An easy way to make moonshine

In Cool Tools, Gweek co-host Michael Pusateri recommended the $200 Easystill as an inexpensive and simple way to make moonshine from mash.

I stumbled upon a device called an Easystill. Basically, it is a water distillation unit that can also be used to distill alcohol as well. The idea of spirit distillation is simple. Alcohol boils at a temperature less than water, so if you get temperature above 78 °C but below 100 °C, the alcohol becomes vapor, leaving the water behind. A still captures the vapor, cools it enough to turn it back to liquid, allowing you to capture it.

The EasyStill does all that in a 110-volt tabletop device that you can store in the closet or garage when you are finished. The still handles about a gallon of mash at a time, so if you make a small 5 gallon batch of fermented mash, you are running the thing at least 5 times to produce a liter of alcohol. The process is slow to start but does work. I’ve made drinkable moonshine. It’s not for any serious distilling, but for cooking up a batch on occasion.

Kevin had this to say about the legality of making distilled spirits at home:

Making beer and wine at home in the US is perfectly legal. Owning a still (for water or making fuel) is legal. But making distilled spirits at home is currently illegal in all countries of the world except New Zealand. However, technological advances, local craft breweries and artisian spirit-making is rapidly shifting the legal landscape in in the US in favor of home production. In the meantime, if you don't sell it and don't kill anyone, no one will likely mess with you. The best source for home distillery information, including legal updates, advice about all types of stills, recipes, what gear works, aging caskets, flavorings, and so on, is a really great website (based in New Zealand) called Home Distiller. It will probably answer any questions you may have about making your own liquor.

Cool Tools: EasyStill



  1. The key to making drinkable spirits (both for taste and toxicity) is learning to discard heads and tails.  Those are the non-ethanol organics that boil off before and after ethanol.  Such as methanol and nasty tasting stuff.

    1. There were moonshiners in my family (my grandfather’s generation in KY/TN) and last time I checked, I have a degree in Chemistry (grad school dropout — long story), and this bit is key.  Personally, I wouldn’t trust a simple still like this, I’d want to know the temperature of the vapor coming off, I’d want temperature control on the pot (flameless, sparkless — variac and heating mantle), and proper cooling.  

      If you’re just blindly discarding the heads and tails, you need to be rather liberal in the amount you discard, and for the Love of Science, don’t recycle that stuff back into the still. But if you can monitor the temperature in the neck, you’ll know when you can make the cutover.  I also hope the “community” is offering decent advice on filtration (e.g. charcoal), multiple trips through the still, and cleaning the pot, head and condenser between runs.

      1. Nobody controls the temperature on the pot.  If it’s boiling, it’s boiling.  It is useless to try to control pot temperature.
        Recycling the tails back into a still is commonly done and works well.

        1. Ah, but too vigorous of a boil and you will blow impurities out, depending on the height of your column (if any) and depending on what’s in the pot excessive heat will create hot spots and unintended reactions. I should have said heat control.

          And recycling the tails I can see, but not the heads.

        2. heat control of your pot is key unless you want massive grain foam explosions. It’s not temp, it’s the vigor of the boil. We do 100% barley, but I think if you use malt extract or other concentrated sugars you do not have the explosion issue.

          Can’t you recycle both heads and tails? I’m pretty sure the only thing that matters is what you actually drink, and even then we’re talking headache at the worst. In our stripping runs we keep it all. Then we slow it down real nice for the spirit run and use about 40 vessels. We get nice cuts that way.

      2. Wire up a temp controller with a thermocouple at the neck.  It’s not particularly difficult especially for someone who demands this level of control.

  2. What about safety? What is the source of the methanol that can notoriously (and dangerously) be a contaminant of moonshine alcohol?

    Also, what about quality? $200 plus ingredients and labor is a lot of cheap booze. With home-brew beers, there are claims of quality, and of individual and unusual qualities and ingredients, and of savings that can seem to justify the effort. If you’re just distilling alcohol, well, you can buy a bottle of (presumably rather terrible) vodka for a very small amount of money. Is your home-made hooch going to be any better?

    1. Typical source of methanol would be pectin, I’d think, which would be more of a concern if you’re fermenting fruit juices for brandy/grappa/jersey lightning/etc. – pectin breaks down to methanol in fermentation.

      That may be part of the reason wine and cider give some people a headache when beer doesn’t.

      The real issue is that even with a wash that contains very little methanol, it all comes off at the start – the same principle that sees most of the ethanol boil off before much water does, applies to methanol boiling off before ethanol.

      With a 4 liter still like this one, you could probably take the first ounce off the still, drink it back, and suffer no worse fate than a bad headache. That first ounce might contain all the methanol of 4 liters of wine – enough to give you a greater-than usual wine headache without the pleasant drunkenness.

