Whiskey Still Co. Blog

Popcorn Sutton's Moonshine Recipe

Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners" broke new ground in the long tales of moonshining in the U.S. The tv series surged in popularity with its portrayal of individuals who produce illicit alcohol, what's known to us as moonshine.  

Among the guys featured in the show, a great Appalachian bootlegger named Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton had the limelight. In 1999 (prior to his life being featured in the show), Mr. Sutton published “Me and My Likker,” an anecdote of his life and moonshining practices. In his book, a couple of times he mentioned a basic moonshine recipe, with a few different variations that he used when he was "putting up a barrel of beer". Here's Popcorn's recipe from his book:


25 pounds coarse ground white corn meal, enough to fill half of your barrel/container  
50 pounds of sugar – 1 pound of sugar per gallon of water of total volume  
1 gallon of malt – can be corn, barley, rye or a combination. 


  • Boil the water and pour over the cornmeal to cook.  Allow them to cool to the touch. Add sugar and malt and stir in well. Leave it for a day. The following day the mix should be bubbling on top, stir it one last time and then leave it.
  • You see here that we did not mention any addition of yeast, Popcorn said that the malt (any kind or combination of corn, barley, rye) is what makes it work — so he's using it here as alternative to distiller's yeast. Also, he's after the idea that wild yeast will start the fermentation within the mash.  
  • After a couple of days, when all activities in the mash has stopped, it should be ready to be distilled. Use a siphon or a bucket to transfer the wash to the still.

For instructions on how to distill, click here. Here is another moonshine recipe.

Whiskey 101

If you just love whiskey and you can’t wait to get your hands in making one, here are some information you may want to know before you start outright.

Whiskey (also spelled as whisky) is a distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash, it could be corn, rye, wheat or the more common malted barley. Depending on the ingredients, whiskeys vary with taste and aroma. Copper pot stills are more commonly used to distill whiskey, since its incomplete distillation mechanisms retain the mash’s flavor and give rise to the desired taste of the spirit.

After the alcohol is extracted, the distillate is placed in oak barrels for a period of time to mature. The charred oak cask plays the utmost role in getting a great final product. Aging allows the free chemical interaction between the alcohol and the wood thus giving the caramel color of whiskey, adding the oak flavor and making it finer. Oak chips may also be added and make the whiskey age with it. It is important to note that whiskey never ages in a bottle, only in the oak barrel. Also whiskey only changes its taste within 10 years of aging time, after such period keeping it in the cask will only make a little difference in the taste.

In the US, this liquor can be distilled up to 80% alcohol by volume (ABV) but drinking alcohol at 80% ABV can make a terrible drinker. So whiskeys are diluted to lower the proof and make it tolerable for human consumption.

Some of the American whiskeys are (percentage mentioned as regulated by law):

  • Bourbon whiskey – has at least 51% of corn in the mash, usually made from sour mash (a mix of new batch mash and earlier fermented mash)
  • Corn whiskey – made from 80% corn mash, based on a typical American moonshine; it doesn’t have to be aged – if it will be, aging is usually brief (about 6 months)
  • Malt whiskey – a whiskey produced from at least 51% malted grain (usually barley) mash
  • Rye whiskey – made from at least 51% rye mash

So enough of this! You want to make moonshine or whiskey? Here's one recipe, jump to this page.


Pot Still vs Reflux Still - what's the difference?


If you want beer or wine, the process is straightforward – toss some yeast into your sugar plus water of course, let it ferment in a container with an airlock, filter the liquid after to remove impurities then add some flavors if you wish and in a snap alcohol is ready to drink. But if you want something tastier and with a blowing kick then all you have to do is distill the wash and you’ll get a strong spirit. You can still do a lot of things with the distillate, you can age it in a barrel or mix some flavors to it. That sounds easy!

Distilling the fermented mash is simply separating the water from alcohol, with the aid of their boiling point differences, to increase the proof of the liquor. In this process a still is your best friend. The still can be made up of copper or stainless steel and is basically classified in two types: a pot and a reflux. Both kinds of still are better for certain tasks. Let’s quickly compare the two.

Pot Still

This type of still is one of the earliest apparatuses developed to distill alcohol, it has been used by early bootleggers in Appalachia to create moonshine. A pot still is a relatively uncomplicated distiller. All that’s needed is to heat the mash in it and once it boils the alcohol will start to evaporate. The vapors will flow naturally into the worm (a coil immersed in cold water) and condenses back to liquid.

Obviously every run makes one condensation process and so distilling is made in batches. Pot stills give an incomplete separation which is desirable if you want to retain the flavors of the mash. This is what’s wanted if you’re making moonshine, whiskey or brandy - pot stills make them thick-textured, flavorful and really tasty.

It could yield an alcohol of 60-80% proof however distilling the liquid repeatedly will increase the proof of the alcohol and improve purity (but lessens the flavor).

Reflux Still

Unlike pot stills, reflux stills are designed to create higher proof with little to no flavor alcohol. Inside the still is a fractioning column that allows the reflux of liquid to help condense the rising vapor and increase the efficiency of distilling, thus increasing purity. The taller the column and the more reflux liquid, the neutral the alcohol will be.

