How Do I Make Alcohol With My SmartStill?Jimmy | April 19, 2008
We get a lot of people hitting this site from the search engines with queries such as ‘How do I make alcohol with my SmartStill?’. The short answer is that you can’t. But don’t despair! The good news is, you don’t actually need to. To understand why, you need to understand the process of alcohol distillation – here is a guide that tells you everything you need to know to make spirits with your SmartStill or EasyStill.
Uh… I thought you could make spirits with these things?
You’ll have to forgive me for nitpicking a little in my opening paragraph – I know a lot of people want to use their SmartStill/EasyStill to make vodka or other spirits, and this is perfectly possible. The issue comes when we talk about ‘making alcohol’, because that isn’t the way it works.
Alcohol is made as a by-product of the fermentation process, and that subject will be covered in another article. Distillation is something else entirely. If you already know all of this, then fine – you can go to the top of the class. If you’re new to the subject, hopefully this will be a useful primer. Home distillation is relatively safe, providing you understand what you’re doing and take adequate precautions, and that’s what this article is all about.
Home distillation is illegal in many countries – check your local laws before proceeding!
The basic principle of distillation
What a still actually does (by a process known as distillation, obviously) is to take the alcohol from a solution and leave behind the water and other unwanted chemicals. When you distill something, you’ll end up with the same amount of alcohol as you started with (near enough at least, some is lost to evaporation, etc) – the point being that you’ll have strong, pure alcohol in your collection vessel, and sour contaminated water left in the still.
That’s why we do it, to purify what we have, to make it taste better and to get rid of the unwanted elements. We don’t do it to ‘make alcohol’, which seems to be a common misconception – the alcohol is already there. If you don’t understand this part then you’ll never get anywhere with this hobby. Distilling purifies and concentrates alcohol, it does not make it.
OK, so what kind of alcohol is in rum or gin or whatever?
Another thing you need to be aware of is that alcohol (for drinking purposes at least) is the same alcohol no matter what type of drink you’re talking about. Whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, beer, wine – the alcohol contained within them is all the same stuff by and large, namely ethanol. What differs between them is the flavourings and preparation methods.
This means that if you put the finest single malt scotch whiskey through a decent reflux column still that is set up that way, you’ll get pure ethanol out of it – vodka in other words. All the flavourings and things that make it special have been removed, and you’re left with just the alcohol itself. With me so far? The lesson here is that you can distill the alcohol out of any suitable starting liquid, the tricky part lies in leaving enough of the other stuff in there to get the right flavour. That’s a complex subject which we will cover in another article, for now we’ll just look at getting you started.
So can I distill some wine, or do I need to ferment a wash?
Home distillers will typically ferment their own wash (the pre-distilled liquid containing the alcohol, sometimes called a mash) because that is the most cost effective and enjoyable way to do things. For the purposes of this explanation, I’d like you to think about commercially available alcohol instead – red wine for example. Many people wouldn’t bother distilling wine as it would cost as much as buying the spirit in the first place, but it works as an example.
A typical bottle of wine from a supermarket might contain around 10% ABV (Alcohol By Volume). If you had a still that was 100% efficient, then you could distill the pure alcohol from a litre of wine and you’d end up with…? Yes, well done – 100ml of 100% ABV spirit – a tenth of the original volume, because ten percent of it was made up of alcohol. Of course, it wouldn’t taste like wine – it would be pure ethanol, and you’d be insane to drink it anyway as it would be strong enough to kill you. Even the best still wouldn’t achieve this purity level, but you get the point I’m trying to make.
When do we get to the good stuff? I’m thirsty!
All very interesting, but how does this help you? Don’t worry, we’re almost onto the practical part now! Your SmartStill or EasyStill holds 4 litres of liquid, so when you run it you can calculate how much distilled spirit you’re likely to get out of it, depending on the strength of what you put in. There is a pot still calculator here which can be used to work out your timings and yield.
For the purposes of the calculator, use the following details :
- Initial volume of wash : 4 litres (if that’s what you’re putting in!)
- Alcohol content : The alcohol content of your wash, wine, etc
- Initial temperature : Usually around 20 degrees celcius (converter here)
- Power during heatup : 320W for modified version, 400W for unmodified
- Power during distillation : 320W for modified version, 525W for unmodified
- Internal reflux : 25% for modified, 15% for unmodified
- Time step : 20 mins works well, change if desired
These figures were posted to the Home Distillers forums by Ardent Spirit and Husker, so credit is due to them. I haven’t tried with an unmodified SmartStill, but the figures for the modified version seem pretty accurate.
Putting it into practice
OK, so taking our previous example of some cheap supermarket wine at 10%; if you distill 4 litres with a modified SmartStill, you can see that you’re looking at around 62 minutes of heating time before anything comes out. At this point, you should collect the first 20ml or so and discard it, as this contains any nasty bits that you don’t want to be drinking.
Next, as you can see from the table, you’ll get the strongest spirit coming out and getting progressively weaker as time goes on. If you plan to single distill then my advice would be to stick above 40%, which means that after 80 minutes you’ll have around 750ml of distilled wine (basically a simple brandy now). Turn off the still and let it cool down, then discard what’s left in the boiler and clean up ready for the next batch. Congratulations! You just distilled your own spirit – pretty easy wasn’t it?
So to recap, here’s how to use your SmartStill/EasyStill to distill alcohol :
- Use the calculator to work out your timings and write it all down
- Put 4 litres of wash or wine into your SmartStill
- Add a handful of ceramic rings, as explained here
- Put the lid on the device, connect up the fan as usual and power on
- After the heatup time has passed, collect the first 20ml and discard
- Collect the distilled spirit as suggested by the calculator
- Turn off the power
- Leave the still to cool down (several hours – if you remove the lid sooner BE CAREFUL!)
- Wash out the boiler and rinse the ceramic rings
- Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
How about double or triple distilling?
Many people like to re-distill their spirit in order to improve the purity. The first run removes most of the unpleasant parts, but there is always room for improvement. To double distill, simply do the same again but input the new alcohol content of your spirit into the calculator, as measured with an alcoholmeter. Obviously, you’ll need to to several batches of the initial distillation in order to get a decent amount to re-distill.
As you can see from the calculator, if you put in 4l of single distilled spirit at 40% then you can get over 2 litres out at above 70% from a second distillation – this must be mixed with distilled water in order to be of a drinkable strength, I wouldn’t advise drinking anything above about 45%. If you prefer to triple distill first, you can get the strength into the 80% region which is about as pure as a pot still can get.
It might seem a little strange to distill several times to get stronger spirits and then water them down again, but what you’re doing is getting rid of more unwanted materials each time, thus improving the purity, and then adding pure distilled water as a replacement, which will give a much cleaner taste. There’s nothing wrong with drinking after a single distillation, and indeed some types of spirit are better that way. With a vodka though, a couple of distillations improves the taste a great deal.
So now you know the basics of how distillation works, and how you can use your SmartStill/EasyStill to distill things at home. Next you’ll probably want to think about how to filter your spirits, flavour them, how to store and age them, and how to make different types of wash to get different drinks. There’s a lot of other information on this site that can guide you, but if you can’t find anything then the best way is to leave me a comment and I’ll get something written to help everyone out. Also, if you have any comments about this article then I’d love to hear them!