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The art of moonshining is just that, an art. There are a million-and-one ways to do it and almost all of them are correct. The amount of information available on the subject is large and confusing enough to immediately crush the spirit of a new distiller before they ever take one step forward. The purpose of this guide is to help a complete novice moonshiner successfully make his first batch of moonshine—start to finish. However, learning should not stop here. Whether it be whiskey, rum, vodka, or gin, there are many great people, resources, and books available that are full of great information on whatever pursuit you have in mind.
The principal of fermentation:
Whether you’re making beer, wine, or moonshine the fundamentals of creating alcohol from scratch are the same. Simply speaking, there are only three ingredients: water, sugar, and yeast. Yeast is a micro-organism that lives in water, eats sugar, and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as its byproduct (waste).
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 (100°C or 212°F) and alcohol (78.3°C or 173°F). In theory, if the temperature of a water-alcohol mixture is raised to 78.9°C (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.
Alcohol is extremely flammable, and can be explosive in its vapor form. Care, vigilance, and attention to detail should be practiced at all times during distillation and handling of any refined alcoholic products. Although distillation can be practiced indoors, it is not advisable to do so unless you have experience. Also, distillation should never be done with an open flame heat source while distilling indoors or other confined spaces.
Methanol is a deadly poison and even low amounts of exposure can cause optic nerve damage (blindness). It is created as a byproduct of fermentation, but in such small amounts that you typically do not need to remove it. However, it is common practice to do it as a precaution and to improve the taste of your product. Since methanol boils at 62.2°C (144°F), it will boil first when you are distilling and because of this you should discard the first ounce of alcohol per every 5 gallons of mash.
Distilling alcohol, even for home use, is illegal unless you have the proper government approval (both state and federal). Consult your local, state, and federal laws before attempting to distill legally. If you choose to distill illegally, know that if you are caught fines and/or jail time may be the consequence.