Alcohol Distillation, Water Distillation

Important:

Currently, it is not legal to distill alcohol in the United States without
appropriate licensing from the governing bodies. The information given
here is intended for informational purposes, and should only be used by
those in countries where alcohol distillation is legal, or when the
appropriate licensing has been obtained. Gert Strand AB is not liable for
unlawful use of equipment.

Distillation of alcohol can be an extremely enjoyable and relaxing hobby,
and one which can be shared with your family and friends. Great pride comes from producing a spirit or liqueur that is superior to those commercially available. Home distillation of your own spirits and liqueurs also allows you to experiment with many different flavors, imparting your own special touch to traditional styles, as well as creating your own products, tailor made to your own tastes.

The basics in alcohol distillation

In order to distill your own alcohol, first, you must have a product that already contains alcohol. Distillation, as discussed earlier, does not actually make anything. It is simply a form of purification, allowing you to separate the alcohol from all other components in the given liquid. There are generally two types of alcohol containing products that you will distill- those intended for neutral spirits and/or for the addition of essence, and those intended to retain a varying degree of character from the base liquid.

While distillation of a neutral spirit is extremely straightforward, distilling flavored alcohol products can be considerably more involved. For this reason, we suggest that you begin with the basic procedures outlined below. While many people will continue to use this method almost exclusively, there can be much enjoyment and pride in producing a top quality whisky, rum, vodka, schnapps, etc., from scratch.

Still, this is a more advanced level of alcohol distillation, and one that should only be attempted after several basic successful distillations of neutral spirit.

In order to make alcohol, you will need three items- water, a source of sugar, and yeast to consume the sugar and convert it into alcohol. Each of these ingredients has a great bearing on the final quality of your product, as discussed below.

Yeast

Likely the most important single contribution to basic neutral spirit production is the selection of yeast. In order to produce the best quality fermented liquor to distill, it is necessary to use a yeast that produces a low number of volatile byproducts, while preferably also having a high tolerance to alcohol and, depending on fermentation conditions, tolerance to elevated temperatures.
We must always remember that yeast is a living organism, and as such, it requires favorable living conditions and optimal nutrition in order to perform its best.

In the basic process of fermentation, yeast consumes sugar and converts
it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Depending on the yeast strain, nutrition, and other factors such as temperature during fermentation, there are also varying amounts of byproducts produced. Obviously, it is desirable to produce a minimal number of byproducts during fermentation, and to do so we must avoid stress on the yeast. As stress on the yeast increases, we will see both an increase in byproduct production, as well as a decrease in the ability of the yeast to perform optimally, resulting in lower alcohol tolerance and possibly even a stuck fermentation.

Nutrition of the yeast is most easily handled by purchasing a high quality
Turbo Yeast. A good Turbo Yeast will contain not only a large dosage of a premium yeast strain, but also a well matched nutrient, mineral, vitamin mix that is tailor made to suit the specific strain of yeast. This will ensure that the yeast has all of its nutrition requirements considered, even when used in a nutrient deficient mash of simply sugar and water. Having worked with many Turbo Yeasts, the highest quality available in my opinion are those in the Prestige brand.

With optimal nutrition taken care of, the number one stress on the yeast
is elevated temperature during distillation. While this is not a concern for most of the year for many people, elevated fermentation temperatures will not only cause an increase in byproduct production, but also decrease the yeast’s tolerance to alcohol. Although yeast produces alcohol as a product of fermentation, it also has a tolerance to only a certain percentage of alcohol. Once the liquid reaches this level, the yeast will go dormant and settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.

As the temperature of the liquid increases, the stress causes a reduction in the alcohol tolerance of the yeast, thus, in order to obtain the maximum alcohol percentage from fermentation we must keep the liquid temperature within the limits of the yeast strain.

