A moonshine maker describes his setup - a Boing Boing exclusive

A fellow known only by the moniker "NaOH Jones" gave me permission to run his description of his homemade distillery setup on Boing Boing.
In your book, Made by Hand, you list several projects that you wanted to attempt. One of them is to build a still, so I thought I'd share my experiences in home-distilling.

Distilling is fun -- but it's really best as an addition to home-brewing or home wine making. Distilling is a great way to recycle a bad batch of wine or beer by converting it into brandy/vodka. You mentioned the importance of failure as part of the DIY process in your book. Distilling turns failed wine/beer experiments into booze, and I call that a success.

Home distilling has two camps -- purists who aim for the cleanest, clearest neutral spirit, and adventurers who take advantage of the ability to play around making concoctions that won't ever be found on liquor store shelves. Personally, I fall into the latter, in part because I don't have the technical know-how to really fine-tune my still. I make a "bierschnapps" at Christmas-time. Beer is essentially made from the same stuff as whiskey, but with the added bittering of hops. When distilled, beer becomes a great aperitif, with a peppery citrus finish.


This is my inline reflux still. After digging through several hobbyist forums on Yahoo, I found several great plans in the forums at homedistiller.org. They range from tea-kettles with refrigerator tubing soldered to them for pot stills to retrofitted pony-kegs with digital temperature controls. I based my still on one of many excellent design sketches posted by a fellow named Bokabob - it's a variant on his popular "mini-still" design called a "two-cups" still.

Even though I didn't invent the design I made a point of drawing out my plans several times from scratch. I find that drawing out plans myself is a good way to make sure I understand how the thing works.


The boiler is a 20L stainless steel milk pail. Got it on eBay. I had a metal shop cut a hole into the lid and asked them to weld a threaded coupling to the opening. I told them I was building a robot.


This was my first stumbling block. The shop I went to told me they couldn't weld stainless directly to copper - but they could braze brass to stainless. Brass isn't ideal because there is often traces of lead in the alloy. I did some research and learned how to chemically strip lead from the fixture. Once the lid and coupler were brazed, I made a mixture of 1 part 3% hydrogen peroxide and 2 parts white vinegar. Soaking the lid in that solution for about 5 minutes cleaned the brass of any lead in the fitting's surface. I used a chemical lead-test to check and it came up clean. For safety, I repeat the treatment every few months since high-proof alcohol is a solvent.

The rest of the still is copper.


The column is made of 3" copper pipe and stands 4' tall. It has three segments: The "main column", the "head" and the "condenser".

The main column is a 2' segment of copper pipe that is packed with copper pot scrubbers. Steam rises from the pot, up the column, through the mesh. The surface area of the mesh provides the steam plenty of surface area to collect and condense and fall back down the column, essentially creating an environment where the alcohol is continuously distilling, or refluxing, and getting more and more pure the higher it rises up the column. If I take out the scrubbers, I can operate the still like an old-fashioned pot-still.


From the main column, it passes through the head. This was the first thing I ever soldered and it shows. Check out that giant glob of silver solder on it. It shames me every time I look at it. Steam passes through the T-joint in the head and up into the condenser. I built in a port for a thermometer that is positioned right at the top of the main column, so that I can gauge the temperature of the steam, (which in turn allows me to know what is being collected, as different alcohols come off at different temperatures, and you always want to ditch any potential methanol - which is easy because it comes out first.)


Once the steam passes through the head - it moves into the condenser. I coiled about 20' of 1/8" copper tube around a broomstick, annealing with a torch the entire way to keep the tube from collapsing or kinking due to work-hardening. The center of the coil is also packed with copper mesh. It fits pretty nicely into the second segment of copper pipe. The column is left open at the top to avoid a pressure-build-up (pressurized alcohol vapor = bomb).

A pond-pump in a bucket of ice water circulates cold water through the coil. It's important to monitor the circulating water temperature and add ice as-needed to make sure that the alcohol vapor isn't lost out the top. Some people attach their condenser coils to the faucet...but I prefer to use a closed system so that I can reclaim the water and put it to use in the garden.

Back in the head, the collected liquid has two paths it can take - I can open the collection valve, and it will drain off to be collected in a mason jar, or I can close the valve and the liquid level will rise until it reaches the overflow level in the T-joint and get returned to the column to be further distilled. By adjusting the collection rate at the valve, I'm able to increase or decrease the potency of the collected spirit.

