The biggest danger of distilling (in my opinion) is the fire danger. Believe it or not, ethanol vapors aren’t flammable, they are explosive, highly explosive! This can pose a very big problem for the negligent distiller who may be vaporizing several gallons of ethanol over the course of a run. Here is a short video that demonstrates that (skip to 2:40 to jump right into the fun):
Just to compare things, the 1 ml she puts into the flask is about 10 drops, and it looks like she pours almost all of that back out. If that little can cause an explosion like that, can you imagine what would happen with a room filled with ethanol vapors and you flicked the light switch? Yea….. that’s where the stories of moonshiners blowing up shacks in the woods come from.
So to avoid moonshine dangers like that situation, here are some precautions you can take while making moonshine at home.
Make sure alcohol vapors are never leaking out of the still
This may seem like common sense, but I just wanted to emphasize it. You should never have vapors coming out of the end of the still. If it gets really bad, you will see the gasses rushing out, looking a little bit like steam, however, they can also come out basically invisible if they are exiting more slowly. The most basic test that I like to do frequently throughout a run is to feel the end of the condenser where the distillate is coming out. If vapors are making it past the condenser, the end of that still will be hot to the touch. If it is just warm, there are probably not vapors coming out, but you will need to pay closer attention to make sure it does not start getting hot.
While vapors coming out of the end of the still are most common, they can also be introduced in a variety of other ways. If your tower isn’t clamped together properly, vapors could leak directly out of the column before they have a chance to run through the condenser. Or, if you spill your distillate, the spill could ignite directly or start evaporating and causing vapors to build up.
While this is by far the most important aspect, there are a few more things that you can do to minimize fire risk just in case something happens while you are not paying attention.
Never distil in a confined space
The alcohol vapors need to reach a certain concentration before that can flash ignite, so one of the easiest ways to prevent an explosion is to prevent a build up of alcohol vapors (should they somehow happen to escape your still). The more ventilated a location is, the better it will be for distilling. Ideally, you will be distilling outdoors with the wind sweeping away any possible vapors that may escape your still. So, making bathtub gin in the basement of an unventilated shack probably won’t work in your favor.
Additionally, if you do happen to start a fire, generally it will be a lot easier to control and cause a lot less damage if it is outside of your home.
Never leave a still unattended in the middle of a run
This can be one of the hardest things for a new distiller, but you should never leave the still unattended while it is running. Any number of things could happen that could allow ethanol vapors to escape; the cooling water to slow or stop completely, the heat source could increase, the tower or boiler could start leaking, or, the collection container could start overflowing. If any of those things occur for a few minutes, it could be disastrous.
So, when you are planning to run your still, make sure you can be there the entire time. Grab a book or the phone, turn on the TV, grab a beer or a jar from your last run. Do what you have to do to stay entertained, but don’t leave the still!
Keep a fire extinguisher handy
Hopefully this is never something you need, but it is always good to be prepared. When you are working with something so flammable, simply having a bucket of water or a hose handy won’t quite cut it.
Direct the distillate away from your heat source
This concept is fairly simple: the farther away from the heat source that your final distillate is, the less of a chance it has to ignite should it get knocked over or overflow. Additionally, the smaller the mouth is on the collection container, the slower it will spill if it does get knocked over. No one wants their hard earned, fresh moonshine dumping out all over the floor!
Use an electric heat source
In the event that you do have vapors escape your still, an electric heating system will minimize the risk of them igniting. Alcohol vapors are heavier than air, so if they leak out of your still they will sink and if you are using a propane burner they will sink right down into the open flames of that burner and ignite. Ka-boom!