How to distill whiskey

How is Whiskey is Made?

Humans have been making alcoholic drinks for hundreds of years. Even during the Prohibition, when alcohol was banned across the United States, people learned to make alcohol (although illegal) under the light of the moon (thus the term “moonshine”).

Whether you make your alcohol as a moonshiner or for legal business, you do so through the distilling process. Distillation is the process in which two liquids in a mixture are separated by heating.

How Does it Work?

The liquids separate under heat mainly because they have different boiling points. This means one boils at an earlier time point than the other. Spirits like brandy, whisky, and vodka are all products of distillation.


Distillation is preceded by the fermenting process, where yeast is added to grain mash to break down the sugars in the mash into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

After the mixture is fermented, it is transferred into the distilling apparatus, or the still, where it is boiled in water.

Basic stills are composed of a closed container for heating the mixture, a condenser for cooling the evaporating liquid, and a receptacle for collecting the cooled liquid.

Different Types of Stills

There are two common types used in the spirit industry. The pot is the earliest design used. It is typically made of copper and looks like a huge onion. It is rounded at the bottom and tapers into a thin pipe at the top.

The reflux is the more modern design that allows the evaporating liquid to redistill without starting all over again. In a reflux, the vapors rise from the stout bottom through a column extending towards the top where they are condensed.

Moonshine Still

The condensate, or the vapor that cools back to liquid, is allowed to run back down the pipe until it gets reheated and boils again.

When the mash is heated, the distillation process begins. Alcohol boils earlier than water, so the temperature is controlled to boil the alcohol but not the water.

Once the alcohol evaporates, the vapor is forced through the length of coils of the condenser, which is being cooled by water to condense the alcohol vapor.

Finally, a spout leads out of the condenser and into a receptacle, which collects the cooled drops of alcohol.

copper stillThe liquid that is collected now contains a concentrated amount of alcohol, which can now be bottled and sold.

In any distilling process, the separation of alcohol and water is never perfect. It so happens that some portion of the condensed vapor is a mixture of water and alcohol.

This is why some distilling companies return their spirits to the stills for double, triple, or more distillations to purify further the liquor collected, which results in an increasingly higher alcohol content.

The more distillations the liquor goes through, the higher the alcohol content of the resulting product will have. However, re-distilling liquor comes with a price. With each repeat heating, a little more of the liquor is lost through evaporation, which lessens the volume of the end product.

Have you ever made your own Whiskey?

Let us know your experiences!

By Akela NDE (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

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