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How A Still Works

Home wine makers have often asked me how to increase the alcohol content of their wine and whether they can distill their wine. I have therefore included this information here.

I must remind everyone that in the UK, it is legal to own a still, but it is illegal to use it to make alcohol. Distilling is also dangerous. The information given here is purely for interest and I would strongly recommend that you do not try distilling wine. If you really need 70% proof alcohol, then I'd suggest you would be better off joining Alcoholic Anonymous than risk blowing yourself up.

In this lovely old picture the drum on the left holds the mash (probably potato wine known as pocheen), this drum is where the wine would go. Above it is an upturned kettle arrangement, fitting snugly, but held in position by its weight. The liquid cools as it hits the kettle (due to the air temperature) and the spout continues down through the second barrel, which is, full of water, and finally emerges out of the second barrel into the stone jar.

Now this is a very crude way if distilling, and very dangerous, so let's get some terminology going we can all understand, and update it by 100 years.

The first barrel we will call the boiler, and the second the condenser. The aim is to separate the alcoholic beverage by means of heat. To this end, using a metal boiler, preferably stainless steel. Heat should never be applied by naked flame, more likely a kettle element, with a simple clamp on thermostat that's used on some hot water tanks. A drain plug at the base of the boiler, to drain of the waste would be used, and also a plug hole above the water line in your boiler using a bottle cork will stop excessive pressure if something goes wrong (like it running dry). The lid or top needs to be airtight, to prevent the spirit escaping (and stinking the place out). A domed arrangement at the top, with the tube leading to the condenser fixed at the highest point of the dome. I understand (not from my own experiences of course) that this next tip will improve the efficiency of the still by 100%. Suspend within the dome top a bag of loose objects such as mosaic tiles, glass, pebbles etc, a wire strainer would be ideal to hold the items. The advantage is the water minus the spirit will fall back into your boiler, and increase the percentage of alcohol heading for the condenser. The temperature to work on is between 10-20 degrees Fahrenheight below boiling point. Once the required temperature has been reached, the earliest spirit to travel over is highly volatile (explosive) hence no naked flame. When it has travelled through the condenser it is still as dangerous as petrol, so care would be needed (no smoking).

As the distillation progresses, the level of alcohol drops to a safe level. To give an example, 5 gallons of wine at 15% Vol. can produce one gallon at 75%. So if the spirit from the condenser is taken off in 1 lire containers, the first one is capable of fuelling a car. Around six litres would be run off, the 6th will contain only a little spirit, but would be added to the next run.

Before I go on to the condenser, for those of you who have heard talk of 1st 2nd & 3rd distillations, I will explain. These refer to grape wine in general; the aim is to bring over the flavour of the grape, into the finished spirit. To do this you heat your boiler at a lower temperature and the first run will probably produce 2 gallons at 35%. A second run on your 2 gallons, still run at a lower temperature could give you 1 gallon. So how it is done in one go? Easy, the chances are some initial wines have no flavour to impart. Sugar flavour and colour do not come over in the finished product.

Next we will talk about the condenser. Use rigid copper pipe from the lid of the boiler, about 6 inches above the lid, in 22mm pipe. An elbow joint to link up the next piece of 22mm to reach across to the condenser barrel, with a slight downward angle (to avoid it running back).

Linking a 22mm to 15mm soft copper pipe (it comes in coils), a screw type connection would be used.

The pipe would be coiled so it runs down through the barrel, with no kinks on a downward spiral and out the side, about a foot up from the floor. It is then sealed well because the barrel is going to be full of water. Right, you should have the idea how the system works by now, alcohol mixed with water from wine will run from the boiler to the condensing barrel and be cooled back to liquid by the water in the condensing barrel. Now heat rises, as you are aware from your Emerson tank, the same applies to the water barrel. If your home water is heated by a gas boiler, an independent pipe from your boiler is heating the same few gallons of water, and sending it through a heat converter in your Emerson tank to heat your running water. Why am I explaining this? Well it won't take long before the water in the condenser barrel gets hot in the top six inches, so an overflow pipe fixed about 3 inches from the top of your condenser barrel to drain off the hot water would be used. Also there would be fresh cold water flowing into the barrel to keep the temperature down and the water topped up. About a cup full a minute will probably be enough to keep the temperature down. What size water barrel? probably about the same as the boiler.

Now let's get back to the 4 - 6 litres of alcohol. Distillers would cut back the alcohol to 70% or 40% by volume, this avoids any explosive spirit around. An example of how this could be done, using gin or vodka of the correct volume and place in a hydrometer jar, or just a very long glass. then test any hydrometers you own and find one that just floats, note the position. Then blend the 4/6 litres starting with the first one run off, then adding 2-6 working down the line until the hydrometer is floating at the right level. The remaining liquid would be put into the next batch of wine to be distilled. How does Brandy come about. It took a lot of digging in old encyclopaedias to find the answer. It's oak and nothing more, if you have ever been round a distillery they show you large barrels full of scotch that need topping up periodically. Due to evaporation through the wood, this need for topping up is described as "For the Gods". Admittedly it is necessary to use this method for a grain type alcohol, as explained in the next section. However let the gods find their own drink, because using a plastic barrel there is no loss. Using a plastic barrel, and some English Oak that has not received any treatment. Chopped into kindle size pieces (depending on the size of the opening of their container). then dry the wood in an oven at moderate to low temperature for about one hour. The door would need to be opened a few times to release the moisture. Lightly char the wood with a burner, and it is ready for use. For the record Pocheen will work on this system. In goes the wood, roughly 5% wood by volume of liquid, then put your sealed lid on and let the oak do the work. After only a few weeks the colour is yellowing (it will go much darker over the years) and it is starting to smell of Brandy. How long is it left? Years if possible. Distilled alcohol can have an unpleasant smell, if filtered through charcoal it will remove most of the pong (it's done with Vodka) however this is not done with the finished brandy.

Interesting item I found in my book, the USA in 1908 recommended a maximum of 1% sugar in brandy. This book also mentioned, around this time Britain was producing more Brandy than France, using sugar beet as the initial mash.

You hear talk of people going blind drinking alcohol, hence the expression blind drunk. This can occur when you are distilling from wood grain like whisky, true these types of alcohol can cause blindness. Fruit, leaves, Potatoes, will do no more harm than bought spirits.


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