matured in separate, charred oak barrels - the second barrel deeply toasted before a light charring – to ‘extract additional amounts of soft, sweet oak character’. It’s also Woodford Reserve who uses the only copper pot still and triple distillation process used to handcraft Bourbon. Maker’s Mark claim they are the only distillery in the world to hand rotate barrels in their warehouses to ensure flavor consistency, while Wild Turkey distil at a lower proof – which is meant to seal in the taste, and makes it possible to add very little water when the bourbon comes out of the warehouse.

Most Kentucky bourbon distilleries take pride in still being family businesses, some of them, like Jim Beam with an impressive history of generations of distillers. They also try to set themselves apart by using high quality ingredients, longer ageing periods, special yeast strains and a wider offer.

And, as I said before, trying all the different types made me realize that, even within fairly tight restrictions, you can easily get different flavors, strengths and degrees of refinement. I’ve collected a few interesting recipes on the trail and I can’t wait to try them in my very own handcrafted copper whiskey still.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Today I want to resume my post about the whiskey and bourbon trails and also tell you about the Kentucky part of my trip, dedicated to the Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour has been around for longer than the Tennesse Whiskey Trail: it was established in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and is, today, one of their registered trademarks. Although the official website suggests that 3 days are enough to see all of the 8 distilleries on the tour, I would recommend taking up to a week if you want to thoroughly enjoy the tours as well as the scenery, and not feel like you’re running a marathon. Unlike the TN Whiskey Trail, distilleries have to be members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association in order to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail so not all Bourbon distilleries in the state are part of the official tour.

        

It goes without saying that I also loved the Bourbon Trail and all the different beautiful copper whiskey stills I saw! Although I did know a thing or two about bourbon from before, it’s a lot more special to see the places and hear their history while actually being in Kentucky. Just like on the whiskey trail, the distilleries on the tour were very diverse: from the old and famous Jim Beam American Stillhouse to the very new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience to family owned and operated craft distilleries such as Limestone Branch.

Only just opened this month, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was described as a ‘multi-million dollar artisanal distillery’ which celebrates the legacy of Evan Williams, considered Kentucky’s First Commercial Distiller. It’s located in Louisville’s historic “Whiskey Row” and across the street from the riverfront location where Evan Williams’ distillery stood in the late 18th century. I especially enjoyed the place because I got the opportunity to learn more about the famous Evan Williams and his jack-of-all-trades character: as politician, farmer, building contractor, harbormaster, businessman, inventor and distiller.

Once in the area, I took the tour guide’s advice and spent the night at The Louisville Marriott East – Kentucky’s bourbon themed hotel, where I got to meet a lot of interesting folks and spent the night enjoying good bourbon and talking about handcrafted copper whiskey stills and homemade moonshines and whiskeys.

The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is rightfully considered an Official Trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The sight is truly picturesque: the building itself is a replica of a 1940s stillhouse which actually contains the original staircase of the historic stillhouse, followed by the rack houses, limestone water wells, whiskey stills, bottling lines and bourbon tasting rooms. Their ‘stillevator’ is definitely a must-see! Aside from the great Beam taste, I love the fact that, although now a big commercial distillery, Jim Beam is still a family-run business, with several generations of members already having left their mark on the bourbon, in over 200 years of tradition.

Also with a rich history and tradition was the next stop on my trail: Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, where I went for the Behind the Scenes Tour which ended with a tasting in their awesome barrel-shaped tasting room. Then followed Maker’s Mark Distillery , where the highlight was getting to dip your own souvenir bottle in their signature red wax. Also, their copper stills are indeed as impressive as they look in their photos!

The Limestone Branch Distillery was actually one of my favorite stops. It’s a beautiful family owned and operated craft distillery. They use a 150-gallon hand-hammered copper whiskey pot still to produce small, one-barrel batches of a truly fine product. I also got try some of their homemade ‘Sugarshine’ which was so nice I’m thinking of trying to make some in my own copper whiskey still.

On my next stop, I found out that the Four Roses Distillery was named the “American Distillery of the Year” by Whisky Magazine four years in a row. Aside from the cheesy love story legend behind the name, the place is really beautiful: the distillery is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dates from 1910 and is said to feature a unique Spanish Mission-Style architecture rarely seen in Kentucky. And there are indeed a lot of roses.

