Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Makin' Whisky - Part 1

 First the obligatory disclaimer: Making distilled alcohol for drinking is a violation of federal law. If the revenuers find out you're makin' whisky your ass is grass. You can make wine and beer for your own consumption, but distilling liquor is a definite no-no. Boo on makin' whisky!
Far be it for me to encourage anyone to dabble in illegal activities. So I'm saying right now, don't do it if you are worried about getting busted.
 Having said that, making whisky (or rum or vodka or brandy or apple jack or any other distilled liquor) is a fine old American tradition. Since the laws concerning distilling are basically tax-based, rather than being morally-based, and knowing the standard view Americans hold about taxation, this activity is rather patriotic in my view. In the interest of helping others on the path to becoming an Accomplished Idler I'd thought I'd share a little what I learned about this fascinating subject. Not saying I've ever done any whisky makin' myself...

 Distilling liquor is really quite easy, in theory anyway. You mix up a 'mash' of some sort of sugar and water, mix it with yeast, let it ferment and then boil the alcohol off. That's basically it.
We have to discuss a little basic chemistry here, but if I can understand it pretty much anybody can, chemistry was definitely not my long suit in school. So, here we go.
I'm assuming we all are aware that water boils at 212 degrees f., okay?  Ethyl alcohol (the kind we drink) boils at 173 degrees f. If you heat up a pan of water and alcohol mixed together the alcohol is going to boil first, right? So the steam coming off the heated mixture will be mostly alcohol when it reaches 173 degrees.
If you could capture this steam and cool it off until it becomes liquid again you would have liquid alcohol, right? That's all a still does. The still captures the steam from the mix boiling within it and cools it off until it becomes liquid again and drips from the stills output. That is what distillation is - boiling liquid, capturing the steam and reducing the steam to liquid again.
Basically, all a still is is a sealed pot with a pipe coming out of it. If you filled the pot with water, sealed the lid and heated it to boiling (212 degrees) steam would come out of the pipe. I mean it has to go somewhere, right? Okay, if you ran the pipe through water, or packed it in ice, the steam coming through it would cool off enough to become liquid again and drip out the end of the pipe. What drips out the pipe is distilled water. Pretty easy, huh? Now if you filled your still with a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water and heated it up the alcohol would boil first (at 173 degrees) and the resultant steam would be alcohol. The alcohol steam runs through the (cooled) pipe and what drips out the end is distilled alcohol. As more and more of the alcohol is boiled off the temperature of the mixture would rise until all the alcohol is gone. By the time your mixture has reached 220 degrees you have boiled all the alcohol off and are now just boiling water.
That's all there is to the process of distillation. A still doesn't 'make' booze. All it does is separate the alcohol from the water in an alcohol/water mixture.
I'm not going to tell you how to build a still here. There is plenty of information on the Internet and in books about building and buying stills. Oh yeah, you can legally buy a still on the open market. It's not against the law to own a still, it's just against the law to make drinkable alcohol with one. You can buy a bong legally in a head shop and as long as you don't smoke any dope through it you haven't broken any laws. Same thing with a still.
Some people use a still to make essential oils and non-drinkable methyl alcohol for fuel. If you want to build a still just Google 'making a still' and you will be inundated with sites that describe in detail how to make a still. You might try There's a guy in Arkansas who builds and sells beautiful all-copper stills. You can find 'The Colonel' at Check his stills out, they are truly works of art.

