How to moonshine 101, when buying a whiskey still or a moonshine still you must look at many factors: price, size, use, purity, and taste. Lets break these down and see what they mean for you—the beginner stove-top/backyard distiller.
Obviously this has a lot to do with what kind of moonshine still you are going to use.
To make or to buy? Making your own is not only rewarding, but can save you money. That being said, it will cost you a lot more time than you think to build, and in my case, cost me quite a bit more money as I learned about things I was doing wrong. If I got to do it over again would I buy a moonshine still outright? No, but I had time, and I was more interested in the making process then making mash recipes. Of course there are quite a few factors that affect price, and benefits to be had buying versus building. So read on and decide what's right for you.
If you want a moonshine still that will be displayed on a shelf when not in use, you definitely want to buy. Handcrafted stills from copper-smiths are far and away the most beautiful stills you'll see. The added bonus being of course: they're functional. I always get a kick out of people asking what's that? followed by why do you have that? My reply: "To make moonshine, of course!" A conversation shortly followed by a Mason-Jar sampling. Now, don't get me wrong, home-brew stills have a certain amount of rustic charm to them, and merit display themselves, but straight cut copper pipe sitting messily on a stainless steel pot with a hole cut in the lid can, only at it's best, ever claim 'charming,' not even close to the elegant curves of a traditional handmade copper pot still.
This is kind of the main point, isn't it? We're not going to delve too deep into all of the items that affect taste, i.e. mash recipe, water, carbon filters, yadda, yadda and such... This is only as it pertains to still construction. First, to copper or not to copper? The short answer is: making wine or beer, go stainless, for distilled spirits, go copper. There's all sorts of benefits to using copper, the two most notable are reducing sulfates (through an automatic reaction with the copper) and the additional taste copper can provide (the same reason you don't want it with beers and wines, ergo: stainless.) This isn't a big problem, well, not too much of a problem at all, just know copper is better but stainless is fine.
Reflux stills versus pot stills. It breaks down like this: reflux stills are high purity-low contaminate stills whereas pot stills are low purity-high contaminate stills. What does this mean? Well, with reflux stills (the ones with a long vertical tube coming directly off the still) the aim is to get an extremely pure product, free of contaminates (flavors). With these types of stills a purity of 95% or 190 proof is not uncommon. The only problem is that because they are so pure, the contaminates are lost in the process. This is sometimes desirable. For example: making your own fuel, making vodka (pure ethanol), or mixing with essences (this is great fun, and you should look more into it, trust me). Because of this, using a copper still offers no real advantage over stainless stills when going reflux. Now it's a bit different if your goal is to keep flavor. If you are experimenting with mash recipes you'll want to stick to a pot still. The low purity of these stills helps carry over the flavor of the mash, rather then wiping it clean. This is the type of still you see in the whiskey distilleries around the world, and the reason why they use them. With pot stills, copper is the way to go. It's better tasting, better looking, cheaper, and—if you make your own—easier to work with.
Commercial Pot Stills
The size of the still is determined by how much it can hold in it's main chamber. This is where you pour your mash in. Ideally, your mash size will equal your pot size. Having too much mash means you'll have to do two separate runs which can take substantially longer due to cool-down, clean and prep between runs. Running a smaller batch than your still is capable of is fine, but typically you'll waste money in terms of having bought a bigger moonshine still than you needed. On a personal note, big batches are a pain-in-the-butt to work with, especially when you get to the 20 gallon range. Big stills, big boiling pots, and big buckets. It's really a lot of stuff to have hanging around. Don't go big unless you've tried your hand at distilling and are craving more. The small stills are great as long as production is not your goal. They are awesome because you can try multiple recipes much more easily as everything you try to ferment can be boiled in a kitchen pot and fermented in a water jug or bucket. Small, easy, done. Small also has another advantage. Quick runs. Distilling a 20 gallon batch could take 4-6 hours whereas a few gallon batch is scarcely more than a couple. Much better for someone who wants to dabble, or try several recipes at a time.
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When you're starting out think: Electric. Electric. Electric. It's absolutely the way to go for smaller stills. If you're on a budget or making your own moonshine still you can use your electric stove as a reliable heat source. However, one thing to think about is spending a little bit of money for a hot-plate for the freedom to move around. This means you can use it outside, garage, or more importantly: next to the kitchen sink; this way you can put the condenser under a small trickle of the faucet rather than run cooling hoses for the condenser. The counterpoint to this is using a propane burner. For larger stills it will take entire too long to get up to temperature with a hot plate. The maximum I would suggest is a 10 gallon moonshine still. The obvious problem with a burner is that you can only use it outside. The lesser known con of a propane burner is the cost of fuel. Heat from propane is significantly higher than electricity. However, for reducing distillation times it cannot be beat! Consider using propane burners with 5+ gallon stills.
Hope this helps point you in the right direction—whatever way that may be for you—and welcome to the family!