While the maximum temperature tolerance for most Turbo Yeasts is listed on the package, it is important to remember that this is the maximum working temperature of the yeast. Elevating the temperature above this limit will result in the yeast dying, and fermentation will immediately cease. Also, due to the high amount of stress created as your temperature nears this limit, the byproduct production of the yeast increases dramatically. As a rule of thumb, it is best to remain a minimum of 5 degrees Celsius below the recommended maximum temperature for the specific yeast. This will not only decrease the
byproduct production, but also insure that the alcohol tolerance of the yeast strain remains at its maximum.

Water

Although many people use basic tap water for their fermentation, it is highly suggested that you obtain purified water. During fermentation, you are going to push the yeast to perform to its limits, and doing so requires a good environment. Tap water contains many chemicals that are harmful to yeast, and although it will in most cases work in this environment, it cannot do so to the best of its ability. In fact, the root of most stuck fermentations (a term for a fermentation that does not finish completely) can be attributed to over stressing the yeast, and often this can be corrected simply by using a better quality water. Do not take this to mean that these problems are common with the use of tap water, only that they occur even less often with purified water.

Sugar

Alcohol is created when yeast consumes sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Generally, you want to use simple sugars, which are readily available for the yeast to ferment. Fortunately, sucrose (i.e. common white table sugar) is readily available to the yeast for fermentation, and also found inexpensively in all grocery stores. For these reasons, it is the best and most commonly used sugar for basic neutral spirit production at home.

Distilling Alcohol or Water

The process of reflux distillation in general does not change, regardless of the product that you wish to distill. What does change is the boiling point of the specific component that you intend to collect. As mentioned previously, reflux distillation offers the ability to obtain an extremely highly purified product. This is extremely well suited to any liquid distillation where you wish to collect specifically one component from a mixture.

First, pour or siphon the liquid that you wish to distill into the kettle. Be sure not to add more than 24qt. (22.5L) of liquid, as you need to leave at least 20% of the kettle volume empty for the liquid to expand as it heats.

If you have not already added your column filling material (i.e. Raschig rings or copper mesh) to your column, do so now. Attach the column to your kettle using the gasket and clamp included with your unit. Affix all hoses as outlined in Section 4, and place the rubber stopper and thermometer securely in the top of the column.

Place your unit on your heating source. It is not necessary at this point to
begin the flow of cooling water to the distillation unit. Once the product in the kettle has come to a boil, you will be able to feel the heat rise in the column. Be very careful, as your entire distillation unit will become extremely hot during use. Once the heat begins to rise in your distillation column, you should start a slow flow of cooling water to the system.

When the vapor has heated the column filling, and finally rises to the top of the column, you will notice a sudden and dramatic rise in the temperature at the head of the column, as registered by the thermometer. At this point you will begin to see liquid coming from your condenser.

It is at this point where the differences in what you are distilling become important. You must know the boiling point of the specific component that you are distilling in order to ensure that you obtain the purest possible product by discarding all distillate collected whose boiling point is below that of the component that you wish to collect.

In the case of alcohol, generally the only product contained in your fermented liquor with a boiling point below that of ethanol (this is the alcohol that you wish to collect, and is what people usually mean when referring to ‘alcohol’) is methanol. Methanol is another alcohol, however, it has very negative effects when consumed, ranging from as mild as a hangover to blindness and even death. It is very important to note that the amount of methanol necessary to be of concern is considerably higher than what you will find in your fermented liquor.

Although there is little to no methanol present in a basic sugar / water
fermentation, it is still a good practice to discard at minimum the first 40- 60ml (1½-2oz) per 25L batch. This will remove all of what are commonly called ‘heads’ (the distillate removed before the ethanol).

Now that the heads have been removed, you should discard them and start to collect the ethanol in a clean, preferably glass container. Your thermometer should be reading approximately 78.3 degrees Celsius (173oF). You must keep in mind that this is the boiling point of alcohol at sea-level, and as with any liquid, the boiling point will decrease marginally as your elevation increases. It is more important that your temperature remain stable, as this is a sign that you have equilibrium in your column.
You can now adjust your collection speed by increasing or decreasing the flow of your cooling water. An optimal collection speed in order to maximize the purity of your spirit is 12-15ml per minute (2-3 teaspoons per minute). Increasing the speed of distillation beyond this will prove to decrease your purity- always remember that patience is the key. If your distillation speed is considerably faster than this rate, you should adjust the speed of distillation as listed below.

