Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Simple Method for Distilling Homemade Hooch

I thought about writing this blog during the "Holiday Season" (in the U.S.) last fall.  The reason being that butter, sugar, pumpkin spices, etc., go on sale for the holidays.  I'm only going to use one of the ingredients for making hooch, and it's not the pumpkin spices and butter. 

First, a quick word about hooch or moonshine and the saxophone.  I told you in the overall introduction that this blog may contain some non-saxophone articles.  This is one of them.  For those of you who are disappointed, I can include some saxophone related content by a link to a group called, coincidentally, Moon Hooch.  That fits nicely in a blog about moonshine/hooch.  And the group sometimes features a contrabass clarinet, which you will notice from my other blogs is another interest of mine.  You can open this tune in another window as a backing track for this short blog.  If you want to hear what a contrabass clarinet sounds like over its full range, try this link.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.  I buy brown sugar on sale during the holidays for making homemade rum.  It is usually featured in a big display at the grocery store for about $1 a pound.  Be sure that it's brown cane sugar, and organic turbinado is probably the best.  Regular brown sugar is sometimes just white sugar that has been coated with molasses.  Turbinado, a less refined cane sugar, tends to have more molasses in it even though it doesn't look as brown.  Anyway, I buy about 12 pounds, which allows me to buy the cheaper two or five pound packages.

You put that in a 5 gallon glass carboy with your yeast, both of which can be purchased at a brew supply house.  You can go cheaper by using a food grade plastic bucket (and bread yeast), but you aren't likely to get high grade rum in the end.  Best to use champagne yeast, as the alcohol content in our brew is going to be fairly high.  Also, champagne yeast can work at lower temperatures so that you can put the carboy out of the way somewhere for a couple of months if you want to.  

You put on an air lock to keep wild yeast from entering your fermenting container and making your brew smell like sauerkraut.

The air lock also keeps these guys out if you ferment in the garage. 
I have a mother-in-law apartment above my garage (with no mother-in-law in residence), so I can ferment for months on the countertop, on the stove, in the sink, in the shower, etc.

Here's what it looks like when there is plenty of yeast sitting in the bottom (I'm not going to use any brewing terms here.  You can learn those on other websites).  
So, that's the easy part.  The difficult part is how to build and operate a still.  Unless, of course, you cheat like I do.  I bought my still at Sears and Roebuck years ago.  

It's actually a water distiller for people who live in places where the water is bad.  They are available on Ebay for between $50 and $100.  And you can, of course, use them for distilling water if you have the need.  

It has a stainless steel interior that heats up like a slow cooker.

It has a fan that sits on top and blows cool air through a heat exchanger made of stainless steel with aluminum fins.

The condensate then exits the side though a little filter pocket that can be filled with activated charcoal (a la Jack Daniels) if you wish.

You can only do less than a gallon at a time, so you will need to fill it more than five times from your fermentation carboy.  Throw out the first few drops of condensate to lessen the hangover potential of your hooch (read about it on brew sites).  You will get just under a quart of hooch per fill.  I estimate the alcohol percentage by periodically dipping a strip of paper towel into the condensate and lighting it.  

Keep in mind that this is my super-simple proofing method.  Here's how it works.  The first part of the condensate will be over 150 proof, the last will be simply distilled water.  If it lights, then it's over 80 proof.  If it doesn't, then it's under 80 proof.  When the condensate dripping out of the still stops being flammable, I note the amount in the collection container and continue to distill until I have doubled that volume.  That generally gets me at right around 80 proof for the condensate from that still fill.  

Also keep in mind that super-high alcohol liquor is a gimmick for kids.  Like adding cinnamon candy to liquor.  We are looking to produce a nice sipping hooch.  If you are looking for something to mix with KoolAid, or for a drinking "game" involving ping pong balls, just go buy some rum made in Hood River, Oregon.

