Heads Series, Episode 9: How To Run a Dual-Purpose Reflux Still

Oops, I screwed it up! Just before the 2-minute mark, I mention that the more volatile stuff ends up at the top of the tower where it is hottest and the less volatile stuff ends up at the bottom of the tower where it is coolest. I got it right about the volatiles, but the top of the tower is coolest and the bottom of the tower is hottest. Please forgive me!

Next video in the Heads series: |Carbon Filtering|

Products used in this How a Reflux Still Works video:
-Moonshine Distiller 8-gallon stainless steel milk can boiler
Moonshine Distiller 3″ dual purpose reflux tower
3″ sight glass tower section
Hose pipe connector for reflux stills
Distiller’s Parrot
Alcohol Hydrometer

Video Transcription

Howdy folks, I’m Jeff at Moonshine Distiller, and we’re back for one final Heads episode. Now that you’ve figured out what kind of still you want (which I am sure is a Moonshine Distiller reflux still, like this 3″ tower here), we’re going to show you how to run it. First thing we’ve done is set up our water hoses and done a quick test to make sure there is no leaks around the fittings here. If there is a leak, all you need to do is tighten the hose clamps down just a little bit farther. We’ve set up our parrot here so it’s at the right height, so that the collection cup is right below the end spout on the condenser, and we’ve put in a little sight glass here so later on we can see the reflux action and show you what’s going on inside the still. You can see that there are some vapors forming on the inside of the tower here, and that’s a good indication that we are just about ready to start our run. So, we’ll be back in a few minutes once we get things going.

Alright folks, the vapors just made their way up the column, you could feel it getting hot as the vapors made their way farther and farther up the column. And as soon as they hit the sight glass here, all the fog disappeared. So at this point, we are going to turn our cooling water on, just to make sure we don’t get any ethanol vapors out of the end of the still.

So, for the beginning here, we are going to turn the heat up a little bit more and turn the cooling water up a little bit so that we get a lot of reflux moving up and down the column. You can start to see the reflux dripping down the sight glass here. We are going to spend about 5 minutes running the reflux really high so that we make sure our column is stacked properly, and our most volatile stuff ends up here at the top where it is hottest and our least volatile stuff ends up at the bottom here where it’s coolest.

As we mentioned before, the reflux column is all about balancing the reflux traveling down the column with the hot vapors traveling up. As the reflux is cooled and condensed up here by the reflux condenser, they’ll slowly trickle down the column, meeting the hot vapors as they work their way up the column. As the hot vapors come in contact with the cool liquid, the less volatile stuff like water will condense down and become liquid, and as it does so, it will heat up that liquid so the more volatile stuff in the liquid, like ethanol, will re-vaporize. And this process basically super-enriches your vapors as they travel up the column. So, we’ll give it about 5 minutes to run reflux very heavily here, and then we’ll release the reflux a little bit and start getting some product coming out the end here. We’ll get back to you in just a couple minutes.

And that looks like it’s just about right, we’re starting to get a slow drip into the collection cup here and in just a matter of minutes we’ll probably see the alcoholmeter start to pop up here in the distiller’s parrot.

So, it has been just a couple minutes here and you can see that the meter has popped up and we’ve just started getting a flow at the end of our parrot. We’re running right around 190 proof, which means that the alcohol is coming out at about 95% alcohol, which is pretty good. We probably could do a little bit further balancing to get it out at about 95% here, just a little bit more reflux. And this begins our heads.

So, this first 100 ml or so here is going to be mostly methanol. We’re just going to get rid of the completely. After that, we are going to begin our heads cut. We’re going to collect the moonshine in jars until it starts tasting alright and then begin our hearts cut. Typically what I look for is the acetone. The acetone is the compound right before the ethanol. Acetone is basically nail polish remover. So, what I typically do is, if you have a little teaspoon, I use a 1/4 teaspoon measuring cup. Take a 1/4 teaspoon straight off the still, mix it with a 1/4 teaspoon of water, because some compounds are more soluble in alcohol, and they won’t break out until you mix it with water and they become less soluble. So, we’ll take the mixture of half of my distillate and half tap water, and just taste it and smell it. And once I can no longer taste that acetone, I know we’re good to start the hearts.

Alright, so we’re part way through the heads here, but you can see that we’ve got the reflux balanced just about perfectly with the vapors traveling up the still. There’s just a little bit of liquid on top of that perforated plate on top of the raschig rings, which is just kind of bubbling away, and it’s staying at about the same level which is just perfect. If it keeps rising up, then you know you’ve got too much vapor traveling up the column, and it’s keeping that liquid from traveling back down the column. Eventually, if that happens, you could end up filling the column until it gets to this spout, at which point the liquid will just pour down the condenser and you really won’t get the full enrichment of the gasses as they travel up the column, because you’re not getting enough reflux traveling down the column.

So, if we’re looking to start making our cuts, we’ve got our 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon here, I would just take a 1/4 teaspoon, put it in the glass, and then mix it with a 1/4 teaspoon of tap water as well. Give it a stir, make sure it’s mixed up well, and then you smell it and taste it and see what kind of compounds you can get out of that. Like I said, what I am looking for is the acetone. Once the acetone is done, you know you’re into your hearts. Unfortunately, we can’t actually taste it here, because we only have our ethanol fuel permit. We don’t have a Distilled Spirits Plant Permit.

