How to Make Moonshine

By Philip Brewer on 25 September 2007 (Updated 8 June 2011) 911 comments

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:

  1. add sugar to the water
  2. bring to a boil (to kill any wild yeast in it and make it easy to dissolve the sugar)
  3. wait until the temperature comes down to 110°F (so you don't kill your own yeast)
  4. add yeast
  5. wait

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.

moonshine 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.

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Guest's picture
rebel

Hello Zorcy and Dave,
Sorry it's been awhile since I have been on. Have been trying to make batches on my own. Ran into many problems and have learned a lot. BUT......... I have a problem that I can not get rid of. Don't know what is going on. The alcohol comes out clear but then after a while not so clear. Smells and tastes fine, I don't think I am doing anything wrong. I wash everything before and after use. Didn't have this problem until a couple of batches ago. Please advise me on how to keep the alcohol clear. I'm turning to the best to help me out. Some advise before my next run would be greatly appreciated.

Guest's picture
Zorcy

Rebel,

I would start with the column. Make sure it is clean. You could also be getting some oils. What are you using for your mash? If it is fruit, than just run it through a little slower and pull off the heads. That will sepperate the oil a bit better. Though it may taste good, you could still get a wicked hangover from it if its the heads and tails mixed in. Watch your temps and cuts.

If you have a large batch already done that is cloudy, just run it through again.

Guest's picture
Rebel

Zorcy,
Thanks for getting back to me. My mash was 2 six gallon fermenters filled with 5 gallons water, 10 pounds sugar, 4 cups cracked corn, 1 package turbo yeast each. The column was cleaned the night before. Also cleaned the pot. The temp maintained at 195 till the end. The mash produced 1 gallon of shine. When the smell changes I stop running. Am I running too hot? I use a turkey fryer base that has no heat gauge. I have been trying different settings until I found one that seems to work. I do remember one batch I turned the heat too high, cooked it too fast and made "angry shine". A few sips and it would put you in a bad mood, so I don't run that hot anymore. I do throw out the first half cup and then keep the rest until smell changes.
There are two things that I can think of that I have changed. The first thing is the sugar and I have changed the size of bag I buy but not the brand. The second thing is boiling my cracked corn. I have always washed the corn and then added it to the fermenter but now I wash it and then boil it then dump it in the fermenter. I don't know if this makes a difference but wanted to let you know. Please advise after reading this information! Thank you for all your help so far!

Guest's picture
Zorcy

Rebel,

Cooking the corn does make a difference. Corn oil is derived from corn, so when you cook it, you release the oil. Your temps are high to start out. Bring it up slow to 160. Methanol will start to release around 150. Hold it there for a bit and get rid of the heads. When you are ready, slowly bring it to about 180. You can take it up just a bit, but try not to boil it like veggies on the stove. As you collect, put a jar on ice to cool down. I think you will be able to see when it starts to cloud. That is when you will need to stop or turn down as slow as you can to not take the oil with it. You can always double or triple distill it. You just add water back to your spirits and run through again. Each time removes impurities, but it also takes away the flavours.

Guest's picture
Rebel

Zorcy,
Thanks for advise. Will run again in a couple of weeks and see how it turns out!

Guest's picture
notawhopper

Last week I tried to make up a batch of mash using pot distiller's yeast that I had opened 6 months ago and stored in a ziplock bag. I only made about a gallon batch and used the correct amount of yeast and sugar. I have balloons over my fermenting jugs to keep it clean. I have had no expansion of the balloons yet like I did in the past. The yeast seemed like it may have gotten a little moisture in it. Could it have gone bad? Can I still use my sugar water and add a different yeast? It looks like mold might be forming in the mash.

Guest's picture
Zorcy

Notawhopper,

Looks like it died. I have kept yeast in a sealed bag in the fridge for a year now. It has to be cool and dry.
You should be able to add some yeast starter to it and kick it off. I am worried about the mold you have. That will fight the yeast and give you some off taste or even poison. Just dump it. You have some type of contaminant in you mash. I had some come over with the corn. Since we do not cook it, just use hot water, it can still have living cells. Best of luck.

Zorcy

Guest's picture
HenryHuggleMonster

Hoping I can get an answer I've been trying to figure this out for years.. My Grandfather Henry McDaniels was a Constable and moonshine runner ( how convenient) in Greenup KY back in the 30's He has a still in Gainsville FL museum. He passed away when I was very young and My father also. I am getting up in years and I am feeling a sense that I need to learn about this to carry on for my son and his. Family tradition is important to me and I have missed out on this completely. I know a great deal about stills/processes etc from watching them.. The 1 thing I have no clue about is how much corn to sugar to water. example if I have a 10g pot and I put 5 gallons of water in it how much corn and sugar do i use?? Any help would be great as I've tried to figure this out for about a year.

Guest's picture
Zorcy

HenryHuggleMonster,

Unfortunately, the exact recipe is what gives it the same taste. You can get it close, but it will take trial and error. A purest would omit the sugar, but for practicality, you need sugar. You could just use the sugar wash recipe and add in some corn for flavour. You can look back through the post and see an all corn recipe and all sugar recipe. For every 1/5 of sugar you take away, add 1/5 of the corn recipe. Once you have enough corn, you can start to cut back in smaller ratios until you hit it just like you remember.

Look on the bright side, it's fun and you can mix the products later to achieve a perfect flavour.

Zorcy

Guest's picture
Hootch maker

Is there a benefit to taste or quality to distill more than once, is it neccessary or no

Guest's picture
Zorcy

Hootch maker
Consider distilling an ultimate filter. The more you run through a filter, the cleaner it gets. Now consider spring fed water. It is not pure, but it taste great. It's the minerals and extras that make it taste so good. You have to filter out the sand and leaves, but leave the flavours. When you distill, you do the same. You take out what you want removed, but don't distill so much you loose the flavour you wanted. When you are using fruits or grains, you want flavour left. If you have used sugar only, then you just want the alcohol and can distill away.