Reflux still is like a lot of pot stills assembled together that's why it can make multiple distillation in a single run. This is how vodka and rum are distilled and then just diluted to proof safe for human consumption.


Reference: homedistiller.org 


Parts of Alembic Pot Still

Alembic still is the earliest device used to extract alcohol, it’s said to be the ascendant of the modern pot still. It’s not surprising that the use of alembic stills has thrive until the modern distilling era, this is due to it’s effective functional design and craftsmanship.

Traditional alembic stills are made from copper, the metal that remains the best choice of both hobby and commercial distillers. The alembic design perfectly complements the several advantageous properties of copper in distilling alcohol.

The alembic has three basic parts namely, the retort pot, the onion head and swan neck and, the condenser and coil.

Parts of a Pot Still

The lower part of the still, which is the retort pot, is responsible for firing/heating. The pot resembles a cauldron with a flat bottom to stand still on a heating surface (usually an electric stove or a hot plate). This is where the fermented mash is boiled until alcohol, due to its lower boiling point relative to water, vaporizes and moves up the onion top.

As the wash is heated, the steam naturally rises and swirls around the onion-shaped head that sits atop of the pot. The vapors then slowly go through the swan neck pipe (also called the lyne arm), the delivery tube that connects the still to the condenser. The lyne arm angle, diameter and material all have an effect in the final distillate. The angle determines how heavy (or light) the flavor of the whiskey will be while the diameter controls the amount of vapor that can swirl through the pipe. The material, being copper, helps speed up the moving vapors, eliminates undesirable chemicals produced during fermentation and also improves the flavor.

From the lyne arm, the vapors move to the worm or the coil that sits inside the condenser (with a top and a bottom fitting). You simply put the supply hose into the condenser (almost to the bottom) and use the top outlet to prevent overflow. The water-filled condenser cools the alcohol vapors and turns it back into liquid, which then drips off through the bottom nozzle of the condenser. 

Some alembics are riveted (not soldered) and you may notice a "greenish paste" applied to the interior of the seams. This is a paste made from linseed oil and gypsum powder, a traditional way of sealing clearance stills. This will not affect the distillation process and the quality of your spirit.

Why Copper is Used in Stills


If you consider purchasing or building a whiskey still be mindful of the materials it is or it will be built out of. Safety is still the top priority, the still should make you an alcohol that is free of toxic contaminants and substances. Then, your still should be able to withstand changes in temperature and perform it’s expected distilling duties with safety.

Stainless steel and copper are the most commonly used materials in distilling spirits although the latter is sworn to be the best choice by most hobby and commercial distillers. Copper has been used to construct stills since the moonshining tradition started in the Appalachian hills and this has thrived up to the modern age of producing alcohol.

There are a good number of reasons why copper is preferably used to construct stills:

  • Copper has been known to have excellent anti-corrosive properties which can defy and hold out harsh and changing weather conditions especially when distilling outdoors.
  • This metal is resilient but exceptionally ductile and malleable making it easy to be shaped and suitable in constructing alembics and customized still designs. 
  • Unlike stainless steel that is relatively a poor conductor, copper is a much effective material in heat transfer. It evenly distributes heat and efficiently cools down the vapor. 
  • Several scientific researches have been recorded to prove the antimicrobial ability of copper. Certain studies have consistently attested to such antimicrobial effects of copper compared to stainless steel.
  • Copper absorbs sulfur compounds and yeast cells produced during fermentation and prevents the production of ethyl carbonate, a toxic chemical formed from cyanides. These stuffs are totally undesirable in the distilled alcohol.
  • Although the fermented mash is not microbiologically perfect, copper will help improve the quality and aroma of the final distillate.

It could be said that copper stills are  the most ideal equipment in distilling spirits. They’re safe, effective and classic beauties, no wonder why a lot of distillers drool over copper stills.

Reference: distillique.co.za




Blindness and Poisoning from Drinking Moonshine, Myth or Fact?

Prohibition, which was supposed to restrict the production, transportation and sale of liquors, ironically led Americans to produce homemade alcohol and rumrunners to smuggle forbidden substances. It was also the lawless decade of the 1920’s when bootlegging trade was in boomed operation.

Illegally produced alcohol was termed Moonshine, or called “hooch” and is said to be the original “Mountain Dew”. It used a still to extract the alcohol. During the Prohibition, reported cases of poisoning and blindness spread among patrons of moonshine.

Methanol ingestion from drinking moonshine is long riddled to cause blindness. In the process of making alcohol, methanol is produced by fermenting grains or fruits high in pectin. When methanol is consumed, it changes into formaldehyde which can cause damages to the eyes and in severe cases blindness. This however could be avoided, the first few ounces that come out of the distiller, which contain the methanol, only need to be discarded. The fears of getting blind from drinking ‘shine are not founded, the false horrors about methanol in moonshine were only deepen because of some bootleggers who intentionally included antifreeze such as methanol to cut the alcohol so to earn more profit.