Last stops on the trail were Wild Turkey Distillery , where I unfortunately didn’t get to meet their famous Master Distiller Jimmy Russell;  the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery and the  Town Branch Bourbon Distillery . The Woodford Reserve Distillery is the oldest and smallest working bourbon distillery and a National Historic Landmark, unlike the Town Branch Bourbon Distillery which is a brand new distillery and most recent addition to the tour.

Given another chance, it would be hard to choose either the Whiskey Trail or the Bourbon one. They’re both great experiences in beautiful settings. I guess, all it comes down to, in the end, is whether you’d like to sample more Tennessee whiskey or more Kentucky bourbon. One thing I’m sure of now: I’ll definitely use my copper whiskey still for some new homemade recipes I got during the tour, but also for more bourbon, whose spiced smooth and mellow taste definitely grew on me during this trip.

Tennessee Whiskey

After so much ‘talking’ and tasting, I decided to write a detailed description of what qualifies as Tennessee whiskey. According to American and international trade agreements, Tennessee whiskey is ‘a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee’. The funny thing is that distillers in the region always try to separate themselves from the notion of ‘bourbon’, which is why producers never label their liquor as one. Tennessee whiskey is just Tennessee whiskey. What makes it so special? An extra step they take in its production process.

Tennessee law has not been easy on distilleries over the years and even following the end of prohibition, TN was a state which took longer to allow distilling of spirits. In 2009, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that had limited the distillation of ‘drinkable spirits’ and the revised law allowed distilleries to be established in 41 additional counties. The change was, of course, favorable to the firing up of a number of whiskey stills just ready to produce Tennessee whiskey. It was only earlier this year that a bill was signed requiring products distilled in the state and labeled ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ to use the Lincoln County Process (which I’ll explain below).

So, as I said, Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon: it is made in the US, from a minimum of 51% corn, with a supplement of ryebarley, or barley malt, it’s distilled most often in copper pot stills at 160 proof or less, enters the barrel at no more than 125 proof, it’s bottled at no less than 80 proof, contains no additional coloring or flavorings and is matured in new charred oak barrels. The added element? Once out of the whiskey still, Tennessee whiskey is mellowed through thick layers of maple charcoal, before entering the barrels for ageing. This process of filtering is what constitutes the Lincoln County Process. It got its name from the state’s Lincoln County, where the Jack Daniel’s distillery was located originally. But, in the late 19th century, the boundaries of the county were changed and the distillery became part of the new Moore County. Funny enough, as I found out on the Whiskey Trail, the only whiskey produced in Lincoln County today is the one made by Pritchard’s Distillery which in fact does not use the Lincoln County Process as it managed to get an exception from the bill, blaming its introduction on its ‘famous neighbor up the road’. So, even if Pritchard’s isn’t a charcoal mellowed whiskey, it’s still officially considered a Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’sGeorge Dickel and Collier & McKeel all use the maple charcoal filtering for their Tennessee whiskey.

As flavorings and colorings are not allowed, the liquor gets its distinct flavor from the barrel, which is why they need to be new, in order for the whiskey to absorb as much of the aroma as possible. Jack Daniel’s, for example, take pride in making their own barrels and Pritchard’s even take their whiskey from 120 to 95 proof and re-barrel it in a second round of charred oak barrels to reinforce the barrel notes. Also, the smaller the barrel or the greater surface area to liquid there is, the stronger the flavor.

Each Tennessee distillery has its own story, recipe and methods though. Some distill the alcohol at a lower proof, for more flavor. Others make their mash from white corn, rather than yellow, as they claim it contains a higher percentage of sugar.  Even more, the George Dickel Distillery, uses a personalized mellowing process called the chill mellowing, by chilling the whiskey once it’s out of the whiskey still and before the filtration process. They explain their choice by the fact that the founder, George Dickel, discovered that the batches of whiskey he tasted during the winter were noticeably smoother than those he tasted during warmer weather.

Another thing that’s’ worth mentioning after having taken the trail: not all whiskey that comes out of a Tennessee copper whiskey stills is ‘Tennessee whiskey’. Many are still in the ageing process to earn that name and some just remain moonshine: Ole Smoky or Popcorn Sutton Distillery produce liquor which is labeled as Tennessee moonshine or corn whiskey. Goes without saying that rye whiskeys the distilleries in the state make are also just labeled as Tennessee Rye or rye whiskey.

