How to make whiskey

Step by step instructions on how to make whiskey at home:

A proper still is a good thing for any homestead to have. You can use it to extract essential oils from plants, distill water, distill alcohol for fuel, and for making your own moonshine. America has a long and proud moonshine culture. At one point George Washington owned one of the largest distilleries in America. Some frontiersmen even started a rebellion over what they thought to be unfair taxation of their distilled spirits

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Pot still

Distilling can be a fun and rewarding hobby. However, one would be wise to make themselves aware of the laws concerning the distillation of spirits. Some states are more forgiving than others. In some countries, such as New Zealand, it is legal to distill your own spirits.

Distilling alcohol is rather simple. The basic purpose of distillation is to separate alcohol from water. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. As such, when you heat an alcoholic beverage, the alcohol will evaporate first. As the alcohol rises it will come into contact with the condenser. The condenser is nothing more than a metal tube that is kept cool by cold water running over the top of it. When the vaporized alcohol comes into contact with the condenser, it will then cool and condense back into a liquid.

However, before you can start the distilling process you must first ferment alcohol. This is done by using either grain or fruit along with some yeast. The yeast produces alcohol that can later be distilled by consuming sugar that is extracted from either the grain or the fruit.

Below is a simple recipe and direction for making your own whiskey.

Corn whiskey recipe for 5 gallon mash:
10 pounds of corn meal
7 pounds of cane sugar
Distiller’s Yeast (I would recommend Prestige)

Step by step direction on making whiskey:

Step 1 (Sterilizing): The first thing you need to do is to make sure that everything you use has been sterilized. The reason for this is that your yeast will have to compete with bacteria for nutrients. Another important reason is that bacteria will produce off flavors that will have a negative effect on the flavor of your whiskey.

Step 2 (making mash): The point of mashing your grain is to convert the grains starch into sugar. It also helps in extracting more flavors from the grain. In order to do this, you must boil the grain in a large pot of water at 145 degrees F for 45 minutes. It is important that the temperature doesn’t go below 140 or above 150. It is also important that you stir the grain. Burning your grain is the easiest way to ruin a batch of whiskey. Grain such as barley will tend to float to the top. As such, it requires less stirring. However, corn tends to clump together and sink to the bottom. Because of this corn needs to be stirred more often.

Step 3 (fermentation): Fermentation should take anywhere from 5 to 8 days. After you have mashed your grain, you will then want to pour it into your fermentation vessel. You can then add cold water to help it cool down to 75 degrees F. You will want a fermentation vessel that is between 5-6 gallons. If you are using a plastic container, it is important to make sure that it is food grade plastic. If your fermentation tank is metal, it is important to make sure that it isn’t made of aluminum. You should be able to buy a suitable fermentation vessel either at your local home brew supply store or online. You should be able to find an adequate home brewing kit for less than $100.
Once the mash has cooled, you will be ready to stir in your cane sugar. Stirring the mash is important because it will help oxygenate it.  You will be ready to add the yeast once you have added the sugar and thoroughly stirred your mash. It is also important to make sure that your mash is around 75 degrees F. The yeast will die if the mash gets either too hot or too cold. As such, it is important to check the temperature of your fermentation vessel throughout the fermentation.

After you have added the yeast, cover the fermentation vessel with a lid. This is important in that it will help keep bacteria from getting inside your fermentation tank. Any home brewing supply kit should come with an air lock. An airlock allows CO2 to escape without letting contaminated air back in.

You should be able to see signs of fermentation within the first day. This is generally signaled by bubbles coming up through your airlock. You will also start to notice a thin milky substance appear on the surface. You may find it advantageous to add a pound of cane sugar after the first couple of days. This will help boost the alcohol content. You don’t want to add too much sugar since this will cause your yeast some stress.

You can tell the yeast is done fermenting when the mash stops producing bubbles. At this point all of the yeast will have sunk to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.

Step 4 (Beer stripping run): When it comes to home distilling, I would recommend using a 5 to 10 gallon still. The smaller your still is, the harder it will be to make your cuts. Making “cuts” refers to the process of deciding what to keep and what to redistill later. The basic purpose of distilling is to separate the alcohol from the water.