      But if you were running, say, a 1000 liter still, and directly filling one bottle after another, the first few bottles could have all the methanol of 1000 liters of wine – drinking that would be a very different proposition.

      1. The dragonfrog is right. There is very little methanol or acetone in small batches of grain mash. You’ll be fine

      2.  I wonder if the high amount of methanol from pectin is why the traditional hillbilly way of making applejack brandy relied on freeze distillation.

        Dolly Parton wrote a song about it.

        Sad thing is it’s hard to make booze from citrus. My parents have a meyer lemon tree that has dumped about a year’s worth of lemons, and that’s if you use lemons every day, on them in the last two months.

          1. How do you make a “Betty Ford?” Take a jigger of rubbing alcohol, a splash of witch hazel, rim the glass with epsom salts, and garnish with a cotton ball. 

          2. No. I did learn the phrase ‘common law marriage’ at a very young age thanks to that branch of the family.

    2.  “What about safety?”   Are you nuts?  This is America, where everyone has some kind of semi-automatic.  I gotcher safety right here.

  3. Also an NZ invention for beer brewers, the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery. BTW, it may be legal to make moonshine in NZ but it’s illegal to sell it.

  4. Even someone with modest mechanical abilities can construct a simple still for much, much less than $200 that will probably produce better product.

    The home distiller forums have plenty of plans for basic pot stills. 

    Once you get really into it, home distilling is a super fun hobby–a great fusion of science, history, and folklore.

    1. same in the UK except if its over 2oish% (the % of a single distillation i.e not triple distilled to 40+% like commercial whiskys/vodka) you have to notify the taxman and get a license

  5. This is a purchase of convenience and “no-mess”, not of capabilities.  As others have noted here, building a still isn’t rocket science, it’s high school chemistry.  I built a still for a school project for about $25 of parts and 3 hours of tinkering.

    My mash was oranges and rice.  It worked (but didn’t taste very good).

  6. “The Duke Boys thought that their new electronic still would escape the notice of the revenuers, but they didn’t count on Boss Hogg tracking their browser history.”

  7. I wonder if this could be used to distill essential oils from flower petals to make your own perfume?  If you have the right kind of rose bushes, you could gather the petals and make attar of roses.

    1. There’s some youtube videos on that.
      Speaking of which, does anyone remember the ISO Machines they sold in High Times 30 years ago? 

    2.  Yes, there are some ‘essential oil’ stills sold in the US, with obvious disclaimer about the legality of use for alcohol.  I think the Beer Nut in SLC has an automated product like this one for such things…$500 last I remember.

  8. As a home distiller I can pretty much guarantee this is worthless. I mean, it will concentrate alcohol or any other volatile compounds you have in your wash. Booze from this will taste terrible. Booze from any still tastes terrible without aging/processing. Simple distillation is not really the difficult part.

    Making booze is an *awesome* hobby. It’s also dangerous so please be careful while making super volatile and flammable chemicals via heat application. And if you think this is interesting I recommend the Compleat[sic] Distiller.

    1. The Compleat Distiller is far and away the best modern book for hobbyists.  Also, this unit isn’t worthless, but it is more work than it’s worth.

      Not that I would know or anything.

  9. I have no idea about the legal status, but here in Switzerland you can pick up a small still  in OBI, the local DIY store. I’ve always fancied a go, but without a cheap source of fruit (i.e. my own tree), it doesn’t really make sense.

    Brad – I know some spirits need ageing, but I thought traditional schnapps is ready straight from the still?

    1. Whenever I get a batch of fruit wine that’s not quite up to standard, I run it through the stove-top still and get some very nice brandy that’s ready to drink.

  10. In the State of Alabama it is forbidden to drink or make alcoholic drinks in the majority of districts, however it is authorized to carry at itself or to store houses firearms. The impression is made that the drunk person in Alabama constitutes much bigger danger, than mentally unhealthy owner of firearms.

    1.  Uh… isn’t that true, though? I mean, there were over 40,000 deaths due (directly, not through diseases it causes) to consumption of alcohol in 2010, while there were only a little over 26,000 gun deaths. (Not counting suicide, since statistics show the availability or legality of guns doesn’t actually impact the suicide rate, only the tool used)

      And I’d be willing to bet there is at least some portion of overlap there, too.