A still needs a heat source. I use a gas turkey fryer to bring the liquid almost to temperature, and then I turn off the flame and turn on an electric industrial bucket-warmer belt - it's got a thermostat that allows me to adjust the heat throughout the process. I could use the bucket-warmer to bring the whole thing to temperature, but it would take forever. That said, flames + alcohol vapor = fire-extinguisher on hand at all times. That's another reason to have a built-in thermometer that's reading the vapor temperature.


If I just let 'er rip with the valve wide open, this still can pull beer from 6%ABV to 45%ABV in one go.

Last weekend, I played with the reflux rate and pulled 7 bottles of two-buck-chuck (the cheapest wine Trader Joe's sells at $1.99/bottle) into just over 1.5 quarts of 80% ABV neutral spirit. I split that up into small batches and am soaking a few different fruits and herbs for a week - at which point I'll dilute down to 40% ABV. I'm pretty stoked about the ginger and the orange zest. I'll end up with almost 2L of various flavored spirits.

If I had better conditions, I could probably pull upwards of 90% ABV for a really clean vodka (obviously you don't ever DRINK it at that ABV, you always dilute to 50% or lower). But since I'm doing this in the backyard in the dead of night, always watching for Johnny Taxman...I'll have to settle for what I can get.


  1. adventurers who take advantage of the ability to play around making concoctions that won’t ever be found on liquor store shelves

    Like methanol!

    1. Absolutely right Robulus. If you like methanol then you will love the stuff the that this guy is making. When running a still one should always collect in a series of collection vessels that are small in size. because every drop that comes out of the still will be a little different in composition than the last drop. First you get foreshots, this is where the methanol will be concentrated. then you get heads. These have a bit of a sweet acetone smell to them. then you get hearts. these will be the cleanest(closest to azeotrope) ethanol that you get out of a run. then the tails will come. these have a dirty almost sweaty smell to them. The reason is that any time you ferment something the yeast is not just making EtOH. it also creates many other compounds. these are present in any fermented drink but stilling concentrates them at different rates based on their boiling points. lower boiling point compounds will be concentrated at the beginning of the run and higher boiling point compounds will be concentrated at the end of the run.

      1. Good effort, if a little simplistic. Foreshots are where the acetone lives, and should be discarded (or saved for useful solvent cleaners). Heads still have some solvent extracts, reducing the further you get into the run (this is where the art of “cuts” comes in). Hearts are basically the “pure” ethanol, the stuff you really want (although the mix of late heads and early tails really defines the character of the liquor). Tails are the fusel oils left at the end of fermentation; you can actually feel them as oily on your fingers (and taste them in really cheap vodkas). Same then both if you want for the next round.

        Someone in the earlier thread mentioned freeze-distilling, which was a pretty traditional practice for extracting applejack from cider in colonial America. People, don’t do this. Real, heat-based distilling gives the distiller the chance (requirement, really) to discard the “heads and tails” (acetones and fusel oils) driven out at the beginning and end of the process. Freezing fermented beverages (i.e. cider) to freeze the water and thereby concentrate the unfrozen alcohol products (“applejack”) gives no opportunity to remove the poisonous acetones, fusel oils and other dangerous by-products of distillation. “Apple palsy” and other colonial maladies were very real, and were created by just this process. Make your own, distilled apple brandy, or just buy Calvados in the liquor store (BTW, anything called “Applejack” in a liquor store is a grain-neutral spirit (a vodka), flavored by artificial apple flavoring, whereas a Calvados is probably a real apple brandy from France).

  2. operating a still is still illegal, unlike homemade beer and wine. Federal law states that a home with two adults can make up to 200 gallons of beer or wine a year (both, I don’t know)
    could be because you can make methanol, or just because the government makes a lot of money from liquor sales and they don’t want to loose it to moonshiners. You can even go to prison for it, like two Georgia men in 2007.

    1. There’s no way I could drink 100 gallons of beer or wine in a year.

      By the way, that inline reflux still needs some fishnet stockings and a lampshade…

      1. Your response made me think. . .because I drink a lot. More than most.

        But: 100 gallons in a year? That’s 8 pints to a gallon. 800 gallons divided 365 days=2.19+ pints per day. No problem there.

        Just today I drank two bottles of Tsingtao helping to replace a roof at 10th and Clement. After enough work, walked to 540 Club and had 3 pints of Stella with a friend. (soundtrack was Charles Mingus. . .), then when parking meters had to be fed and tools replaced: back to 10th, to the Front Room (PO) for a Final Final single pint of Red Hook ESB. -a perfect finish-

        That’s 5 pints+, and frankly an average day. Not for everyone I realize. And 100 gallons is plenty.

        But for a drinking person. . .that dubious threshold is easily attainable.

        1. That reminds me of a stand up bit I saw. The guy was remarking about the definition of binge drinking in Australia being 7 standard drinks in a session.