 

 

 

The Tennessee Whiskey Trail

These past weeks I’ve finally taken some time off and managed to do one of the most interesting things I’d been planning for a long time: taking the Kentucky and Tennessee Bourbon and Whiskey trails I’d been hearing so much about. It took quite some time to go through the distilleries on the maps but, trust me, it was worth it! Aside from the truly unique experience of visiting the distilleries and getting to admire their beautiful whiskey stills, I was happy to meet many others who also owned their own copper whiskey still and were just as passionate about home distilling as I was. So, I’ve decided to write a post about each of the trails, which will hopefully help you decide to go if you ever get the chance.

The Tennessee Whiskey Trail has been around since the winter of 2012. It came as the answer to home distillers and whiskey lovers who wanted to know about the active distilleries in the state, especially at a time when the micro-distillery culture was flourishing again. The trail now has 11 stops, but it’s constantly growing as new distilleries keep ‘firing their whiskey still’ and joining. It offers updated information on the existing distilleries, their location, products and history.

One of the things I really loved about the trail is that it takes you through a wide variety of places, from big commercial distilleries like Jack Daniel’s to small, family-run businesses and handcrafted whiskeys and moonshine distilleries. The funny thing about it is I loved seeing each of them just as much. As a copper whiskey still owner and moonshiner myself, I thought I’d really enjoy the micro-distilleries much more, but to my surprise, every place had its own sweet and spicy scents, smooth taste and production secrets. Also, the scenery was absolutely beautiful everywhere I went.

It was great to hear the stories behind the distilleries and realize that some of them had started off with just one copper whiskey still and naturally grew from there through their passion for distilling. Collier and McKeel, for example, is a Handcrafted Tennessee Whiskey distillery with a great story: the owner got into distilling at 16 through a science project for chemistry class. He only got to open the distillery after he turned 50, when the entire family got together and helped out with the production, bottling, labeling and distribution process. The Corsair Distillery was founded by two friends who also started out as home brewers, Ole Smokey was the state’s first legal moonshine distillery which now makes a wide range of flavored ‘shine and I’m not even going to go into how awesome it felt to see the Popcorn Sutton Distillery – for this one you have to request a tour beforehand though. 

The Jack Daniel’s tour was a complete experience which, aside from showing you a good time, also teaches you some pretty cool things about the business and the place. They’ve managed to integrate the entire Lynchburg experience into the tour and strongly recommend town visits to local attractions. It’s busy but worth it! You can tell they’ve not only been around making and perfecting their whiskey for so long, but also their marketing.

 The most interesting thing I learned about on  the trail has to be the Whiskey Fungus – a  black mold which grows when ethanol is  released into the atmosphere. As distilleries  release ethanol in their process of distilling and  ageing the liquor, the fungus would cover  anything in range. The tours have great stories  about how, during Prohibition, this was a smart  way for revenuers to find illegal distilleries. As  many of them were hidden in the woods, once the whiskey black mold popped up on an area of trees, they automatically assumed moonshine had been produced there the previous summer and added the location to their black list.

As you can see, I had a great time and I really think you should go see as many of the distilleries on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail as you can. I promise you’ll get to meet some great people, see some beautiful copper stills, find out a bunch of really cool things about distilling, and try some of the tastiest handcrafted moonshine and whiskey in the whole of the US.

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.

The distillation:

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.

 

 

 

Why Alembic Whiskey Still?

I have to admit, I can never get enough of watching the manufacturing process of an alembic copper still. It is a beautiful transformation which involves so much attention and skill that I always find fascinating So, since I’ve recently written a bit about why we use copper in making our whiskey still, today I’d like to also tell you why we chose the alembic shape.

The alembic is the oldest and most recognized still design. However, its history is as controversial and contradictory as they come. It is believed that the alembic takes its name from the Arabic al-anbiq, meaning still, and from the Greek ambix, which means cup or pot. It is also thought that the Egyptians were the first to ever build stills. In fact, journalist Fred Minnick, in his book: ‘Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey’, actually claims that an Egyptian woman was the first inventor of the alembic still. However, other sources claim that it was the Saracena alchemists who conducted the first scientific studies on distillation and they attribute the invention of the alembic still to Muslim alchemists in the Middle Ages, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan. The spreading of distillation and of the alembic still is also thought to have been done by the Arabs. Some believe that grappa, the Italian spirit obtained from grape pomace, was produced for the first time in Sicily when Arabs introduced the alembic and from there it spread all over Italy. Alembic stills then went on to be developed even further on the Italian territory.