With equilibrium in your column, and your distillation speed controlled, you should test the percentage of the distillate that you are collecting. To do this, start to collect the distillate in another container. Once you have enough distillate, pour it into your test cylinder and ensure that it is approximately 20oC (68oF), as this is the temperature that most alcoholmeters are calibrated to. Float the alcoholmeter in the distillate, and read the level where the alcohol crosses the stem of the meter. This is your alcohol percentage by volume (abv). The percentage that you should be producing should exceed 90%, preferably 95-96%. If your results are below this level, it is likely due to a reduced reflux ratio, and collecting your distillate too quickly. If this is the case, it is usually caused by one of two factors:

Not enough cooling in the column

Always make adjustments at the top of the column as a first step. This is
because you only change the head of the system, and do not risk losing the equilibrium in your column. Adjusting from the bottom of the system requires the change to work its way through the entire system, and time for the system to re-stabilize. To adjust your flow via the top of the column, simply adjust the speed of flow of your cooling water. In most cases, this is sufficient to increase or decrease your distillation speed to the optimal range.

Too much heat input

If you are using electric heat, then this is rarely the problem. Although the most commonly used electric heat input is 1000-1100W, tests up to 1500W have shown to be easily controlled with a little faster cooling water flow, without any reduction in purity. If you are using gas heat, such as a propane burner, then first try to adjust your flow of cooling water to adjust the distillation speed. If you cannot reduce the speed of the distillation sufficiently, then reduce your heat slightly. Remember that any change you make to the bottom of the system will take a couple of minutes to work through the entire system, and for your column to re stabilize.

Once you have collected most of the ethanol, you will find that one of two things will happen. Either the temperature at the top of the column will begin to rise, or the distillation speed will become increasingly slow. If the temperature begins to rise at the top of the column, you will notice a marked reduction in purity of your distillate. If the speed of distillation slows dramatically, this is usually because you have exhausted virtually all of the ethanol available in the liquid, and your system has a very well proportioned heat and flow of cooling water, making it very difficult for the next component in the column to reach the top. In either case, you should remove the unit from the heat source, and follow the cool-down procedure in Section 7, followed by cleaning your Extractor and column filling material.

Water Distillation

Water distillation is done in exactly the same way as alcohol distillation,
however, all distillate collected before the column stabilizes at the boiling point of water (100oC, 212oF at sea-level) is discarded. There is usually very little contaminant collected from municipal tap water, however, that does not diminish their undesirability. You will then begin collection of your purified water, often at a rate considerably faster than when distilling alcohol. This is because the percentage of actual pure water is considerably higher than the percentage of ethanol in a fermented liquor.

Once you have collected a maximum of 80% of the total volume of product placed in the kettle, remove the unit from the heat and follow the cool-down and cleaning procedure listed in Section 7.

A brief note about column filling

There are generally two types of column filling used in home distillation
units- ceramic and copper. Each has distinct benefits. While copper has the distinct advantage of being reactive, this can also be a drawback for certain types of distillation. In fact, it generally only proves beneficial in alcohol distillation, as it will react with sulfur compounds from the fermentation and the result is a cleaner smelling and tasting distillate. However, for non-alcohol distillation, you usually wish to avoid any reaction with copper, thus ceramic column filling is the best option.

Activated Carbon Filtration

Although this is an optional step, and one which many people do not choose to do, especially when a high purity distillate has been collected with virtually no taste or smell, it is recommended. Activated carbon filtration is a very effective final cleaning of the distillate, resulting in even greater purity. This stage is just as important when distilling water as when distilling alcohol, although when filtering distilled water through activated carbon, you are usually able to process several times as much liquid through the same volume of carbon.