Read Me First - The Very Basics of Liquor Distillation

One of the daunting aspects of starting in the hobby of liquor distillation is the probability of information overload. When you begin to read on the subject, you'll find massive amounts of information, but some is true, some is absolute hogwash, some has no relation at all to what you want to do, some is exactly what you need to know, and it's almost impossible to tell the differences. To make matters worse, much of the information you need must be read after other information you also need to understand that first thing you read.

This post, and the documents it's linked to, is hopefully a seed crystal to a collection of ordered, peer-vetted information that will allow you to break out of information overload, and get on with successful distillation. As we see weaknesses and omission in this collection, we'll amend and add as necessary.

If you start reading here, and read the material linked to by this post, you will get the information the new distiller needs, in roughly the order you need it. Most importantly, this information will be devoid of the myth, fallacies, and general bad information that abounds about distillation. It is my hope that it will be harder to displace good information with bad information in your mind, than to fill a vacuum with bad information.

Each paragraph in this post will describe a document that contains a solidly accurate description of a single concept, and a then supplies a link to that document. The first document describes the most basic principles of distillation, and is a good place to start. The Basics of Distillation

Because the potstill uses the basic principles of distilling in the simplest and most easily described manner, it makes sense to describe the function and operation of a potstill next. Get that explanation here. An Overview of Potstilling

In An Overview of Potstilling, you learned how to run your potstill, and divide the output into fractions, each of which will be a bit different from the fraction before and the fraction after. Separating these fractions into good and bad is called "making the cuts", and is explained simply in ZBob's Making the Cuts, and in much more detail with good graphics in Kiwi's Novice Guide for Cuts.

The next logical step is to understand exactly what the potstill will do for you, so that you can predict generally what will happen during a potstill run. That's covered in Understanding and Predicting Potstill Runs.

At this point it's probably time to deal with one of the most pernicious pieces of phony still lore out there, what I call the "Magic Boiling Principle". When you hear talk from potstillers who "can't control their potstill temperature", or who have a magic plan to "control the wash temperature so only the ethanol boils off", they are subscribing to this widespread (and completely fallacious) theory. Find it debunked at Magic Boiling Myth.

With all this talk about how distilling is done, you're probably wondering what kind of stuff you need to put in your still's boiler to get started. We'll start that discussion in What Can I Put in My Still?

I know I've been tossing about words like "ferment" and "fermentable" and "fermentation" without really telling you much about what they mean, and I plan to correct that right away, but you'll have to learn about the micro-organism that makes fermentation work, yeast. It's all right here in Understanding Fermentation and the Yeast That makes it Possible.

When hobby distillers wish to make neutral or flavorless liquor, they will frequently start by making and fermenting a sugar wash, but it's easy to throw some sugar and yeast in a fermenter and create something that doesn't ferment well, or at all. In How to design a Sugar wash you'll learn how to design a healthy sugar fermentation.

By now you should have a pretty fair grasp of the distillation theory, at least for potstilling (We'll be getting to reflux still after a bit), and you should be ready to try some hands-on stuff. Fortunately, my old friend Mason Jar Dixon, the Rye Junkie, has written exactly what you need to actually start making some liquor, and another old friend, Pint-O-Shine has preserved it on his Artisan Distiller web site. Read Mason's An Introduction To Beginning Distilling.

So far, everything we've discussed uses a potstill, but you've probably heard people talking about reflux stills, too. For a discussion about the difference, and how they might be used differently, take a look at The Difference Between Potstills and Reflux Stills.

With all this good knowledge and experience under your belt, you're in good shape to profit from Tony Ackland's Home Distillation of Alcohol. This site is an encyclopedic collection of principles, experiences, recipes, designs, calculators, and much more, and is in large part drawn from the New Zealand distillation movement, which laid the groundwork for the technical modern hobby distiller. If there is one single location the new distiller should read and re-read, this is it.

Now that you've been introduced to the basics, and a bit more, it's time to get really serious and start exploring Harry Jackson's The Alcohol Library (may be currently offline) If it isn't in here somewhere, you probably don't need it, but there's just way too much in here for a newby's first bite.

Zymurgy Bob, a simple potstiller

my book, Making Fine Spirits


  • edited May 2015

    For in deep reading I'd like to recommend @zymurgybob's famous book, which is definitely worth the investment! :-bd

    Making Fine Spirits - by Zymurgy Bob

    Making fine Spirits - by Zymurgy Bob

    Making Fine Spirits is a book for the rankest beginning potstiller who is interested in learning to make naturally-flavored “brown” spirits, whiskeys (and also whiskeys), brandies, and rums. It will guide him (and her, if she’s interested) through the questions that need to be answered, and the decisions that need to be made to start the new distiller on the way to creating that first amber drop of ambrosia.

    You’ll learn distillation lore, which dangers are real, and which are bogus. You’ll learn how to build a small but useful coffeepot still in a day, without soldering, and the next day you’ll learn how to make a respectable brandy from the cheapest grocery store wine in that still.

    You’ll build on your experiences with the coffeepot still to construct a 5-gallon potstill, and then a 15-gallon potstill.

    Making Fine Spirits is also a book for the advanced potstiller as well. You’ll design and ferment washes, and distill them while making the cuts to get only the finest spirit, and you’ll pick the appropriate aging chemistry to enhance even further the quality and complexity of what you’ve made.

    And after you’ve done all that, you’ll realize that your spirits have become as good as, or most commonly, better than, what you are used to drinking. At that point, you’ll start buying the odd very-high-end spirit, just to see what they did and plot to copy it. At that point you can truly say you are making fine spirits.

    200 x 300 - 13K

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  • edited May 2015

    Beginners' Guide to more Resources

    New to distilling? Please have a look around before you start posting, there is a lot of useful information readily available for getting you up to speed. Our most recommended reads in alphabetical order are:

    Distiller Calculators Collection

    Distiller's Glossary

    Kiwi's Guide To Cuts

    Found something of interest for our new participants? Please post in a comment below and I'll add it to the list (comments will be deleted after links addition to prevent confusion).

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