          “OK, so put your hand up if you have been binge drinking in the last week”

          Almost entire audience puts up hand.

          “Now keep your hand up if you’ve had a binge this week, and then GONE OUT DRINKING.”

        2. you are exactly the fellow I want up on my roof. When you’re done there, perhaps a spot of log splitting. “Dubious threshold” indeed.

        3. Oh, I understand completely, but for me, it’s nigh impossible. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and find that it sometimes aggravates my asthma symptoms.

          Don’t get me wrong, though. I do love drink for the sake of drink. B&B or Drambuie are my favorites, and I can easily polish off a bottle of Asti in one sitting. However, frequency is a problem, and too often would leave me lethargic with a chest full of phlegm.

        4. I think you’ll find folk like you are refereed to as ‘Alcoholics’.

          Seriously though, get some help; at least for your liver.

  3. Mark & NaOH Jones – Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    From a ‘pure research’ point of view, I’ve always wondered what a decent personal setup would look like.

  4. “could be because you can make methanol”

    Well, I suppose you could – if you were fermenting boxwood…

    Honestly, there is way too misinformation in this country left over from the prohibition. To my understanding, distillation only separates and refines the compounds that are already present. To produce dangerous amount of methanol, it would have to be in the beer to begin with.

    All the stories of people going blind can be attributed to crooks who mixed the end product with chemicals (Anti-freeze) to get a better profit margin.

    1. Hey gabrielm, if you’d actually bothered to read the article, you’d see the author mentions how he deals with methanol collection in the midsection of the post.

      1. And if you read my comment, you might note that I stated: “To produce DANGEROUS amount of methanol” :)

        Pulling off the heads is an easy way to remove these volatile alcohols that have a lower vaporization point.

        Still, they have to be present in the initial brew that you are distilling. I watched a video of a professional distilling several hundred gallons and the heads only made up a few cups. At the size this guy is doing you wouldn’t produce enough to cause more then a bad taste and perhaps a headache.

    1. I’ve done infusions, not of gin yet but of star anise; ginger; lemon zest; and black pepper(!). It’s fun, usually makes something drinkable (or at least mixable), and easy. The black pepper is especially interesting; at 160 proof, it’s firewater in every sense of the word. :)

      In principle you get better results with higher proof alcohol, so do the infusion with Everclear or Devil’s Spring vodka or similar, and then dilute (or not) to the desired strength. (unless there are some undesirable flavors in the gin ingredients you don’t want so much of I guess)

    2. Actually, it’s not. It’s illegal in the US to in any way modify liquor, or even to put it in a different bottle. Our liquor laws are insane.

  5. I do love this; thanks Mark! (Yay for booze-posts)

    robulus: The author did mention how he deals with methanol collection in the midsection of the post.

    1. So you want me to:
      1. Waste prescious minutes of my time actually reading.
      2. Throw away an opportunity for a luke warm pithy one liner.

      Yeah, right, that’s going to happen.

  6. God. You two are prickly.

    That was supposed to be read as contrite self deprecating humour.

    That was suppossed to be read as ironic dickishness in light of said contrite self deprecating humour.

    Way to suck the buzz out. Now I’m a sad panda.

  7. The difficulty with methanol isn’t that it comes from wood (it doesn’t necessarily) nor that it makes you go blind (it doesn’t).

    Methanol is produced by the an-aerobic processes of several types of bacteria (not yeasts). If your beer, wine, or other starter material has any sugars left in it — or any simple carbs, oftentimes — and you get one or more of these types of bacteria into the bottle, or into the still, or into the mash, you get methanol in the end product — which is one very good reason to sterilise /everything/ /throughly/ /every/ /time/ /you/ /brew/, /bottle/, or do anything else with the substances.

    Methanol, itself, does not poison you nor make you go blind; Instead, it gives your liver the materials it needs to produce formaldehyde, which is then converted into formic acid – i.e. ant venom. This produces metabolic acidosis and cellular hypoxia – your body stops operating at the cellular level for a lack of oxygen and a shutdown of metabolic processes.

    The reason that moonshiners of Ye Olden Tymes let methanol-tainted product get into the hands of people who were poisoned by it, is because they ‘safety-tested’ the product on themselves … but people who have severe cirrhosis of the liver, or a failing liver, or severe hepatitis, don’t get poisoned by the methanol-formaldehyde-formic acid process; Their liver never metabolises the alcohol and it’s excreted by the kidneys. A lifetime alcoholic can more readily drink methanol without further adverse effects than someone with a fully functioning liver.

