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Moonshine pot still VS Reflux still

Posted on: October 8th, 2014 by Gweedo Decker
Historical homemade copper still, figure 1

Historical homemade copper still, figure 1

In our previous articles at www.stilltutorial.com  we have gone through both; the reflux still and the moonshine pot still. We have learnt about the manufacturing process of each in case you needed to manufacture some homemade stills and we have gone through a deep, indulging study of their working. We have also examined every facet of the technicalities involved in both of the stills. With that, we now have a deep knowledge of as in how to make, operate and maintain these stills to get a product as pure as possible, keeping in view the safety measures that we need to take. The question that we need to address now is about the difference between the two stills. If you were wondering the same, then serendipitously, we have dedicated this article trying to enlighten you with this difference.

 

Historical homemade copper still, figure 2

Historical homemade copper still, figure 2

The picture you see above is of nothing else but a homemade pot still. Although it looks like an unfathomable, geeky arrangement of some containers, let’s get into the details. To start with, this still is ancient; not in the sense of the manufacturing of this particular still in the above shown picture, but in terms of its invention and development. Reported to be used by early moonshiners of Appalachia, a pot still, just like anything else which is in its early embryotic stages, is an uncomplicated beta version. Pretty ironic, isn’t it? To start with the process, all you need to do is heat the mash and once boiled, the ethanol will start to evaporate. A worm is a coil which is immersed in cold water, and as it suggests, it is used for condensational purposes. The evaporated ethanol vapors will spontaneously flow into the worm and will thereby be condensed.

The copper stills that you see on the right are in use for over 500 years. While inefficient and very simple, pot stills are the ultimate source of understanding the distillation process and for using them individually in houses as the still does not require any complex technical knowledge.

Moving on, let’s describe and justify the ‘inefficiency’ of the still. Pot stills are used to separate substances with boiling points that differ with at least a 100° C. As you can guess, while the distillation of ethanol and bier is going on, due to the little difference in boiling points of substances instilled in the ethanol, a lot of impurities are submerged in the final product. This may be an advantage, enhancing the taste of the final product, or this may result in an unfortunate failure of the bier regarding the taste and other characteristics. Therefore, when using a pot still, you need to be very lucky!  Interestingly, the more you re-distill the output, the purer it becomes. And mundanely, the more you re-distill the product, the more it dwindles. If you re-distill the product exceedingly, then it may occur that the product although purer, dwindle down to very less in volume or may even vanish completely.

With growing population, in modern times, the demand for almost every eatable product that’s available in the market is skyrocketing. Regarding the bier, such enormous demands cannot be fulfilled by simply using the pot stills. Nevertheless, the pot stills are much easier to build and much easier to operate and rationally, it would be reasonable to say most of the homemade stills are actually of this kind. The mechanism does not involve rocket science (neither does the reflux still) and can be easily understood by anyone who has cleared 10th grade. With an easier working, it is of course easier to master and may allow you to quickly know the geeky how-to s so that you can extract the best tasting product ever and it may also be easy money, but mass production to satisfy the needs of the growing population is only possible by employing a bit more complex, the reflux still. But as the saying goes, no pain no gain.

Commercial Copper Still, fig  2

Commercial Copper Still, fig 2

 

 

Now let’s come to the reflux stills. This picture on the top portrays a reflux still, or rather a whole system of reflux stills. The reflux still was developed in the late 19th century and is therefore more efficient and advanced. You may call it a stable version which superseded the beta pot still. A simple depiction of the mechanism the reflux still employs would go like this; the still contains a column which is mounted on top of a boiler. The inside of the column is designed in such a way i.e. it has internal trays, so that it provides maximum surface area which of course accelerates the condensation process. When the liquid in the boiler boils, the vapor swifts up the column where it is condensed. The condensed liquid is then returned to the boiler. During its way to the boiler, the condensed liquid is enriched with the rising vapors. This cycle develops over time once the required temperature is reached. We call this cycle as reflux, and the more the liquid is refluxed, the purer it gets. Reflux is another name of re-distill; the only difference is that reflux is automatic once stared, just like a cycle.

It is no wonder that a still as advanced as the reflux still passed through several embryotic stages to come out as we know it today.

Historical homemade copper still, figure 3

Historical homemade copper still, figure 3

The picture on the left shows how the reflux still looked when it was born. This still was developed in 1801 by a person named Edward Adam. This still laid basis of the reflux mechanism employed in the modern day reflux still. It allowed a part of distillate from both the intermediary tanks to be re-circulated for re-distillation. Due to some problems such as extremely high pressure in the tanks, better versions of this basic design started to spring up.

 

The picture you see on the right is of a still which evolved from Adam’s still, this time by a person called Corty. This still embodied some basic principles of the modern reflux distillation technique. It had a column on top of the boiler and 3 built-in plates. These plates were designed to provide maximum surface area and the output on the first plate (the plate on top) was collected as the product.

Historical homemade copper still, figure 4

Historical homemade copper still, figure 4

Celleir-Blumenthal still succeeded Corty’s still and employed almost all of the general principles which are used in the modern reflux stills. The still was exclusively designed to operate continuously. The mechanism was such that once started, there was a continuous reflux involved and the majority of the distillate was refluxed with some of it collected as the output, again, continuously. An overhead condenser with a reflux holding tank was also added which allowed the distillate to be collected in it and then further regulated the distillate through two streams; one leading to the output collection and the other going back to the column for re-distillation.

In my opinion, the choice between the reflux and pot still will put you in no dilemma. It’s pretty simple; if you want to understand the basic mechanism of distillation on a smaller scale, you might want to choose the pot still which can easily be operated in your house. If you want mass production on a larger scale for commercial purposes, or to produce grain alcohols for fuel or vodkka, then the more efficient reflux still is definitely the best choice. Good luck for your journey to discover the art of moonshining! For more information, visit: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml.

Note: Remember, the distillation of ethyl-alcohols is illegal without a permit per federal moonshine laws and is inherently dangerous because of ethanol’s flammability (never operate a homemade still indoors). For more moonshine laws and other moonshine still permit information, visit: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml.  Sorry, ya even need a license for personal use due to TTB federal distillation moonshine laws.

For more info on your own homemade copper still plans for home(reflux copper stills), see http://stilltutorial.com.