When I started working here at Moonshine Distiller, I honestly didn’t have much of an idea of what distilling was about. I like my gin and like the idea of the self-sufficiency that is home distilling, but I soon learned that distilling requires trial and error, patience, and much research! So far, I’ve come across a few easily avoidable situations, whether they be from myself or our customers. Mistakes can be good! (Albeit, very frustrating!) They help us hone our craft and figure out what not to do. Sometimes we end up creating a product that’s unexpected, but a blessing in disguise!
In this blog, I will take you through five easily avoidable mistakes that some of us learned the hard way!
1. Temperature drop during ferment
Depending on where and how you are fermenting, heat control can be a finicky subject. During the winter time, our shop gets really cold. If you let your mash drop to a really low temperature before the yeast is done doing its thing, you’re not going to reach as high of an alcohol percentage as the yeast will turn inactive. Learn more about controlling the heat of your boiler here.
Dirty column packing material can give your distillate some pretty funky off tones. Also, if your copper mesh is spent, then it’s not removing as many sulfides as it could be. If your mesh is stinky, and your raschig rings turn black… it’s probably a good time to clean them! Just use some mild dish soap and shake ‘em around in a bucket and scrub by hand. You can also use your dishwasher for the copper mesh. Make sure that you rinse everything well so you don’t get any soapy tones in your distillate.
If your mesh is all gray, white, black, funky colored, and beyond the typical look of oxidized copper, you should probably replace it with some new stuff. (Throw it in an old campfire and watch the pretty flames!) Read all about column packing, copper mesh and raschig rings here.
3. Copper mesh is too tight.
There was an old saying my grandpa had. “Boy, that car is packed so tight, you couldn’t even pour sand into it.” Well, that can be applied to the copper mesh in your still head and column too. If everything is where it should be, (temperature, heat transferred up the column, water flowing through condenser) but somehow there’s barely a drop coming out of your still, it could be that your mesh is stuffed too tightly. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to just slide it in without much resistance, then turn it right-side-up and it shouldn’t fall out.
4. Keeping your flame going strong
If you’re running an electric heating element, like this Camco electric heating element, you’re not going to have this issue! For those of you like myself that have been running propane, a good burner with a solid flame means everything. Even the slightest breeze or gust can blow your flame out or keep it inconsistent.
Last time I distilled, I had the doors open and my temperature kept going back and forth between 140 degrees F and 158 degrees F. Naturally, I cranked the gas to bring my temp back up. Then I would see fumes and a gush of distillate come out the spout. I would then back down the gas ever so slightly, and then my temperature would plummet. After a few times of this, I shut the door and my still was rolling perfectly.
A good constant heat source will shave lots of dinking around and inevitably save time.
5. Running water BEFORE the head is too hot
If you see a stream of distillate and vapors shooting out of your spout, this is not what you want. You need to crank that water NOW. If the water is already running, turn down your heat! Now! All those vapors shooting through is potential alcohol, and all that distillate shooting through is not pure condensed alcohol. Slow and steady wins the race… by race, I mean quality distillate.
A good thing to do is keep track of your heat. By feel, you can tell if heat is moving up your column or pot still head. Obviously, be careful so you don’t melt your hand meat. I like to allow the still to get hot and get water crankin’ before the heat reaches halfway up the column. On pot stills, you have less area to transfer heat through, so be Johnny on the Spot with that water!
We hope this helps, and as always, if you have any questions about how to make moonshine at home, go ahead and comment below or contact us!