    NaOH Jones: Be careful of red rot – it’s caused by acidic leaching of zinc out of brass, leaving behind the copper matrix. It can be a safety issue especially as you’re concerned about lead leach (it might be leaching but not leaving behind any surface lead, if the only thing left on the surface is copper), and it causes structural failure as well. If I were you, I would avoid lead in all parts of an apparatus.

    1. In acute ETOH poisoning, the alcohol is allowed to slowly process and breakdown through the liver by administering IV methanol. It is a slow 24 hour or so detox.

  8. If you’re looking for infusions, there are far easier ways to do it without a still. At one extreme, there’s vodka + [stuff] + time, in a mason jar. Excellent for various fruits, such as blackberries. You’ll need a few weeks for that. Then I cut it with simple syrup to taste and it’s tasty. I’ve done ginger in bacardi 151, and it’s… hot. Amazing as an addition to the blackberry stuff.

    There’s also these guys: infusing spirits in a whipped cream doohicky. I want to try the chocolate nibs in particular.

  9. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: don’t use lead. That means you need special plumbing solder, not the stuff for wiring and electronics.

  10. It still scares the hell out of me, the risk of it going wrong. Brought up on too many scary tales about potcheen making going wrong.

  11. Hmmm, methanol, going blind, not going blind, bacteria, lead soldered copper pipes, illegal as heck, liver damage. I think I will just stick to root beer and avoid the dangers of homemade booze.

  12. I was thinking of a method to distill on solar power with a mobile setup, and I thought about combining these existing ideas:



    and then this for cooling the condenser:


    As far as I can tell, the only real trouble lies in controlling the temperature, but apart from that, I think you could create a mobile solar distillery that could fit in your backpack.

    1. Hey, neat idea, but the whole trick to stillin’ is making cuts. And that trick becomes way more tricky the smaller the amount you’ve got in the boiler. A 10L charge is going to go from foreshots to heads in no time, have a brief run of hearts and slide into tails in the course of 45 minutes so it takes considerable skill to catch all that in a timely manner.

      1. This, exactly. The OP is using a reflux still, designed to yield essentially neutral spirits (vodka, basically), to be flavored by infusion. The real talent in distilling (IMHO, admittedly) is using pot stills (or, OK, carefully minded reflux stills) to capture the essence of the original fermented mash (“beer”, wine, cider) and passing along that character to the final distilled beverage, without later flavoring additions. It’s very much an art, and a highly-skilled craft requiring much practice and experience to do well. I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing 2 (of only 7) master distillers at Jack Daniel’s, and their obsession and devotion to their craft was truly impressive.

        1. A fine whiskey can make everything all right, all right.
          A song for the whiskey men:

          But no bourbon around though: I think I’ll have a wee dram instead.

  13. This might be “fun” but it’s also “illegal” in 46 States. Have fun brewing “hooch” in the penitentiary Mr. Do-it-Yourself :/

    1. OTOH, knowledge of this craft may serve you well in a prison.

      Or have prisoners stopped making booze, by sundry clandestine means, while in stir?

  14. Luckily for all those home brewers the antidote for methanol poisoning is ethanol, so just make sure you’ve got a good strong liquor and it doesn’t matter a damn whether it has methanol in it anyway.

    (ethanol competitively inhibits methanol digestion via alcohol dehydrogenase giving time for the methanol to be excreted by the kidneys)

  15. Two questions:

    1) I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the scrubbers. It sounded originally like the alcohol itself condenses on them, and then falls back down. But if that happened, then the alcohol wouldn’t make it to the top of the column. So I guess the impurities condense on the scrubbers, so the alcohol gets more pure? But why doesn’t the alcohol condense on them?

    2) It seems like there is still plenty of opportunity for the alcohol to evaporate straight out the top, unless the water is constantly kept extremely cold. Why have such a straight “chimney” design, and risk losing some alcohol, instead of a design where the pipe might curve back down, giving even more time for the alcohol to condense on the copper, and less of a great big opening at the top?

    Anyway, very cool! Hmmm, I’m learning to weld right now. Could be a useful project. Just as a prop for a historical recreationist, of course!

    1. 1) As the still heats up, all the vapours condense on the scrubbers and run back down. Once it’s running, more of the less volatile part of the vapour (water) condenses, and the heat it gives up evaporates more of the volatile part (alcohol) of the liquid that’s flowing down. That’s what he means by getting the vapour to repeatedly distill on its way up the column.

      2) The open top column is very important – it’s better to have a bit of alcohol lost should something go wrong, than to have pressure buildup you don’t notice until something blows, one of your pressure-fit joints pops, and bits of copper plumbing go flying in all directions, possibly including toward your noggin.