Regardless of who it really was that invented and first used it, the alembic is still very much used in the present day, through models which try to stay true to its original shape but also through modern day pot stills, which are considered descendants of the alembic. The reason for that, which is also the main reason we use it, is exactly its long lasting history, its tradition and the impressive period over which it has been developed and perfected.

Thanks to its beautiful, sensual curves, the alembic copper still can simply be displayed, or pass for, a unique decoration – especially if we look at the smaller 1 gallon copper whiskey still. However, it is also perfectly functional as a moonshine still or for a wide range of spirits, including: Whiskey, Rum, Scotch, Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka, Tequila and Schnapps, as well as essential oils.

The alembic resembles a huge onion shape, which enables an easy release of the alcohol from the mixture. It is made up of 3 parts: the alembic pot, the swan neck lid and the condensing unit. The liquid in the pot is heated or boiled, the vapors rise and pass through the narrow ‘swan neck’ pipe and then through a serpentine coil, a cold-water bath condenses the vapors in the coils, converting them back to liquid form.

Due to its distinctive onion shape, the alembic copper whiskey still we offer can only be handmade and is skillfully built by master craftsmen, from plain sheets of cooper to a complex work of art. So, if you are looking to buy a copper still online, you are not just acquiring a functional object but a true piece of craftsmanship with a unique and impressive history.

 

 

 

Know Your Spirits

Quite a while back, when I first got into distilling, I had trouble telling the difference between many popular spirits. The more I looked into it, the more interesting details about their different ingredients, areas and types of production I found. So I started to keep a record of this information for each drink I was researching, which came in really handy whenever I wanted to try something new. I recently came across the notes and thought it would make a good post, especially for those of you who are considering using your whiskey still to make a different spirit or use a new recipe.

Whiskey

Whiskey or whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Whiskey is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide and comes in different types, depending where in the world it’s produced. The typical common characteristics of are the fermentation of grains, distillation and aging in wooden barrels. American whiskeys are made from cereal grain and, depending on the main grain the initial mash contains (over 51% of corn, rye, malted barley or wheat), there is a diversity of subcategories. Adding coloring or flavoring is not allowed. They are aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey which is usually not aged. Whiskey which is aged for a minimum of two years is also called straight.

Blended whiskey is a mixture that contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskeys and, separately or in combination, whiskey or neutral spirits, and may also contain flavorings and colorings

Bourbon

Bourbon is also a subcategory of American whiskey. It is a distilled spirit which is strongly associated with the state of Kentucky. The typical mash for bourbon is a minimum of 51% corn, with the rest made up of wheat, rye and/or malted barley. It is aged in new, charred-oak barrels and distilled to no more than 80% abv. It enters the barrel for aging at a maximum of 62.5% abv and is bottled at 40% abv or more. Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period but if it is aged for at least two years and has no added colorings or flavorings, it may be called straight bourbon. Blended bourbon must contain at least 51% straight bourbon.

Scotch

Scotch is a carefully regulated type of whisky, which needs to follow very strict standards. First of all, it needs to be distilled in Scotland from malted barley at a level of less than 94.8% and wholly matured in oak casks of a capacity of maximum 185 gallons, for at least three years. No added substances are allowed, except for water and plain caramel coloring. Single malt Scotch whisky is produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. Scotch has a minimum strength of 40% abv.

Gin

Gin is a spirit that gets its distinct flavor from juniper berries, which are actually seed cones produced by different types of junipers. There are two types of gin: compound gin, which is simply obtained by adding natural flavorings, predominantly juniper, to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin and distilled gin. Distilled gin, out of which London Dry Gin is one of the most popular, is obtained through either distilling or re-distilling, together with the same signature botanics, which give it its unique taste.

There is also a difference between American and English gin. English gin is distilled at a slightly lower proof than the American, so it retains more of the character of the grains used. The minimum bottled alcoholic strength for distilled gin is 37.5% abv in Europe and 40% abv in the States.