Alcohol hydrometer

Distilling can take anywhere from 3 to 9 hours depending on the size of your still. The last thing you want to do is to stop in the middle of a run. As such, it is important that you are free from distractions while distilling. When distilling whiskey, you will need to do two runs. The first run is called the “beer stripping run.” After your first run you will have what is called low wine. Low wine will be around 40-30% alcohol. Check the alcohol content with an alcohol hydrometer until the alcohol content drops below 20%.

You will need to us an alcohol hydrometer in order to accurately calculate the percentage of alcohol. Alcohol hydrometers are relatively inexpensive and incredibly easy to use. (click here for alcohol hydrometer)

You will have to do several beer striping runs until you have enough “low wine” to do your final run. You final run is called the “spirit run.” The spirit run is where you will make your cuts and decide what to keep and what to re-distill with your next batch of low wine.

Step 5 (Spirit run): If you are using a 5 gallon still, you will have to do around 4-5 beer striping runs until you have enough to do your spirit run. Unless you are using a larger still for your beer striping run and a smaller still for your spirit run. However, you can also add the heads and tails from previous spirit runs. If you choose to do this (most do) you may find it advantageous to water your low wine down to 40 percent.

When you do your spirit run you will want to make your cuts. Making cuts refers to deciding what you will want to keep what you will want to redistill. Making good cuts is one of the most important aspects of making good quality moonshine.

Step 6 (making cuts): Perhaps the most important part of distilling is making the right cuts. Cuts refer to the alcohol you keep and the alcohol you throw out or re-distill. There are three parts to making cuts. These are the Heads, Hearts, and Tails. The Heads are what comes out first. The Hearts are what comes out midway through the run. And the Tails are the last to come out. The Heart of the run is what you will want to keep. You do NOT want to keep the Heads or the Tails.

So how can you tell the difference between the heads, hearts, and tails? For this you will need your sense of taste, smell, and an alcohol hydrometer.

For a 5 gallon still you will want to throw out the first 250 ml that comes out. The first alcohol that comes out is poisonous and bad for your health. You do NOT want to keep or drink it. The next thing you will want to do is to store everything that comes after this into small Mason jars. Keep these jars lined up from the first alcohol to come out of your still down to the last.

After you have all the jars filled and lined up, you will be ready to make your cuts. After doing several runs, you will be able to make your cuts based on smell and test alone. Until then you may find it advantageous to use an alcohol hydrometer. An Alcohol hydrometer tells you the alcohol content of your mason jars.

The Heart of your run (the part you keep) will be between 80-60% alcohol. This can vary depending on many factors. The Head of your run will taste and smell incredibly harsh, but as you get into the tails, the alcohol will begin to feel oily and sell somewhat like wet dog. Be sure to water down the alcohol as you taste it. You may think that your Hearts taste and smell too harsh, but remember that everything smells and tastes harsh when it’s 70% alcohol. Typically people will stop distilling once the alcohol coming from the still drops down to 20% alcohol.

After you have made your cuts, you can save your heads and tails to re-distill with your next spirit run. You can mix them together with your low wine and dilute it down to 40% percent.

When diluting your whiskey it’s advisable that you use bottled water. The reason for this is that some tap water can cause you whiskey to turn cloudy. This will not affect the taste of your whiskey. However, some don’t find it to be as  pleasing.

Step 7 (flavoring and aging): Whiskey gets both its color, and much of its flavor from the aging process. Whiskey is typically aged in oak barrels. Small 1-5 gallon barrels can be purchased online. However, you can also age your mini-oak-wine-barrels-xlwhiskey in Mason jars with toasted oak chips. All you need to do is lightly burn some oak chips before putting them into the jars with your whiskey. This can either be done by using your oven, or by using a small portion of your “heads” to light them on fire. You don’t want to use lighter fluid or gas, since this will affect the flavor of your whiskey. You should notice a change in your whiskey’s flavor and color within the first couple of days. The longer you age your whiskey, the more flavor and color it will absorb. It is also important to note that the flavor of your whiskey will change and mellow with age.

Don’t throw out your whiskey if you don’t get the results you want. You can always redistill it later.

(Directions on how to make moonshine)

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