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The Science behind of Moonshine Distillation

Posted on: October 22nd, 2014 by Gweedo Decker

Producing moonshine is a crafty endeavor which requires a fair amount of technique and a fair share of devotion, one cannot underestimate the hard work that goes in the making of this (often) illicitly produced liquor to be a layman’s business. Today, white lightning is not just a multimillion dollar industry it is also a tradition which moonshiners took on from their forefathers and continue to indulge in because they withhold the skills and the passion demanded by the procedure. Exploring the science behind moonshine distillation helps us unravel and decode the ‘secret recipe’ which shiners withhold, and although the manual available to them was merely oral tradition, luckily for us, it is a much simplified and comprehensive process because it has been documented.

Distillation and Fermentation 

To understand the process of making moonshine we need to first be acquainted with the chemical and physical properties as well as the mechanisms which are involved. The two large chunks of information and detail that we have are distillation and fermentation. A sneak peek into both these processes will be helpful.

How does distillation work?

It will come in handy to have some rudimentary knowledge of the physical and chemical interplay that occurs when we set out to learn how moonshine is made. It is imperative to know these chemical properties in order to understand what goes on inside homemade stills because that is where the real amusement lies.

Now distillation is the prime process used to separate the good from the bad, or the valuable from the hazardous, a combination which one can expect when working with mixtures. This is because it substitutes for expensive separation techniques and gives us high purity products.

When we are dealing with a pure compound such as water, and set out to boil it we will come across a number of observations. Firstly, the temperature of water will be below the boiling point initially, or it will be ‘sub-cooled’. Then it starts warming up because it has a ‘heat capacity’ we know this because the temperature change is detectable. We then see the first bubble rise to the top surface of the liquid, simply because the vapor is less dense than the liquid, henceforth it displaces the water and levitates. Furthermore the water continues to boil, but the temperature is steady at 100 degree Celsius. This is surprising because the burner is still lit and heat is still being transferred to the water. This phenomenon occurs because there is some additional heat being absorbed. This is called latent heat. The temperature only continues to rise after all the water has been vaporized.

The distillation process for mixtures is quite different from that of pure compounds. If we look at the mixture of ethanol and water the sharp contrast will become apparent. This mixture would start heating up much faster than the pure compound. The first bubble that appears on the surface will be more enriched with ethanol because it has a lower boiling point and so it is less dense. Here the temperature continues to rise alongside because the liquid phase is enriched in water. The last bubble that boils off is most enriched with water and this is called the ‘Dew point’.

How Does Fermentation work?

Fermentation is a form of respiration which occurs in the absence of free oxygen, to be precise, it is a form of anaerobic respiration which causes the breakdown of complex compounds into simpler one. For example it acts on carbohydrates and breaks them down to simple sugars. The cofactors of obtaining a specific product from fermentation are the respective microorganisms and the substance in which the fermentation occurs.

Some factors can quicken up fermentation and also improve the quality of the ferment. How long it takes for the mash to ferment depends on the type of yeast we are using for example turbo yeasts pace up the process a lot as compared to bread yeasts.

Another element is the temperature at which the mash is fermented. At a higher temperature, say 88 degrees the process will take lesser time to finish as opposed to a lower temperature like 55 degrees.

The third point which makes a difference is the sugar content in the mixture. If there is too much sugar in the mash it will take more time to ferment.

Having a knack of these points will ease up the process a great deal as now the only thing we need to do while fermenting is to let it sit for at least two days, and check for  movement in the air lock after every once in a while. The airlock bubbles should occur after every few minutes. Once the bubbling stops we know that the fermentation process has been completed. This is an unscientific way of telling the progress of fermentation, we can even use a hydrometer to know for sure that the process has finished.

How moonshine works

Homemade Still Ethanol chart, figure  1

Homemade Still Ethanol chart, figure 1

The trick is to first evaporate all the ethanol so that it becomes steam and then collecting the steam to later condense back into a liquid form. We will break this down into a step by step procedure. The hero of the moonshine is corn meal and buying it in openly can make one seem suspicious, which is why some people use commercial hog feed to avoid speculation.

The corn meal is then submersed in hot water inside the still. After that sugar is added, however conventional shiners used to add malt which would convert the starch in the cornmeal into sugar, which makes sense because after all this was the only kind of ethanol available during the prohibition. After this we add yeast to start the fermentation process, this action converts the corn into corn mash. The mash is then held in the still for some more time where it is stirred repetitively and heated for a set amount of time. The equipment we use has metal piping made of all copper and the properties of copper are likewise conducive for this because it does not leech into the mixture and conducts heat well enough.  Everything that touches the ethanol & vaporsmust be copper or stainless steel, although the best is always an all copper homemade still.

Once this is achieved we can move on to heating the stone furnace which is located beneath the still, it is heated to the point 78 degrees Celsius, depending upon elevation. In the 1920’s moonshiners used furnaces made of coal or wood to heat up the still but the favorite tool for the purpose was propane which became quite widely used.

Next, we allow the ethanol to evaporate, consequently the pressure is intensifying and we now have steam which is transported using the cap arm which is an outlet extending from the still. This is basically a pipe attached to the still.

Homemade Still Ethanol chart, figure  2

Homemade Still Ethanol chart, figure 2

We can now use a thump keg to store the heat. The thump keg is just a heated barrel which is commonly used by moonshiners. At this point in the distillation we might be left with some solid remains, i.e. solid mash material which seeped into the steam. If this is true, than we have the thumping sound as an indicator of the infiltrations. The sound is a result of the mash material hitting the walls of the barrel due to the high temperature and pressure. To get rid of the mash the mixture can be re-evaporated and filtered.  In order to make the mixture high proof, some shiners choose to add extra undistilled mash or a few extra gallons of ethanol. In this way the vaporized steam will have more ethanol content as it moves forward towards the worm box.

Between the keg and the worm box is the worm, a coiled pipe which acts as an intermediary between the two and leads to the inside of the worm box. The worm box is a container which could be in the form of a crate or a barrel. It is diverted in cold water which could be drawn from a nearby stream or elsewhere, the water is not stationed inside, it is flowing in from the top and leaving out from the bottom. This way the worm is drenched in circulating cold water and this condenses the ethanol steam inside the worm to become liquid.

At the very end of the worm is a tap or spout which leads it to a bucket. Here we can add another filter and we have with us a clear liquid which can easily be bottled, stored or illegally sold. To know more, you can also visit: http://www.wiredchemist.com/chemistry/instructional/laboratory-tutorials/distillation.

Precautions

Another reason why it is salient to know the scientific properties and mechanisms involved is to avoid any unforeseen circumstances such as accidents or hazard due to mishandling. So here are some safety precautions.

Only a pure copper moonshine still should be used, one that is assembled with poisonous lead solder, or  other material such as old radiators or sheer metals should be avoided.

Never distill in closed premises such as inside a house, it can cause a raging fire.  Moonshining is with all its safety valves already very dangerous, a mistake like this can make things even uglier.

Make sure that there is no leak of the ethanol vapor as this is explosive, to check for leaks it is recommended that you test run a batch of water through the equipment first.

Never leave a homemade still unattended as all accidents happen in the blink of an eye and always keep a fire extinguisher by your side.

Make sure never to moonshine without having the proper state and federal permits as in the absence of this license you could be jailed for making moonshine. The laws vary from place to place and admittance to the legal structure depends on your location.

To know further about distilling precautions, you can also visit www.stilltutorial.com.

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, see http://stilltutorial.com