Alright, so, assuming we had our Distiller Spirits Plant Permit and we were actually able to taste this, and we can actually smell it. It smells pretty good, there’s definitely not any acetone left in there. So, at this point, we are going to switch out our jars. Our methanol is in the first jar here (we’re just going to get rid of that). The second jar would be our heads. We’re going to save that for our next run, which we’re going to back into the wash and re-distill. And now we’re going to start collecting our hearts.

So, we’re in the middle of our hearts run here. We’re going to keep running hearts until we can start tasting and smelling byproducts that come out towards the end of the run. The first things you’ll really smell and taste are the isopropyl alcohols and those are kind of hard to pick up as a beginning distiller. But, eventually, you’ll be able to pick those up. More than the smell, they kind of give a burning flavor. After that will come the fusel oils. The fusel oils kind of smell a little bit like wet cardboard. And you can really tell, because as you mix it with water (as you mix half and half) your distillate will get cloudy because those fusel oils which are soluble in the alcohol become insoluble once the water content has increased.

Alright, so we’re back again. Right before we replaced this mason jar here, the temperature started increasing and the percentage alcohol started decreasing, which means we are probably getting into our tails here. So, we got about 2 good jars of heads, sorry, two good jars of hearts, one 2/3 jar of heads, and we are working on our tails here. At this point, we’ll collect our tails for probably another half hour to 45 minutes here. We’re going to be looking for the alcohol content to decrease rapidly and the temperature to increase rapidly. That’s a good indication that we are getting out of our alcohol and into our fusel oils and water. At that point, we will turn off the still, save this jar and whatever other jars we collect after this as tails. They’ll go into our next batch with the heads (basically, to be recycled and re-distilled). And then we’ll keep these two and run them through the carbon filter in just a minute here.

Alright, so we’re back one final time. In the last couple minutes, as you can see, the alcohol content has dropped rapidly by the amount of alcoholmeter sticking out of the water. And, as well, our temperature has increased rapidly. But, the alcohol content should still be the same, and once you get used to your still at your elevation you should start to learn the nuances of the temperature and figure out where the temperature spikes are and what the means during the run.

Hopefully this helps, we’ll see you next time!.

12 thoughts on “Heads Series, Episode 9: How To Run a Dual-Purpose Reflux Still

  1. […] Episode 6: Yeast types & uses Episode 7: Heating options Episode 8: Turbo Mash Episode 9: How to run a dual-purpose reflux still Episode 10: Carbon filtering  (coming […]

  2. […] Next video in the Heads series: |How to run your Moonshine Distiller reflux still| […]

  3. Hey Jeff,

    First off, love all of your videos. I have been learning alot between those, your blog, and also homedistiller website too.

    Anyway, I have a dual purpose Reflux still just like in your video. I have run several successful stripping runs so far for collection of my Low Wines. When I run the spirit run, I’ll be using the reflux part for the first time. I see you have only ONE water control valve that controls waterflow to both your condensor arm and reflux chamber both. How well does that work? I have heard and read you SHOULD have two seperate water supplies..one to your condensor arm, and another controllable water supply to the reflux chamber. Which would you suggest, and which is easier to control and run? Like I said, it’ll be my first time using both the relfux cooling and the condensor arm cooling and I don’t want to screw anything up.

    Thanks for any help or advice.

    1. Hi Dan, it is definitely beneficial to run the water through each condenser individually, as it gives you more control. This can certainly make it easier for a beginner. However, this requires a way to split your water source and have two different valves to control each condenser, so you add to the cost of your total project. Ultimately, it is up to you whether the added cost is worth it!

  4. Jeff I love your videos as well!
    I was wondering, if you wanted to run this still as a traditional pot still how would you set it up? Would you include any packaging in the column? Also whats the benefit of having a 3″ tower vs a 2″ tower? And my last question is would there be any difference in quality and taste if you made a batch on a Dual purpose using it only as a pot still with copper filling vs the traditional column you have for sale also.

    1. To run the still as a pot still, simply disconnect the cooling water from the reflux condenser so that you do not have any extra reflux. You will get a little natural reflux due to the column being cooled by the air around it. If you want to purify your distillate just a little bit, you can leave it in, otherwise, take it out. Make sure you leave at least one roll of copper mesh in there to help remove the sulfides though. Due to the dual purpose column having more surface area you will get slightly more natural reflux than the traditional pot still head, but I think you would be hard pressed to tell the difference in the final product.

      The main difference between the 2 and three inch towers are speed at which you can run it. With a reflux still, you need to balance the hot vapors travelling up the still with the reflux liquid travelling down. If you get too much vapor trying to push its way up the column, you basically “blow” the relux liquid back up the column. If you think about the diameter of a 2″ vs 3″ circle, you can see how the 3″ still will give you the option to distill much more rapidly. I would estimate that a wash your size would take 3-4 hours on a 2″ still and about 2/3 of that time on a 3″ still (assuming you are running them as fast as possible).

  5. What did you use to heat the boiler in this video ?

  6. Im looking for a distiller to make essential oils. Are your stills used for that? Do you have any info on using them for that purpose? Much thanks.

  7. Do you offer a “hands on class” for about a week ?

    1. We have not offered classes in the past, but we do have a fully operating distillery. If it is something you are interested in, please feel free to give us a call and perhaps we can work something out!

  8. I love these educational videos. Very informative, fluent, expert and charismatic presentations.

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