Moonshine — the idea may bring to mind 1920s speakeasies, Al Capone and law enforcement crackdowns. And while Prohibition may have ended in 1933, federal law still bans Americans from making their own hooch at home. However, with the craft bourbon and whiskey industry seeing major growth in recent years, many Americans have looked to skirt the law and live out their moonshining dreams.
Learning How To Make Whiskey
Aaron Hyde has been distilling for 12 years and is the author of the forthcoming book, How to Distill: A Complete Guide from Still Design and Fermentation through Distilling and Aging Spirits. Hyde believes it’s that sense of the forbidden that has led many to get into the moonshine game. “I think many get into the hobby because they see it as something counterculture or culturally and historically unique that they want to preserve,” he says. “Moonshining has a rich history in the U.S., as does bourbon.”
Others may just want to try to save money on booze, Hyde notes, but many distillers quickly learn that may not be the case. Home distillers not only invest funds into their own equipment and ingredients, but also time and energy to perfect their brews. Others simply enjoy the craft of creating their own bourbon; it’s a fun subject to talk about with friends and simply a fun hobby to enjoy. If you are looking to get that still set up and to begin bottling the booze, here are some things to keep in mind.
Equipment and Learning The Ropes
Like many, Hyde turned to distilling after years as a home beer brewer. Other than the still itself, many who make their own beer already have some of the equipment necessary to expand into whiskey production. But how easy is it to turn that interest in drinkingwhiskey into actually making it?
“Distilling isn’t very hard to learn,” Hyde says. “There are numerous aspects to the process, and the distillation of an alcohol into a spirit is only one. Mashing grain, fermentation, aging, blending and polishing are other steps you’ll likely use, depending on the type of spirit you want to make.”
Here are some things you may need to get that moonshine mission underway:
- 5-gallon bucket with airlock — $20 or less
- Comprehensive brewing equipment kit with cleaner, sanitizer and a racking cane with tubing to help transfer liquid — $70
- Sugar, yeast, yeast nutrient and other ingredients — $25-$30
- 1- to 5-gallon stovetop still — $250 and up depending on size
- Those looking to age their newly distilled spirits will also need oak chips and a glass jug (all around $10) as well as a small charred-oak barrel (about $250).
Got all that? Even with a simple operation, starting that first batch could cost around $300 — quite a bit more than a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. But for distillers, the process is all part of the fun.
Making Your Whiskey
As a beginner, Hyde first recommends simply learning the process of how a still works. For starters, take a cheap, store-bought wine and send it through a still. This will produce your first distilled beverage—brandy in this case.
For creating that homemade whiskey from scratch, a bit more goes into the process. The ingredients you use will depend on the type of spirit you want to make. Corn, rye and barley are needed to make bourbon, which might get complicated for the first-timer, as the moonshiner will need to convert starch to simple sugar. For those hoping to get into distilling whiskey, using sugar is an easier option to get started.
A pot still is great for whiskey and involves putting a batch of fermented liquid into a copper pot. The pot is sealed and heated, with the alcohol in the liquid turning to vapor. This process draws the alcohol off into a coil. The coil is much cooler, causing the alcohol to condense back into liquid. This liquid then runs out into a collection receptacle for the finished product. Obviously there are ways to fine-tune the process, but that is what happens in a nutshell.
A Word of Advice
While making your own whiskey at home is possible, Hyde offers a few words of warning. Distilling isn’t as difficult as one might think, but keeping equipment clean and sanitized is important. If not monitored and done correctly, making whiskey at home could also be dangerous. It’s important to research exact steps and processes before beginning.
Hyde offers one additional warning—the feds. “Keep in mind that distilling spirits for consumption is federally illegal in the United States,” he says. “Even if your state law varies, federal law precedes state law.” While you may not be the next Jack Daniel’s or Knob Creek, mixing up a small batch of whiskey at home is certainly possible—just be careful.