      If anything he’s overengineered his still, by having such a high condenser section. Probably all the condensation happens in the bottom 6″ or so of that chimney.

    2. “I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the scrubbers. It sounded originally like the alcohol itself condenses on them, and then falls back down. But if that happened, then the alcohol wouldn’t make it to the top of the column. So I guess the impurities condense on the scrubbers, so the alcohol gets more pure? But why doesn’t the alcohol condense on them?”

      The scrubbers provide surface area for condensation. You are correct that the impurities remain on the scrubbers, and in fact they must be replaced on a regular basis. The continual rising and falling – boiling and condensing – is known as reflux, hence the name of the type of still.

      “It seems like there is still plenty of opportunity for the alcohol to evaporate straight out the top, unless the water is constantly kept extremely cold.”

      The number of coils he’s running makes it very unlikely that any steam would be able to get past without dropping in temperature to the point of being liquid again. My still has half the coils and I never even see a wisp of steam come out the top – if you hold your hand over it, it is barely warm. But I use faucet cooling rather than recirculated water as he does.

    3. The alcohol does condense on the scrubbers, but it partly reevaporates again when hot vapor passes on the way up, resulting in some water falling back down into the kettle, and a purer vapor rising to the top.

      Long ago in a galaxy far away I used to operate something similar, only with a scrubbing column going up, a U-bend and then a straight copper pipe with a water sleeve going down for a condenser. Result ~160 proof alcohol in abundance.

  16. Instead of the brass threaded fitting, I’d suggest using stainless steel instead. If you can’t find the right fitting or it’s too expensive, perhaps you could get some SS tubing of the right diameter and have a thread put on it at a hardware store.

  17. I should just stop reading the comments. It just makes me sad.

    There are 6,000+ members on one home-distilling group I read, 4,000+ on another, and who knows how many other groups. Even with overlap, that’s a lot of people, and it’s obvious many of those people are really doing this. There are hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of posts, hundreds of recipes and instructions, and now several actual books. They ALL explain in detail how to get rid of methanol. Illiterate hillbillies (and semi-literate farmers, and pretty literate George Washington) have been successfully avoiding methanol for hundreds of years (without taste-testing, BTW, there are other methods). METHANOL IS NOT AN ISSUE.

    Virtually all the stories of blindness, poisoning, etc. come from depression/Prohibition-era moonshining, when poor people would do anything to make a buck (including using lead-soldered car radiators as condensers), and sober people would drink anything. After Repeal, moonshiners had to start matching the quality of their product to the commercial competition. It’s also worth noting that virtually all reports of illness and death come from BATF reports. Surely a law-enforcement agency would never exaggerate the dangers of a substance they are tasked (and highly-funded) to eradicate!

    As far as legality, well…I was amazed to see small, table-top size stills for sale in wine stores in Italy. In the US, laws proscribing personal behavior tend to fall into a) avoidance of tax collection, b) stepping on some powerful industries toes, or c) enforcement of some (specific) religious or moral code. Moonshining hits the trifecta, violating all three, so it must be evil, right?

    Certainly Americans by the thousands would never violate Federal law just to enjoy imbibing an enjoyable substance…oh, wait.

  18. The Foxfire books (Vol. 1) has a great chapter on stills/moonshine. I believe they even have plans for making one. Making good shine was a matter of pride for most mountain persons. The bad ones used the run the booze through car radiators.

  19. “Once the lid and coupler were brazed, I made a mixture of 1 part 3% hydrogen peroxide and 2 parts white vinegar.”

    mmmm yummy, lead sugar!!

  20. You can braze copper to stainless, and even weld it directly, but joint design is important to make it work. I’d avoid the brass and chemistry and find another welding/brazing shop. For anyone concerned about lead in solder, there are plenty of lead free solders out there, including silver solder that will stick to stainless.

    By the way, what do you use to seal the lid of the milk jug to the rest of the unit? I made my own silicone gasket using a tube of stuff designed for sealing tropical fish tanks once that was supposedly very high purity, but always wanted a better solution. The very first still I made, we used surgical tubing and other rubbers in various seals and you could definitely taste it.

    fun stuff. Mine is all glass at the moment, and I LOVE it. Although there is lore of copper being important for particular flavor profiles.


  21. It sounds like there’s little risk of ingesting methanol if you start with commercial wine or beer, yeah? That, and the simpler pot still that produces less pure (more flavorful?) drinks sounds cool to me. You can buy a 1/4 liter borosilicate retort for under $40. It would be a gas âš— to make something in-between barley wine and whiskey out of a bottle of Liberty Ale. Alembic!

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