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Home Distillation of alcohol is a subject that is considered illegal in many parts of the world. Australia and New Zealand being the notable exceptions. It can be very dangerous if done incorrectly. The stories you've heard of going blind are 100% true. Done correctly the end result is very cheap, drinkable distilled alcohol.

There are three steps to the whole process.

Fermentation
This is the easiest step and very hard to get wrong. It is exactly the same procedure as beer or winemaking. Basically you add yeast to sugar and water and maybe some yeast nutrients in the correct quantities, let them sit for a while, and siphon off the top liquids, leaving the yeast which has settled at the bottom.
What you have now is basically a drinkable beverage with the alcohol content of beer or wine. Depending on your ingredients this may be your desired end result. However we can take it to the next level by concentrating the alcohol produced in a step that is called:

Distillation
This is the only potentially illegal part. Since the government in the good ole USA where I live cares about our safety, and wants our tax revenue, they have outlawed the act of distilling alcohol. Being that this could potentially be harmful, as well as rob them blind (pun intended) of tax revenue, it is illegal to produce or sell distilled spirits without the appropriate licenses. You also neet to pay the tax on the product. I do believe that the tax on distilled spirits is paid at time of manufacture as opposed to the time of sale

The fun part :)
Standard distillation techniques say that the whole idea is to:
1. Heat a liquid to the appropriate temperature.
2. Collect its gasses
3. Run said gasses through a coil which is cooler than the heat source (thus condensing the vapor) and collecting the distillate.
Produced as a result of fermentation are not only (hopefully) large amounts of ethanol and CO2, but many other products as well. Here are the most important byproducts and their boiling points:


Ethanol 
                 ethyl alcohol     78.5C
Methanol
                 methyl alcohol    64.65C
Esters
                 ethyl acetate     77.11C
                 amyl acetate      149C
Diacetyl       
                 diacetyl          88C
Fusel alcohols 
                 amylic alcohol    117.5C
                 butyl alcohol     132C

The entire point of distillation is to reduce the byproducts and end up with mostly ethanol.< br /> Some of the above listed byproducts have a boiling temperature above and below the critical 78C point.

If we were to heat the product of fermentation to ~65C and collect and condense its vapor, we would have nothing but pure methanol. That would be very bad indeed. Increase the heat to the boiling point of ethanol, and we output nearly pure ethanol. However since this is above the boiling point of methanol we produce that as well. However since heating usually occurs linearly (gradually gets hotter) all the methanol in the mix is expelled first, before the ethanol.

Practical applications:


Mix 1.25 lbs of Corn Meal with 5 gallons of water. Boil this mixture for quite some time (this process converts the starch in the Corn Meal to sugar.) Add 5 lbs of sugar and mix very well. Allow to cool until the mixture is around 25-30C. Too hot will kill the yeast. Add 2-4oz or so of yeast. (this depends on the quality of the yeast which is used.)

Leave the mixture to ferment for at least a week stirring (or shaking) daily, leaving it alone for the last few days. Ideally you want an airtight container to ferment the mixture, however since large amounts of C02 are produced you need to vent this without introducing outside (possibly contaminated) air. Use an airlock. You can construct one by fitting some type of tube to the top of your fermenting vessel, and dipping the free end into water. You can also measure fermentation in this fashion by watching the amount of bubbles produced. When the fermentation has trailed off you are ready to go. I wouldn't recommend drinking this mixture, but it is entirely possible to do.

Now available for you people who are lazy, don't mind spending money, or just plain bad with your hands: The Kenmore Water Purifier available at Sears for $129.99! This item looks like a coffeepot, and claims to distill 4 gallons of water daily. This item is essentially the same as any still, but is sold to the consumer to clean up their drinking water. The chemistry is exactly the same, but I would imagine it works like a coffeepot and tries to keep the vapor temperature around 100C. Experiment at your own risk, as the higher temp will produce more hangover causing fusel oils in the final product.

Siphon the liquid part of the mixture into your still. This will consist of another airtight pot (pressure cookers work well) with a metal tube protruding from the top. This metal tube is often coiled with fans blowing across or water, or even ice. You'll also want to fit a thermometer inline with the vapor flow. It is important not to fill the distiller beyond the point where the boiling liquid would shoot into the tube. You just want vapor. Not liquid.

Heat the mixture and eventually you end up with condensed liquid dripping out of the other end. The first 50ml or so that come out you will immediately discard as it is likely laced with methanol. Once your thermometer reads at least 78C you are in the clear as most methanol has been distilled out and discarded.

Do not let the vapor temperature get too high or you end up with lots of other byproducts in the mix. Try to regulate it at just over 78C. You are finished when the still stops outputting liquid, or the distillate turns a bit cloudy.

Repeat this process with your collected alcohol to refine it yet again. It is possible to achieve ~95% pure alcohol using this procedure.

Water the mixture down with 2 parts water to 1 alcohol for a nice smooth 35% alcohol. Some people then filter the alcohol through activated charcoal which is said to remove more byproducts, and make the alcohol much more palatable. Age as long as you wish, you can even get fancy by storing it in an oak barrel, or in a container with oak chips. The length of time it spends in the barrel is directly proportional to the smoothness and quality of the resulting alcohol. This is because any remaining impurities are typically reduced or breakdown the longer it is aged. This is why premium liquors cost so much money. Johnnie Walker Gold Label for example is aged for 18 years! That means the fifth that sells for $125 in your local liquor store was fermented and distilled in 1986!

Important considerations!
  • If constructing your own still, copper is the best material for the pot and the condenser tube. Copper will not react with anything in the mix like steel or iron will.
  • Failing that, a pot coated in teflon is a good second choice.
  • Common sense should tell you that if you choose to solder and joints in the entire apparatus to use LEAD-FREE SOLDER!! Very important as ordinary solder is filled with lead which is a poison!
  • When heating the pot during the distilling process do not just crank your heater up to high, or use a roaring open fire until you are certain your still does not leak, and the collecting vessel is far enough away so as not to be ignited! You are dealing with nearly pure alcohol which is VERY explosive! A tiny leak can turn into a several foot long flamethrower, or it could flashback and ignite the entire still!

Freeze distillation

The easiest distillation process is to let nature (or your freezer) do all the work. Put any fermented beverage in a plastic bucket and place a lid on it. Leave outside over night when temperatures fall below freezing. Be sure to get to it early in the morning before the temperatures start raising. Pour off the liquid and save it, then discard the frozen goo. Put the liquid back into the bucket and put out again the next night. The resulting liquid is alcohol.

This works because alcohol and water (which is most of what you start with) freeze at different temperatures. Alcohol freezes at colder temperatures than water, so if you just happen to by mistake leave a bucket of homemade wine outside overnight in Janurary, the liquid you pour off would be brandy. This approach gets around having to find new equipment and most of the risks that stovetop distillation carries with it, its still is risky though, you never know when the IRS boogeymen will show up demanding that you pay your taxes. However, this is a more inexact method, you have no idea what exactly you are left with. That means it could make you blind or give you a killer hangover. I hear this is how Russians used to make vodka in the middle ages, they used giant white plastic buckets.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of liquor. Beer is better.

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