Another thing to note is that the first few drips out of the still will have all of the volatile organic compounds other than methyl alcohol.  Distilling apple or grape juice is famous for this.  The skins of the fruit contain stuff other than sugars.  And by "stuff," I mean headache and hangover stuff.  That stuff generally "flashes off" at lower temperatures, so that the first few drops of distillate will contain the nasties (including trace amounts of acetone, etc.).  DUMP THE FIRST QUARTER JIGGER.

Those nasty things are why I don't recommend freezing anything to increase the alcohol content.  I see this being advocated on YouTube videos and I get a headache just watching.  The reason Apple Jack is famous for nausea while drinking followed by headaches and hangover is because the VOCs have been concentrated by the freezing process.  The same is true with freezing red wine.  If drinking a bottle of red wine gives you a hangover, just wait until you concentrate those VOCs and sulfur dioxide into a single shot of "freezer brandy."  Spend the time to do it right.  Distill.

Don't worry if you get busy on another project during the distillation process and forget to catch the little still when you are at the 50/50 point (half flammable and half not flammable) and your container is now full of low proof hooch.  All you have to do is pour it back into the still, with or without additional liquid from the carboy, and start over.  The 50/50 test still works even though you are now starting with liquid that may be 25% alcohol.  The final test is your choice.  Taste, bubbles, or flammability.  The bubble test will be explained on home brewing/distilling web sites.  Flammability is basically that 80 proof (40% alcohol) is flammable (although somewhat dependent on the temperature of your product).  As for taste, you are on your own, but again, 151 proof isn't a taste, it's a gimmick.

The first thing that you will notice about the taste is the deep dark secret of the hard liquor industry.  Distilled alcohol and distilled water tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  Distilled hooch made from Irish barley and water from a mountain stream tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  Distilled hooch made from turnips and water from your toilet tastes like pure alcohol and pure water.  The distillation process removes impurities (i.e., "character") from the distilled liquid (as well as kills the germs in the toilet water).  That's generally the purposes of distillation and the primary purpose of my Sears still.  It's actually what the distiller does after distillation that gives a particular hard liquor it's distinctive character.

How do we get our flavor back?  In this case, we are making rum.  We distill out about 25% by volume of our fermented sugar water so that we have our alcohol and water at 80 proof.  Then, for our first distillation run, we put a new container under the spout to catch the remaining 3 quarts (approximately).
We go ahead and let the little distiller continue on its merry way, churning out pure water (as the alcohol is all gone).  The unit has a thermal switch in it so that when the water is all gone, it shuts itself off.  But in our case, our "water" was "contaminated" by the brown sugar that had fermented into alcohol.  That "contamination" is removed by staying behind in the pot as a residue, again, the original purpose of my Sears still.

Sorry that I don't have a shot of this, but what remains in the stainless pot when it finally turns itself off looks sort of like caramel syrup (or slightly darker if you were able to find a really good dark brown cane sugar).  It is a weird substance.  It looks and smells like it would be sweet, but we have fermented all of the sugar out of it, leaving a brown sugar "flavor" without the sugar "sweet."  It is sort of a zero calorie "essence of brown sugar" syrup.  

That's what we put back into our hooch to make it rum.  It only takes a couple of tablespoons or less to flavor the gallon of rum that we will end up with.  That's about the amount that will be left in the still pot after completely fermenting a one gallon batch of liquid from the carboy.  Be sure to taste it first.  If you had any wild yeast get into your carboy, the flavor may be off.  In that case, you might be better off adding a couple tablespoons of molasses (per gallon) to flavor and color your rum.  It will have a sweeter flavor, but that's better than a tennis shoe flavor.  I haven't had this problem (yet) with rum.  You can, of course, add both the residue and molasses for a nice dark rum that isn't as cloyingly sweet as some of the commercial dark rums.  

