Distilling equipment and hardware
When distilling anything, whether it be alcohol, water, vinegar, or essential oils it's important to have a good quality equipment to avoid contamination with unwanted metals or worse, accidents such as vapour leak or possible explosion.
Years ago, old time Moonshiners used whatever they could to make into a still, and often ran into trouble because of it. Now we know better, and can use proper food grade materials and construction methods to ensure a quality product, whether for distilling moonshine, water, essential oils or vinegar!
With a little common sense, it's easy to avoid problems. See below for how to pick a still.
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How to pick a still
So, should you buy a commercial still or make your own?
There are lots of things to know about 'distillation units' that are important to both your health and safety!
First, you don't want any unstable metals leeching into your moonshine, alcohol or vinegar...even your mash or wash for that matter! Remember, you intend to consume this! Not so bad if you're making essential oils you intend for scents, but still...why take the chance?!
And secondly, if you cobble something together that may leak, remember that alcohol vapour is very flammable! You don't want that around a heat source! It could catch fire, or ignite the vapour in a flash. That would not be good. You need good welds and solid connections.
The commercial stills listed here are tested and use safe materials such as copper and stainless steel. Unless you are an expert, do NOT try to build your own still unless you are competant and knowledgable about their construction.
To make a still yourself, you have to have a significant amount of construction skill. First you have to design one that will work properly (pot still or reflux still?). You have to know how thick the metal needs to be (copper or stainless steel), and also be able to cut it to size. You have to know how to weld or solder (welding is better), and not use any lead-containing solder. You have to properly test it for leaks, and polish it. You also need a condenser to cool your vapour. So if you want to be your own moonshiner, be aware there is lots to know!
Sure, a commercial still will cost you a bit of cash up front, but it quickly pays for itself in money saved, and properly cared for, will last decades!
There are two main types of stills to consider. A pot still is used more for making traditional liquors such as whiskey, rum or gin. These use grains such as corn, barley, wheat as well as molasses for rum. It has a very short head (or column) which allows more of the flavours of the ingredients to come through.
The other is a reflux still. The pots or boilers on both can be similar, but the reflux head is much higher. These are used more for grain alcohol or vodkas since they allow fewer flavours or cogeners through and give a cleaner, plain alcohol distillate.
Another tip for you; be sure to buy a still that is a little larger than you need. It's important not to fill it right to the top. You need a bit of room for expansion of the liquid, and space for the vapour to accumulate. Too full and you risk an joint leaking, pressure build-up or liquid escaping from the top of the still.
So buy a still a bit bigger than you need and always allow a little space at the top of the cooker or tank when you are filling it with your wash, fermentation or essential oil extraction.
Another tip is to strain the solids out of your mash before filling the tank. If you leave solids in the still, you could risk burning or scorching them, which could give a bad flavour and/or smell to your liquor, vinegar or oil. That's sure not what you want.
In any case, choosing the highest quality distillation equipment always pays off in the end. And, you will see a quick payback in money saved by doing the distillation yourself!
Below is a pretty good video from YouTube that describes the process, and features still-maker Mike Haney.