Vodka

Vodka is one of the most common spirits worldwide, produced and distilled from a wide variety of ingredients, including grains such as sorghum, corn, rye or wheat (the last two being considered superior), but also potatoes. A common property of the vodkas produced in the United States and Europe is the extensive use of filtration prior to any additional processing including the addition of flavorings. However, this is not the case in the traditional vodka-producing nations, where distillers prefer to use very accurate distillation but minimal filtering, to preserve the unique flavor and characteristics of their product. Repeated distillation makes its ethanol level very high – final filtered and distilled vodka may have as much as 95–96% ethanol, which is why most vodka is diluted with water prior to bottling.

The standard for European vodka is 40% abv, while the American one is at least 30% abv.

Tequila

Tequila is a very distinct distilled beverage made entirely from the blue agave plant and produced exclusively in certain parts of Mexico. The plants, which are very rich in sugars, are slowly baked to break down into simple sugars, then shredded or mashed to obtain the agave juice which is used for tequila. The juice is left to ferment and then distilled. It takes a second distillation to obtain the silver tequila which can be bottled or aged in wooden barrels, usually oak, to obtain other types of tequila such as reposado (2-12 months), añejo (1-3 years)or extra añejo (over 3 years).

Tequila is somewhere between 31-55% abv.

Rum

Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made fro sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice and is mostly produced in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it developed, although a large number of countries now produce it, including the US. After the fermentation of molasses or juice, followed by the distillation process, most rum is aged for at least one year in wooden casks or stainless steel tanks – which determines the different types and colors. For dark and spiced rums, caramel and other spices may be added to adjust the color of the final product.

Rum is not a very standardized drink so its minimum alcohol content varies between 40-50% abv.

Brandy

There are three main types of brandy and a very wide variety of subcategories of these, from different areas. The general term of brandy refers to grape brandy, which is produced by the distillation of fermented grapes and generally contains 35-60% abv. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, some are simply colored with caramel, while some brandies use a combination of both aging and coloring. Depending on the area, it could be single or double distilled and aged for different periods of time.

Fruit brandies are distilled from fruit other than grapes. Apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, elderberries, raspberries and blackberries are the most commonly used. Fruit brandy usually contains 40% to 45%, is often colorless and does not require aging. Some of the most popular examples are German schnaps, Eastern European palinka or rakia.

A third type of brandy is pomace brandy (or marc), which is produced by fermentation and distillation of the grape skins, seeds, and stems that remain after grapes have been pressed to extract their juice for making wine. Most pomace brandies are neither aged nor colored. Greek tsipouro and Italian grappa are popular examples of this type of brandy.

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy, produced only in the Cognac region of France. For a distilled brandy to be allowed the name cognac, it needs to meet certain legal requirements. First of all, if must be made from at least 90% Ugni blanc grapes  (for the true crues), twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in French Limousin oak barrels. Cognacs which are not cru can also use different grape varieties from the region. Most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement, to increase their taste and value.

 The final produce averages at about 40% abv.

As you can see, each type of distilled alcohol is unique and usually requires different ingredients, but also different distilling and aging processes. I have not gone into the specifics of their distilling but if you’d like to know more or want to experiment with new recipes, let me know and I’ll treat them separately in more detail.

Why Copper Whiskey Still?

I have been asked by some of our customers why we only manufacture copper stills. Of course, most ‘shiners have heard of the advantages of copper but it seems not all of its properties are as well-known. So I thought I’ll research this in detail so you’ll understand why I personally prefer using a copper whiskey still.

Stills can be made from a wide variety of materials, including aluminum, brass, iron, glass, steel or clay. However, the majority of alcohol stills today is made out of either stainless steel or copper. Although more expensive, copper is still preferred over steel, not only to keep the tradition but also because of its unique characteristics. Copper has been used for centuries. Old time moonshiners in the Appalachian hills used copper and modern commercial distilleries use it too. Here are some of its main properties, which explain how copper helps turn your mash into tasty moonshine.

The distinctive and most important property of copper is the fact that it reacts with alcohol on a molecular level. It produces a chemical reaction which removes the sulfur compounds that result naturally from yeast while fermenting. As you probably know, sulfur is quite a foul tasting element and having it develop in your distilled spirit or essential oil can give it quite an off taste and smell.

Copper has a very high thermal and electrical conductivity which helps distribute the heat evenly and cool the vapors.

Copper is a resilient but malleable material, it can last you a very long time but is also easily cut, pounded and stretched into the desired shape, which comes in handy especially in the case of the distinctive ‘onion’ shaped alembic.