It is best to add tiny amounts of your proposed flavor to tiny test batches of distillate to make sure that you'll like the flavor.  Straight pot residue may seem like a strange flavor at first because it is so concentrated.  When the concentrated flavor is added to the distilled alcohol/water, it suddenly becomes rum.  And by testing tiny amounts, I mean tiny amounts.  If you start testing using a shot glass, you'll quickly find that your ability to discern good liquor flavor from bad liquor flavor will be diminished.

Other types of hooch are possible, though slightly more complex to make.  You can make various types of whisky or scotch by using barley malt, also available at a brew shop.  You can find barley malt at the grocery store, but it's way cheaper at a brew store.  12 pounds is going to cost you about twice as much as making rum, but still under $40 a gallon for your 80 proof end product.
You can go a little cheaper by adding corn sugar for American style whiskey.
And you can actually add ground corn to the carboy.  Since I got this corn flour on sale, a batch of straight corn liquor was about $15 for a gallon.  That's as cheap as my "holiday" rum.
Adding corn meal or flour complicates things in a couple of ways, but it gives a nicer flavor to the "syrup" left in the bottom of the distiller.  Here, I'm adding barley malt, corn sugar, and corn meal to my carboy for a small batch of bourbon whiskey in a 2.5 gallon carboy.
The corn meal has to be mixed into a "pancake batter" slurry to get it into the carboy.  Kind of a pain.
I then fill the carboy with water.  I'm still using a little more than 2 pounds of sugar/malt per gallon in the carboy.  That produces an alcohol content higher than most beer yeast can tolerate, so I'm using champagne yeast.  There are yeasts at the brew shops that are super fast and can ferment into the 20% alcohol range, but I've never tried them.

The corm meal tends to settle at the bottom of the carboy.  I sometimes stir it with a sterilized wand, but I'm not sure that that does much, as it quickly settles again.  Here is a carboy with only corn sugar and corn meal for a batch of traditional corn liquor (moonshine).  As it ferments, tiny bubbles tend to keep the corn flour moving around.
It's okay that it settles because one of the complexities of using corn meal (or any meal/flour) is that, if a lot of it gets into my little distilling pot, it cooks into cornmeal mush (and then burns on the bottom if I don't catch it).  Hard to clean up.  So when adding this type of mixture to the still pot, try to leave all the meal in the carboy.  A little won't hurt because we are not distilling every batch down to flavor syrup.  

It is best to distill your first pour from the carboy down for your flavoring residue as it will have the least amount of meal/flour.  Set it aside because, in the end, especially if you are making straight corn liquor, you need this delicious yellow corn-flavored syrup that the corn meal creates.  The residue left from just pure corn sugar doesn't really have any flavor (as would be the case with just pure white sugar).  That syrup is the difference between a good sipping Corn liquor and a generic "white lightening" that is best used to clean out a carburetor.

You can get fancy and add additional flavors to your hooch.  You can buy oak chips at the brew store or make your own (if you have the right type of oak).  The chips can be charred to add additional flavor, or burnt when making scotch.  Purists will shudder, but then purists probably didn't get this far into the blog.

The only real problem that I've had is one batch that fermented out "funky."  It had an odd smell and flavor, but I know from experience that you can distill the funkiness out (as per above) and just not use any of the funky syrup for flavoring. The problem with that was the funkiness also seemed to make the fermented liquid foam up inside my Sears still.  It foamed up, got into the cooling coils, and then flavored the batch with the tennis shoe funkiness that I was trying to avoid.  $12 literally down the drain.

On the other hand, $12-15 for my next gallon of nice rum makes up for it.

My best hooch to date was straight rye whiskey.  I ground the rye berries myself (by hand, which was slow), but I'm thinking of trying rye flour next time.  It would be expensive at about $30 per gallon, but worth the extra trouble, in my experience.  
I guess this blog was not as short as I thought it would be.  And there's a lot that I did not cover, so you will have to use common sense (those of you who have it) and maybe look to some of the brew websites.  Now back to our regularly scheduled saxophone program.

1 comment:

  1. That was a gas to read, thanks very much for the great write-up!