Okay, now we know how a still works. So how do we get the alcohol/water mixture in the first place? Never fear, Rev George is here. We will now learn how to make a 'mash', the first step in makin' whisky.
Just a little more basic chemistry here. This part is really fun.
 If you pour some warm water into a bucket and stir in a bunch of sugar you have a bucket of sugar water (see how easy this is?) mix. If you add some yeast to the mixture the yeast, being a living organism, will start eating the sugar. Like all living things, as the yeast eat, so must they pass waste. The yeast eat the sugar and pass two different waste products - they fart carbon dioxide gas and pee ethyl alcohol. So, when we drink alcohol we are really drinking yeast pee. Something to think about, huh? Anyway, the yeast are swimming around in your bucket, happily eating sugar, farting CO2 and peeing alcohol. They are also reproducing. They are making more little yeasties that also eat sugar, fart and pee. There is a veritable yeast orgy going on in your bucket.
After a while the yeast eat all the sugar, starve to death and die. All parties must eventually end, after all.
Now what you have is a bucket full of water/alcohol mix, dead yeast and a few other byproducts. This mix is called a 'mash' by moonshiners or a 'wash' by commercial distillers. We're gonna call it a mash.
Now you strain the mash into your still, fire that dilly-doggy up and when the temperature of the mash in the still reaches around 170 degrees alcohol starts dripping out of the water cooled pipe. A smart person would probably put some kind of container under the end of the pipe to collect the alcohol. You keep collecting the alcohol until the mash in the still reaches a temperature of around 180-185 degrees. If the temperature gets higher than that you start boiling off some of the other byproducts, which moonshiners call 'fusil oils', that are unsafe to drink. You now have a container of distilled alcohol. Pretty simple, huh?
At this point you might be wondering how you know what the temperature of your mash is while it's being distilled. Well, most home-made stills and all commercial stills are equipped with a thermometer that shows the temperature of the mash during the boil.
You can see that a thermometer is a pretty important piece of equipment for the distiller. It's all about the temperature.

 The quality of the alcohol you have collected depends on several things. The kind of sugar you used to make your mash being the most important. Earlier I said you mix sugar and water. Sugar doesn't necessarily mean processed, white sugar you buy at the grocery store, though that would work. Sugar can be brown sugar, Karo syrup, molasses, honey or the sugars that occur naturally in grains, fruit and vegetables. Most booze is made from these naturally occurring sugars. Rum is made from sugarcane. Vodka is made from grain and, occasionally, potatoes. Scotch whisky is made from barley. American bourbon whisky is made from corn. 'Blended' whiskies like Black Velvet, Seagram's 7 and Crown Royal are made from a blend of grains and processed sugar. Tequila is made from agave cactus that grows in the Tequila region of Mexico.
 It would seem pretty obvious that using a product that contains more sugar is going to yield more alcohol. I mean sugarcane obviously contains more sugar than a damn potato. That's why sugar cane is sweet. It's easier to make rum from sugarcane than it is to make vodka from potatoes because you get more sugar from a pound of sugarcane than you do from a pound of potatoes. Duh.
All grains, fruits and vegetables contain, among myriad other substances, sugars and starches. This is important to the distiller. We need those sugars and starches to make our booze. We need to know how to utilize those ingredients to maximum efficiency. We want a lot of booze for all the hard work we have to do, after all.
 Were going to be making traditional American whisky from corn, so I'll use corn as an example of utilizing the available sugars and starches in grain to make alcohol. Here comes that chemistry thing again...
A kernel of corn contains sugar and starch. More starch than sugar. That's why corn is not all that sweet. 'Sweet corn' has more sugar than 'feed corn'. That's why it's called 'sweet corn'. Since corn doesn't have all that much sugar - as compared to sugarcane, for example - it's going to take more corn to make our whisky than it would take sugarcane if we were making rum. Why go to the bother? Why not just make rum and get it over with? Well, I like whisky more than rum. Also, corn is cheaper and more available than sugarcane. Sugarcane grows really well in the Caribbean and in Central America. That's why they make rum down there. Besides, this is my blog and we're going to make whisky, dammit.

