How to Make Moonshine
It has been legal to make wine at home since the end of prohibition, and legal to make beer since 1978, but it's still illegal to distill spirits for beverage purposes without going through so much fuss and bother that the government admits flat out that it's "impractical." That's too bad, because homemade moonshine is incredibly frugal. (See also: 21 Great Uses for Beer)
Making moonshine is easy. In one sense, making any alcoholic beverage is easy, because the yeast do all the work. But moonshine is especially easy because running it through a still makes all the delicate balancing of flavors that mark a great beer or wine irrelevant.
I learned most of what I know about moonshine from the classic book Possum living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money by Dolly Freed. (A great book and well worth reading.)
[Updated 2010-01-14 to add:; I've just learned that Tin House books has reissued Possum Living! It's wonderful to see this classic once again available a reasonable price.]
Alcoholic beverages all start with yeast and with sugar for the yeast to eat. The sugar for wine usually comes from grapes (although other fruits are used, especially for homemade wine). The sugar for beer usually comes from malted barley (although other grains are also used). The sugar for commercially produced spirits can come from almost anything — corn for bourbon, barley for scotch, rye for rye, sugar cane for rum, and so on. For moonshine, what you want is the cheapest sugar you can find. Dolly Freed found that the cheapest sugar she could find was white granulated sugar. Nowadays, corn syrup might be cheaper.
Let me take a moment here to praise yeast. I'm a huge fan of yeast. They work tirelessly to make our bread and our booze, then uncomplainingly give up their lives that we may eat and drink. If there were an American Yeast Council, I'd want to be their spokesman.
The main difference between brewer's yeast and baker's yeast is that brewer's yeast has been bred to survive a higher alcohol content. That lets wine makers work with natural fruit juices that have a high concentration of sugar and get a higher concentration of alcohol before the yeast die of alcohol poisoning. If you're going to make your own sugar solution to grow the yeast in, though, you can just make the sugar solution's strength match what the yeast can convert before they die. It all comes out even with no waste.
According to Dolly Freed, it is a happy coincidence that 5 pounds of sugar in 3 gallons of water works out just right for ordinary baker's yeast.
[Updated 2007-12-30 to add:
A lot of people have asked how much yeast to add. I answered that in comment #16 below, but that's an obscure place to look for the answer, so I'm copying what I said up here.
I'd add one packet.
Since the yeast reproduce, it almost doesn't matter how much you add — after 20 minutes you've got twice as much, so if you add half as much it changes your total fermentation time from 10 days to 10 days 20 minutes.
All you need to do is add enough that your yeast overwhelms any wild yeast that happen to get in. (There are wild yeast in the air everywhere, so you really can't avoid them.)]
There are lots of good books on making beer and making wine. Any of them will describe the fermentation process, but very briefly you just:
- add sugar to the water
- bring to a boil (to kill any wild yeast in it and make it easy to dissolve the sugar)
- wait until the temperature comes down to 110°F (so you don't kill your own yeast)
- add yeast
The fermenting liquid is called the "must." You want to leave it loosely covered to keep other things from getting into it (wild yeasts, mold spores, etc.), but the yeast produce carbon dioxide as well as alcohol and you want to make sure the carbon dioxide can easily escape. If you seal it up tightly, it could explode.
Give it 10 to 25 days (depending on various things, but mainly how warm it is). You'll know its done when it:
- quits bubbling
- begins to turn clear
- no longer tastes sweet
Now, if you were making beer or wine you'd have several more steps: bottling, aging, etc. Making moonshine, though, all you need to do is distill the stuff. For that, you need a still.
You can buy a still, but you probably don't want to. (They cost money, and the federal government — which scarcely polices this activity at all — probably does keep tabs on people who buy stills from commercial outlets.)
A still, though, is just:
- a pot with a lid with a hole in it
- a tube, closely fit to that hole, running to a jar
- something to cool that tube
You bring the pot to a boil, the alcohol evaporates, the vapor goes out the hole, into the tube, and the condenses back into liquid alcohol.
Conveniently, an old-fashioned pressure cooker is a pot with a hole in the lid. Modern pressure cookers won't work as well, because they have a fancy valve to release the pressure, but with an old-fashioned one you just remove the weight and then fit the tube to the valve.
If you've got some room, you can just make the tube long enough and you don't need to do anything extra to condense the alcohol. Using a tube that coils some can save space. Alternatively, you can run your tube through a sleeve and run cold tap water through the sleeve. (Dolly Freed has a diagram of just such a setup.)
The things to be sure of here are that your entire set-up needs to be of food-quality materials: copper, aluminum, stainless steel are all fine. Plastics are iffy as some may leach stuff into the alcohol. Lead is right out, as is putting the pieces together with solder that includes lead.
Make sure the hole can't get plugged up, which could lead to your still exploding.
Set up your still and bring it to a light boil. Pretty soon you'll have almost pure alcohol dripping into your jar. The water content of the distillate will gradually increase. At some point a sample taken from the tube will no longer taste of alcohol, and you're done.
As I said, it's too bad it's illegal. Otherwise you could make some pretty good booze (well, let's say barely drinkable booze) for the price of a few pounds of sugar.