Moonshine is one of the most famous spirits in the U.S. and it has a very long history. Moonshine is especially popular with home and craft distillers and, when made properly, it can be one of the smoothest and most potent liquors available. Americans have been making moonshine for centuries, and moonshine purists continue to perfect this exceptional drink.
Moonshine is a variant of whiskey, which is distilled from corn mash. When made properly, it is completely clear and very potent. Distillation is the only way to make moonshine, and distillation in pot stills is the most popular method. Distillation occurs when the corn mash—with appropriate amounts of sugar and yeast to cause fermentation—is heated in a large tank or pot. Vapors rise from the heated mixture into the condenser, where they are then cooled into a purified liquid. This liquid is the ethanol, which gives moonshine its powerful trademark zing.
The corn mash consistency will affect the production of ethanol, so adjusting the yeast, corn and sugar in the mixture will make a difference in the moonshine produced. Different times and temperature also make a difference; the first liquid distilled can be toxic and should be discarded. To learn more about how to make moonshine and moonshine recipes, see our books, how-tos, videos and other resources online. See our homepage for our latest videos and featured products.
For a 5 gallon mash: (20l)
- 5 gallons soft, filtered water.
- 7 lbs (3.2kg) cracked corn. 6-8 pieces/kernel is the proper crack. If using bird feed, make sure it is perishable, or in other words is free of preservatives.
- 7 lbs (3.2kg) of granulated sugar.
- 1 tbsp yeast (distillers yeast if available.)
Unlike a cooked mash, a simple mash does not rely on grains for starch. The corn is included for a bit of alcohol, but mainly for flavor while the sugar provides the alcohol. The conversion of starches to sugars is a natural process, accelerated by cooking. An uncooked mash will convert starches to sugars but much more slowly and less efficiently. Your added sugar will ferment rather easily and will provide most of the alcohol in your beer.
Your first distillation run will be a “sweet” run since you will not have any backset to use for sour mashing. I recommend using the spirits you collect in your first run as feints for the next run. Yes, all of them. Your second run will produce your first batch of sour mash, which will be good, but in truth the flavour and consistency will not start to reach their peak until the third or fourth run in my experience. Distillery equipment is different in its own way
Practice, practice, practice!
Put your ingredients into the fermenter in the order listed and close it. You should start to see fermentation of the sugar within 12 hours. It should take 3 or 4 days for the ebullition to end. Siphon your beer out of the fermenter with a racking cane and charge your still.
Siphoning is the best method because it allows you to pull the beer off the top of your lees, leaving them undisturbed. You do not want suspended solids in your still and this method works quite well in keeping the lees at the bottom of your fermenter.
At this point you need to make your first decision. How much backset will you use in your subsequent mashes? The legal minimum for a sour mash is 25%. I do not like to go above 50% in my experience. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you will start with 25% backset. This means that for a 5 gallon mash you will use 1-1/4 gallons of backset and 3-3/4 gallons of water.
Since you will be running your still for hours, you do not want to leave the fermenter empty. Put your 3-3/4 gallons of water back into the fermenter so your yeast won’t die while you distill. While you’re at it, this is a perfect time to scoop the spent corn off the top and replace with an equal volume of newly cracked corn. Later we’ll add the 1-1/4 gallons of backset and 7 more pounds of granulated sugar.
Basics of Pot Distillation
There are two basic types of pot distillation:
The first involves a traditional pot still, which has no cooling in the neck or column. The distillate produced is lower in proof than that produced by a reflux still with a fractionating or splitting column. This is the traditional method of distillation and requires multiple runs. The distiller will save up enough low wines from the first runs or stripping runs to fill the still for a second run. If a triple distillation is desired, the product from second distillations are collected until enough spirit is saved to fill the still for the third spirit run, and so on.
The second type of pot distillation is performed in a reflux still equipped such that the column can be cooled during distillation. This type of still is far more efficient and can produce a high proof, high quality spirit in a single run.
Pot distill your wash, being careful to keep things running slowly. For beginners, 2-3 drops of distillate exiting the worm every second is just about the perfect speed. As you collect, periodically put 4-5 drops of distillate into a spoon with an equal amount of water and sip it. You will learn to identify the off-taste of the heads very quickly.
For your first run it is best to take very conservative cuts. I recommend very generic whiskey cuts, say 80% down to 70%. As your skills improve you will be able to go deeper into your cuts, tasting periodically for the off-taste of the tails. Once you learn to identify the off-tastes of the heads and tails you will be able to make proper cuts without the use of a hydrometer, a big step toward becoming a competent distiller.
By law any spirits collected above 80% cannot be called whiskey because they are considered too “light” or neutral. In other words, they are too high in proof and thus do not properly imbue the spirit with the flavour of the grain mash. I use anything collected above 80% as feints for the next run. For more information on the legal definitions for whiskies and other spirits check out Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
Remember to discard the first 150ml or 5 fluid ounces collected so you don’t get any methanol build up over time and batches.
Your fermenter should now contain 3-3/4 gallons of water, your old yeast (barm) and your old corn.
Take 1-1/4 gallons of backset from your previous distillation and add to it another 7 pounds of granulated sugar. This will dissolve the sugar rather easily. Hot backset directly from the still works better at dissolving sugar, but adding hot backset to your fermenter will kill your yeast, so allow the backset to cool if you use this method.
Next, add this mixture of sugar and cooled backset to your fermenter, which already contains 3-3/4 gallons of water. This will bring your total beer volume back to 5 gallons.
Now is the time to make sure you have removed and replaced any spent corn kernels, which float to the top of the fermenter. You only need to do this if you plan on a continual ferment, that is, past 7 or 8 fermentations at which point your corn would otherwise be expended.
Cover the fermenter and let it ferment for another 3-4 days or until the ebullition ends.
Congratulations, if you have done everything properly you are now ready to run your first sour mash!
Siphon off your beer and charge your still. Again, replace 3-3/4 gallons of water into your fermenter so your yeast doesn’t die while you distill.
Distill your whiskey in the same manner you did during your first run, being conservative with your cuts until you gain more skill. Anything collected under 80% ABV on this run is considered a Sour Mash whiskey. Congratulations! This spirit is a palatable moonshine when collected directly out of the still.
Collect your run down to your stopping point. Again, I recommend 70% ABV for beginners, perhaps a few degrees into the 60’s if you are bold. Save all of the spirit run as good sippin’ whiskey.
Most moonshiners keep running their stills long after they are finished with the spirit run, collecting down to about 20% ABV before stopping. Together, the heads and tails are reused as feints. I do not normally go as low as 20%, you’ll have to find your comfort zone. If you start to get blue or green flecks in your spirit, you’ve gone too far or run things too hot.
Repeat the Process
After your run, collect 1-1/4 gallons of backset to return to the fermenter for your next batch. Repeat the process starting at the Second Fermentation.You are now producing a simple sour mash whiskey and with practice you will be able to produce a very high quality moonshine. Age this whiskey in an uncharred oak barrel to produce a traditional Tennessee-style whiskey.
Safety first, Duke boys. Have fun!