Cases of poisoning happened due to early moonshiners who were less cautious in their production. Some bootleggers used car radiators that were lead-contaminated as condenser to distill alcohol. This adversely resulted to several incidents of lead poisoning during the 1920s. Fortunately, the modern day whiskey stills are assembled using lead-free solder to avoid potential health hazard.

Mad bootlegger’s tales are things of the past. The Prohibition experiences became the grounds for creating better distilling practices of today. Modern day hobbyists make their own “hooch” following explicit safety guidelines. These set of instructions ensure that moonshine is safe for human consumption. When prepared properly, moonshine is as safe to drink as the spirits you buy in a store.

The ABC's of Moonshining

If you ever decide to engage in this home distilling hobby, here's a primer of some points you have to familiarize before you start. Just invest on these information and also do your own research. Before you know it you can be perfecting your very own homemade liquor!


Everything starts with the mash! First, you'll need an ingredient to source sugar. You can either use sugar rich fruits like grapes or any edible fruits or starch rich plants like corn or potatoes, then of course water and yeast. So you basically mix the ingredients in their correct amounts.

The mash will be left to ferment. Fermentation happens when yeast breaks down the simple sugars and convert it into ethanol. The mash will yield about 14%-20% of alcohol by volume.

After about 2-3 weeks or when all activities in the mash stops, the distilling process follows. Distillation will separate the alcohol from water. This is where we need the copper still. From the two, alcohol has a lower boiling point so it vaporizes first and moves to the coil or worm then gets condensed back to liquid. Ideally this is how we extract alcohol, however since the two liquids have boiling points close to each other they don't separate completely. Nevertheless, the obtained mixture will still have more alcohol than water.

So what we've just gotten is already the moonshine, that's good to go! But there are still a number of stuffs you can do with it. You can either cut, re-distill, filter, flavor or age the alcohol. These things will help increase the proof of your moonshine, add wonderful tastes to it or turn it into whiskey. Check this link for detailed information.



Homebrewing vs Home Distilling

Homebrewing beer and wine was forbidden in the US not until 1978 when a law repealled the Federal restrictions on this practice. An adult, in this case 21 years old or older, is now allowed to produce up to 100 gallons of beer or wine each year for personal consumption (selling the alcohol is a different story and requires a permit). On this liberal acceptance, America still kept a blind eye to decriminalize moonshining. Possessing a still and extracting alcohol as fuel is decent if you have a BATF permit however distilling spirits for private use is still illicit.

So what holds back Uncle Sam from embracing this rather similar practice?

Health risks are the primary alibis that the government posed to bow out from this argument, to mention lead poisoning and blindness caused by methanol ingestion from drinking 'shine. These notions were remnants of US prohibition period when some bootleggers used methanol to cut moonshine and increase profit, and used car radiators which are lead contaminated as condensers to distill alcohol. Obviously these things apply in a commercial set up, one who's after personal drinking wouldn't intentionally add wood alcohol to his liquor or use his automobile radiator which he knows is not safe to extract the spirit. Homemade spirits are really safe if properly and carefully prepared.

On a second opinion, the government of course will not simply withdraw the excise tax it imposed on distilled spirits. Per gallon of beer is taxed at 60c and at most $3.30 for wine, which are significantly smaller than $13.50 share for a gallon of spirit - that's enough loss in government revenue if moonshining is legalized don't you think? So perhaps the feds are just really concerned when they claim safety, or maybe not.

This video tells it all, great stuffs you ought to know!


" Why when you enjoy something would you wanna talk about it openly when you know that you could possibly be arrested for it! There's no harm, there's no foul...screw the law. " -reason.tv

Homemade Spirits, Are they Legal?

Every novice man in this distilling interest faces this simple however very critical question: Is it legal to distill your own alcohol? Let's be enlightened.

It is only legal in New Zealand and a few European countries, elsewhere it isn't - the punishment ranges from fines to imprisonment. In the United States, home distilling is practically illegal unlike homebrewing and winemaking. While it is fine to own a still, the federal law requires that a permit be secured before anyone can practice distilling alcohol.

Early 1920's when alcohol consumption was made illegal, home distillation rampantly unfolded among the Americans to defy the prohibition. The term "Moonshine" was then coined to refer to illegally distilled spirits. The ban was only lifted in 1933, after the law was amended.

The federal rules enforced by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) are just remnants of the Prohibition period, although officials still argue it's due to safety issues. Contrary, some states have already reformed their laws to open doors for more interested craft distillers. Class A-1 distiller's license for small producers encouraged more New Yorkers to engage in alcohol distilling since 2002. The license was made five times cheaper than the previous cost. In most states all sales have to occur in liquor stores which hinders small distillers to sell their products. But in 2008, Washington allowed serving spirits samples and direct selling to customers to utmost 2 Liters/day.

However our hands are tied with these restrictions, we see how distiller's guidebooks and stills for sale are widely accessible online. As the laws gradually change, we soon hope for America to appreciate home distilling again.

Sources: legallibations.com, wiki.homedistiller.org