Copper is very resistant to corrosion, especially under extreme temperatures and humidity. This explains why copper artifacts in great condition have been found in various archaeological sites, some dating back to ancient Egypt and Rome.

Another impressive property of copper is its scientifically proven antimicrobial effects. Copper destroys a wide range of bacteria and viruses. Copper doorknobs are used by hospitals to reduce the transfer of disease. Also bacteria are kept away from our drinking water through copper tubing in plumbing systems - the Romans were the first to discover this and used copper to improve public health. Copper also prevents the production of ethyl carbonate, which is a toxic substance formed from cyanides.

And finally, copper improves the quality of the final product when the mash is not biologically perfect, as well as its aroma, making your moonshine sweeter.

So even though stills made out of stainless steel may be cheaper and more durable, the advantages of using a copper still for your moonshine can’t be overlooked. And, to be honest, I wouldn't give that bright red-orange shine for any silver glow!

The History of Moonshine


Making moonshine is one of the activities which goes way back in American history and has survived impressive obstacles, from high taxes and illegality, to diminished quality and the threat of large commercial producers.

People started making their own moonshine right after the American Revolution in the 1770s. As the state was weak and struggling to pay its war debts, a federal tax on liquors and spirits was placed. But people were already having a hard time simply getting by, not to mention paying their now oppressive taxes to the state, so they began to make their own alcohol.

The interesting thing is this didn’t start off as a hobby or for personal consumption purposes. For a large majority, this was actually their way to survive. Farmers could turn their corn into profitable whiskey, and the extra income helped them feed their families and keep their assets, as the taxes were so high they barely got by. Federal agents, called Revenuers, were attacked when they came around to collect the tax; there are even famous stories which talk about some having been tarred and feathered. There were rebellions and constant clashes between moonshiners and authorities, with some of the most famous gun fights having taken place in those times. As these conflicts escalated in the 1860s, together with the state trying to fund the Civil War from excise taxes, the Temperance Movement, which sought to ban alcohol altogether, became more and more popular.

The greatest ‘blessing’ for moonshiners came in 1920 when nationwide Prohibition went into effect, the law that banned alcohol sale, manufacture, transportation (bootlegging) and consumption. Suddenly, with no legal alcohol available, moonshine was in such great demand that moonshiners could barely keep up with orders. This resulted into the production of poor quality, sugar-based or watered-down moonshine. Organized crime flourished as speakeasies opened in every town – secret saloons with hidden doors, passwords and escape routes in case of federal raids. In many rural towns, small speakeasies and blind pigs were operated by local business owners. The poor quality bootleg liquor sold there was responsible for a shift away from 19th century 'classic' cocktails, which celebrated the raw taste of liquor, to new cocktails aimed at masking the taste of rough moonshine.

When Prohibition ended, in 1933, the market for moonshine collapsed. With commercial distilleries producing on large scales, alcohol became cheaper and making moonshine was not a means to an economic end anymore. However, moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and '70s. Even today, many prefer to make their own moonshine. Whether out of passion for distilling or the simple desire to defy government authority, moonshiners still form an impressive community in the United States.

 

source: www.old-picture.com
The photograph illustrates Lt. O.T. Davis, Sergt. J.D. McQuade, George Fowler of Internal Revenue Service and H.G. Bauer with the largest still ever taken in the national capitol and bottles of liquor.

Moonshine Around the World - My new Greek friend: Ouzo

Last week, at a barbecue at one of my friend’s place, I met a funny Greek guy named Panos who had recently moved to the States. He also brought a bottle of ouzo, which had been homemade by his father back home, in the North of Greece. As I told him that I use a copper still for my homemade moonshine, he was quite happy to tell me about the way they distill their own alcohol back home.

Panos said Greeks also share a great passion for home distilling, which they mostly do in copper stills they call ‘kazani’. For ouzo, they use high percentage ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin (96%). The distinct liquorish-like taste comes from a mixture of spices they add while distilling the alcohol: aniseed, star anise, coriander, angelica root, cloves, fennel, cinnamon or other spices, depending on the region it’s made in. It’s important that the spices are dry, as they give out a stronger aroma, and depending on what mix of spices you use, you have to weigh them carefully in order to get a good balance. The water dilution is next, before which the Greeks in the South also add sugar. The final ABV is usually between 40 and 50 percent. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif, alongside a plate of appetizers.  The drink can be served very cold, in order to form crystals when it’s served in small shot glasses or, like we had it, with water, which makes it turn milky white. Panos explained that this happens because of the anethole, the essential oil found in anise and fennel, which is soluble in alcohol but not in water. He promised next time he’ll also bring a bottle of homemade Tsipouro, a Greek drink made from the residue left over from the wine press, which is produced differently than ouzo as it also includes fermentation and multiple distillations.

