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Distillation – An Introduction

Following our previous post on fermentation, it’s time to move on to the more exciting part of home distilling – that is, distilling itself.

Distillation is no rocket science, although it has since ancient times propelled mankind through various enterprises of the body and mind. Aristotle was apparently preoccupied with the “exhalation” of wine, Greek alchemists had lots of fun with it too, in China people might have been distilling since the Jin and Southern Song dynasties – which not only sound like long long time ago (early Current Era), but also remarkably appropriate for our matter at hand.

Distillation is the process of boiling a mixture to separate the more volatile fluid (with a low boiling point) from the less volatile fluid. The nonvolatile particles stay in the residue, which in our case is discarded.

Direct distillation of alcohol can yield at best only by constant boiling of a mixture of alcohol and water (at 172º F) that contains 97.2% alcohol by volume (194.4 proof), because this mixture boils at 18º F lower than pure alcohol – this might sound too good to be true, and it is: don’t expect more than 190 proof alcohol from your home whiskey still.

If alcohol is redistilled several times to 170 proof or better, it will be a neutral spirit and all but free from those pesky hangover inducing components, the volatile acids, fusel oils, ethers, aldehydes and esters produced by fermentation. Commercial whiskey is distilled out at a much lower proof specifically to keep these components extracted from the grain, to give a distinct flavor to the liquor (and, alas, the distinct hangover).

But you can control the amount of impurities, using the most basic still – it only needs a heat source, a boiler to heat the mash, a thermometer to measure temperature, a condenser to cool and condense the vapors and a receiver to collect the distillate. The pot

The heat source is a variable you should take into account. An electric stove is recommended because it’s easy to control and reduces risks of alcohol reaching an open flame. Then again, distilling outdoors on an open fire is unquestionably more fun, but please be careful.

Whatever the heat source, always make sure all fittings are airtight, to prevent leakage of alcohol or its vapors.

Once you’ve got your fermented mash and the still all safely set up, you’re ready to run.

Using a basic whiskey still will require three or four consecutive distillations – runs – to produce a pure, hangover proof distillate.

Brandy, for instance, is distilled from wine, either grape or other fruit. Fermentation of fruit not only produces ethyl alcohol, but also methyl – toxic “wood alcohol” – and lots of fusel oils; it requires several runs and aging, which will have you lose a consistent percentage of the initial product but will grant you some fine liquor.

Stay tuned for a detailed run through the consecutive runs.

Posted by Jason Stone on


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