  11. That said, you can buy a quite elegant tabletop alembic here in France. You can distill in elegance on your dining room table.Though technically illegal, I know many farmers who do their own distilling. On the other hand, licenses are passed down in families and there are huge stills on trailers which are hauled from location to location by the distiller. He sets it up in the traditional spot, by a spring. So, the farmers bring their mash…usually barrels of prunes to the distiller and wood. It’s quite a scene with a crowd of guys hanging around sampling the batches. The big alembic is set up here in Badefols by the old sprig fed lavoir in a tent where it is every year from November until March. I buy prune brandy from a distiller in a place called Le Grand Coderc. I use it to make home made aperos…I can give you my recipe for vin de noix…In the spring, I take the sticky first leaves from the walnut trees and put them in a liter of eau de vie. The alcohol turns inky black in a few weeks. Then I buy 3 liters of an inexpensive red wine like Corbieres. I mix a kilo of sugar, the wine and the strained inky black walnut essence infused eau de vie and then strain the mixture into pretty bottles and let it set for at least 3 months! I have many recipes…try peach leaves…or the same walnut technique with a sweet white wine with less sugar. I make my own creme de cassis. It’s a fun hobby.

  12. Reckon the M*A*S*H still was a great example of elegant MacGuyverism. So glad it ended up at the Smithsonian.

  13. No idea about the legality of home distilling in Norway, but I do recall seeing flavourings in supermarkets – bottles of… stuff one could add to raw spirit to make ‘whisky’, etc.

    Again, no idea whether that was tacit acknowledgement that people make their own spirit, or whether one was supposed to flavour commercial vodka.

    1. A few years ago in Belgium I saw, was totally intrigued by and bought a celery-flavored aquavit, and it was exceptionally good, nice and creamy as it was kept in the freezer. Yum.

      One trick I did try on my own one time was to slice 4-5 jalapeño peppers and put ’em in a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin for a few days.  The thing is, I did one bottle with fresh, raw jalapeños and another one with pickled ones.  Then I brought some friends over and we did a martini taste test.

      The winner, by unanimous verdict, was the pickled jalapeño gin.  Surprisingly, the fresh jalapeños made the gin sweet, which didn’t go well with a dry martini.

    2.  This is legal in the USA too.  The instructions I have seen for these are flavorings to add to vodka, and the store I see them for sale at is a homebrew shop that does not sell distilling equipment.  Furthermore, home distillers that I know about do not use these flavorings.

      1. Why would you want to make homemade fake flavored booze, anyway? It’s not like you can’t buy a tub of crap liquor at a big box store for almost nothing.

  14. (1) Build your own still.

    (2) Invite friends for distilling party

    (3) Everyone gapes in amazement at your personal distillery.

    (4) Sip a little hooch.  (I like Pinot Noir schnapps.)

  15. So is this a device to distil water or a device that can be used “nudge nudge, wink, wink” to distil “water”? 

  16. After the Old Italian Dudes in the neighbourhood have finished their biggest sunflower competitions, after all the tomatoes are bottled for the summer, they disappear into their garages and a sweet, paint-softening haze descends over Scarborough. I’m not sure how legal distilling grappa is here in Ontario, but those boys sure have a high old time making it.

  17. This is made more practical by the new super yeast varieties used for fermenting to high alcohol levels.  This is a real problem on Indian reservations where people drink gallons of bucket brewed wine. 

  18. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of science than I have (or someone with a better knowledge of illegal spirit distillation — which may be the same difference) can answer this. Could a still like this be used to improve the quality of inexpensive alcohol? Granted, there may always be some amount of nastiness that will never go away due to cheap ingredients and shortcuts in the mash and original distillation — but if you ran an inexpensive bottom-shelf vodka through this sort of thing, would there be any possible improvement?

    1. It would make it stronger for sure, not sure about better – Mythbusters did a taste test, and it seems that running your cheapo vodka through a carbon filter (like a Brita-style water pitcher) several times makes a big difference.

      1.  Which is very different from distilling it. It’s also more legal!

        I wouldn’t do it on something other than vodka though – on everything else, you’ll also be filtering out what makes it not-vodka.

        1. Oh definitely – filtering out the impurities from cheap vodka makes it more like ‘okay’ vodka. Filtering anything else just makes it funky.

          Potentially actually distilling again will remove some impurities (Some whiskey is ‘triple stilled’ and the like), but you would have to be buying some pretty rank swill to start with to make a big difference. Also, you’d have to cut your distillate, or enjoy your paint thinner…

          1. Surely a brita-style filter costs more than the extra few quid it takes to buy the nice booze though?

  19. Interesting – I have a similar unit at work to remove the sodium silicofluoride from the tap water (lugging water up the stairs to the office is less interesting, water delivery is wasteful).

    At the same time there have been a few different chemistry experiments I’d like to do for fun (e.g. trying aerogels) and woodworking (solvent for shellac) but the government causes ethanol to cost $125 a gallon, which is beyond my hobby budget.  Heck, I even tried to buy some Everclear to use as a toothbrush sterilizer (n.b. alcohol and I don’t misce) and was saddened to see my State had banned the antiseptic-grade stuff.

    Meanwhile, potatoes are 29 cents a pound at the produce stand…

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