As I got home, I was curious to learn more about ouzo so I looked it up. I found out that it actually started off as an anise flavored version of tsipouro, made by a group of 14th century monks in a monastery on Mount Athos. Modern ouzo distillation took off at the beginning of the 19th century following Greek independence. The Island of Lesbos claims to have been the originator of the drink and it’s still one of the major producers. The now standard method of production using copper stills was only adopted in the early 1930s.

I also found out that Greeks use it as traditional medicine. It’s considered to be a very good antiseptic, given its alcohol levels, but also as treatment for a headache or flu, if you have a warm glass before going to bed. Panos even mentioned that his grandmother used cloths dipped in ouzo for tight muscles or joint pains, but that other also claimed it’s good to relief stomach cramps or asthma, if you place the cloth on your chest.

I really enjoyed the homemade drink so I’m now considering trying a homemade ouzo recipe of my own. I’ll try to find a good mix of spices and give it a go as Panos said the best distillation time for it is in November. I’ll keep you posted on the results but feel free to let me know of any good ouzo recipes you’ve tried!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pumpkin moonshine infusion – the Halloween Special

You know how I always say that one of the joys of owning my own whiskey still is being able to experiment with mixed drinks and have fun with making something new for every occasion? Well Halloween has to be one my favorite holidays, it’s wacky, colorful and most of the time involves a good party with my friends so I definitely need to come up with an exciting party drink for this one! And, since I've promised to host the fun this year, I want to make sure I've got some nice drinks that I can use my homemade moonshine with.

I remembered an old pumpkin pie infusion recipe I got online which I once tried out with vodka and came out really nice so this time I thought I’d try it with my homemade moonshine and see if it’s just as delicious. If it’s one thing we've got plenty of, this season, it’s pumpkins!

Basically, what I did was roast 1lb of pumpkin peel, together with some honey, for about 45 min. I then took the peels out of the oven and covered them with water in a saucepan, let them boil and simmer for almost an hour. I blended the result with a Mason jar of moonshine, and then strained it through a cloth to remove the pulp. I let it cool off and then used it to make some funky, colorful cocktails, which came out absolutely delicious.

This one’s definitely going on the Halloween menu!

Moonshine Around the World - Making a Traditional European Fruit Brandy

You already know by now that having a whiskey still is not just a trifle for me; it’s both a passion and a necessity. For me, my whiskey still is not just a decoration object (thou it makes a pretty good one); it is my trusted friend in creating great recipes. Which is why I am going to talk to you today about palinca, a brandy whose name means simply “distilled spirit”, which I learnt how to make when I was in Transylvania.

Hence, as I was visiting and getting acquainted with what the area has to offer (all the beautiful, medieval fortresses, as well as the Dracula’s Castle), I managed to get a live demo on how palinca is made. The result: I instantly realized the process can be easily replicated back home, too, as long as I have my moonshine still. Actually, what surprised me the most was exactly the simplicity of the process: very few ingredients, fermentation and two rounds of distillation.

And, as I always share my precious whiskey-still-related info with you guys, here is the recipe that I got: plums and water. Yes, that’s all; no sugar involved.

Now, firstly, after you select the plumbs, you need to subject them to a classical fermentation process. Leave as long as necessary, until the fruits have fermented properly. Once the fermentation is complete, you can continue with the first distillation process: put the plumbs in the whiskey still and let them boil at medium heat. This first liquid resulting is next boiled again, following the same distillation steps as for any second distillation. Make sure to discard any product that comes of the still before liquid temperature reaches 174 degree or the first  5-10 % of the total alcohol contain because it could contain methanol. Its extremely unlikely that there would be enough methanol in a 5 or 10 gallon batch to hurt anyone, but it tastes bad. 

I am happy I learned something new and I cannot wait to invite some friends over this autumn and prepare some really good palinca.

Looking forward to hear your opinions after trying the recipe.

Stone