There is a way to get more sugar from your average kernel of corn than occurs naturally. It's called malting, and that's what were going to talk about now. A corn kernel is just a seed. You plant a corn kernel, water it and it sprouts and grows into a corn plant. A wonderful feat of biology. When a seed of any kind sprouts it chemically turns the starches contained in it to sugar to feed the little plant while it's just starting to grow.
Think about that for a minute - If we could make the whole-kernel corn were going to be using for our whisky sprout, we would have a whole lot more sugar available to us than from the un-sprouted corn kernels we started with. This is way cool. It's pretty easy to make seeds sprout. If you put a bunch of whole-kernel corn into a bucket and get it wet it will sprout. Anyone who grows alfalfa sprouts in their garden for salads knows this. When the corn kernels in the bucket sprout, and the little green sprouts coming out of the kernels are about the same length as the kernels themselves, you take them out of the bucket, spread them in the sunshine and dry them. Cruelly, this kills the corn kernels, but what the hell, we have a bunch of sugar-filled corn kernels which will make fine whisky. Priorities must be maintained. We are Accomplished Idlers here...
Malt is nothing more than sprouted grains ground up into meal or powder. Malted milk contains malt to make it sweet. Why does it make the milk sweet? If you answered 'because it has a lot of sugar in it' you win the gold star.
There is a drawback here. It takes an awful lot of time and work to malt all that corn. You will spend a shit-load of time and effort malting enough corn to make a few gallons of whisky. Trust me on this. Fortunately many, many years ago some really smart (or at least inquisitive) people discovered a pretty cool bit of chemistry. It's called amylase, which is defined as an enzyme that reduces starches to dextrin (sugar). It's the substance in the sprouted seed that turns the starch to sugar.
Here's how it works. If you took say, five pounds of un-malted corn, ground it up a bit and cooked it in water until it turns to porridge and then mixed in about a pound of your malted corn (dried and ground up)
the amylase in the malted corn will turn the starch contained in the un-malted corn to sugar. This is a wonderful thing. The perfect definition of a 'gimme'. All you have to do is add malted corn to the un-malted corn in about a one-to-five ratio and you will end up with a lot more sugar.
The old-time moonshiners used to malt about a fifth of their corn and then stored it up for use in making mash. The longer you age your malt the better it gets, by the way.
Malted barley contains a lot more amylase and sugar than malted corn, and interestingly enough, it will turn the starches in corn to sugar as well. Amylase doesn't care if the grains are different, it still turns the available starch to sugar. You need a lot less barley malt than corn malt to turn the corn starch to sugar so most traditional moonshiners use barley malt instead of corn malt. By the way, the reason real 'malt whisky' is so expensive is because the distillers go the extra step of malting all of their grain instead of depending on amylase.

So, we now have cooked up a bunch of corn and added our malt to it. Now we pour that into another bucket, add yeast, seal it up and let the aforementioned yeast orgy commence. In a five gallon bucket it will take about a week for the yeast to eat all the sugar, piss out the alcohol and die. The the mash is strained into the still and distilled as described above. That is the process in a nut shell. In Makin' Whiskey Part 2 we will get into the real nuts and bolts of the operation.

As a reward for sticking around and wading through all that chemistry and distilling theory here are a few fun and interesting facts about moonshine and moonshining.

The 'Whisky Rebellion' in the newly born United States was a result of the George Washington administration's levying taxes on the corn whisky made by the people living west of the Appalachian mountains. Those people rightly figured it's one hell of a lot easier and cheaper to reduce their corn crops to whiskey and shipping it to the east than shipping bushels and bushels of corn. It took about a bushel of corn to make two gallons of whisky, so one fifty gallon barrel of whisky contained the equivalent of twenty five bushels of corn. You can fit a fifty gallon barrel on a mule a lot easier than twenty five bushel bags of corn.

You cannot go blind from drinking ethyl alcohol - either home made or commercially distilled. You can get way drunk and even die from drinking too much of it (not to mention going to jail, getting pregnant or getting your ass kicked ) but you won't go blind. You can go blind from drinking methyl alcohol, also called 'wood alcohol'. Unscrupilous moonshiners were (are?) known to now and then add methyl alcohol to their 'shine to increase the alcohol level cheaply. These low-life scumbags should be forced to drink their own vile concoction and then, if they live, have their blind asses horse-whipped.

New Zealand allows their folks to distill a certain amount of liquor for their own use. This wise outlook has resulted in some high tech stills that can really pump the juice out. The Kiwis have also developed high-yield 'super yeasts' that live longer, eat more sugar faster and piss out alcohol like your Uncle Vern after drinking a thirty of Keystone Light. Those super yeasts are also used in the distillation of alcohol used for fuel. And the booze made with them tastes like it, in my opinion.

The economy of the New England colonies before the American Revolution was based almost entirely on rum. Ships sailed from Boston to the Caribbean islands, bought cargoes of sugarcane and brought them back to Boston. The New England distillers made rum from the sugarcane and sold it back to the islanders and to the British. That's why there was a long-standing tradition of British ships serving rum to their crews.
"Old Mr. Boston" brand rum is still quite popular. Interestingly enough, the economy of the southern colonies was based almost entirely on tobacco. Who says those folks didn't have their priorities together back then?

Stay tuned for Makin' Whisky Part 2  





  1. Nice! I learned a lot but was very entertained :)

  2. Thanks, Becky. Always trying to do my best educating my family.

    @Herb. Thanks for the welcome Herb. Trying to dust off the old skills.

  3. A Great Read! I'm a redneck that is stuck inside on a saturday. This is an educational and humorous blog. Can't wait for more. LOL