Distilling Vodka

The Ultimate Guide to Distilling Vodka

Vodka is a neutral spirit with no particular character, taste, color, or aroma. Vodka is not typically aged by storage and can be made from grains, potatoes, sugar and fruit fermented to produce alcohol. If you want to distill alcohol at home, you have to be extremely careful and dispose of methanol, which can lead to death if consumed. In some countries, such as Australia and the USA, private production of alcohol is therefore prohibited. In other countries, you need to register your still or you need a license to distill alcohol, e.g. in New Zealand or the Czech Republic. Therefore, find out about the legal regulations in your country before you start producing alcohol.

Choose the ingredients

Think about the ingredients you want to use to make vodka.

It is usually made from wheat, rye, barley, corn or potatoes. You can use just the sugar and molasses, or add them to other ingredients. A distiller has even distilled vodka from Pinot Noir. Whatever you choose, you need sugar or starch to produce alcohol. Yeast eats sugar or starch, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. If you want to make vodka from grains and potatoes, you need to make a mash containing active enzymes that break down the starches in the grains or potatoes and turn them into fermentable sugars. Fruit juice already contains sugar, so no starch-breaking enzymes are needed. The same goes for fermented table sugar, meaning you don’t need pulp. If products that have already been fermented, such as wine, are used, then this product can be distilled directly into vodka.

Decide if you need additional enzymes.

Depending on what you’re making vodka, you may need additional enzymes to convert the starch into sugar. If you use grain or potatoes, then you need these enzymes. Grains and potatoes contain starches, so you need enzymes to convert them into sugars. You don’t need any additional enzymes if you’re using already malted whole grains. Malted whole grains such as malted barley or malted wheat contain many natural enzymes that convert starches into fermentable sugars. If you’re using refined sugar or molasses, you don’t need any additional enzymes since the sugar is already there.

Add additional enzymes as needed.

Food-grade amylase enzyme powder is available from brewery supplies. It can be added to the porridge to convert starches into fermentable sugars if you’re using potatoes, for example. Use the recommended amount to break down the starch. When using an enzyme powder, you don’t have to use malted, enzyme-rich grains like malted barley or malted wheat. The enzymes must be gelatinized for the enzymes to break down the starch. Cereal flakes are usually already gelled. Ingredients that have not gelled, such as potatoes or cereal flakes or malted grains, are heated in water until the specific temperature is reached at which the starch gels. Potatoes gel at around 66°C, as do barley and wheat. Theoretically, a mashed potato should only be heated to about 150°F (66°C). When working with potatoes at a lower temperature, they should be finely chopped before they are placed in the water. Starch-degrading enzymes only work at specific temperatures and are destroyed if they are too high. A temperature of 66°C is usual; temperatures above 70°C destroy the enzymes. The absolute maximum temperature is 74°C.

Make different mashes

Wheat mash.

In a 10-gallon metal pot, heat 8 gallons of water to about 160°F. Add 8 quarts of dry wheat flakes and stir well. Check the temperature and make sure it’s between 150-150ºF (66-68ºC). Add about 4 liters of crushed wheat malt, the temperature should be around 65°C. Cover the pot and let sit for between 1.5-2 hours, stirring occasionally. During this time, the starch should turn into fermentable sugar and the mixture should become less thick. After 1.5 – 2 hours the mixture should cool down to 27° to 29° C. Use a chill stick to quickly chill the mass, or let it cool overnight. But it shouldn’t get much colder than 27°C.

Potato mash.

Clean 10 kg of potatoes. Cook them unpeeled in a large saucepan for about an hour until they set. Drain the water and mash the potatoes thoroughly by hand or in a blender. Return the mash to the pot and add 20 to 25 liters of tap water. Mix well and heat to just over 140ºF. Add 1 pound of shredded, malted barley (or wheat) and stir well. Cover the pot for two hours, stirring regularly. Let everything cool down to 27° to 29° C overnight. If you let the mixture cool down for a long time, the enzymes in the malted barley have more time to break down the starch in the potatoes.

Corn mash.

Make the porridge the same as mashed wheat, but replace the cereal with jelly corn. Alternatively, you can germinate the corn for 3 days and make a mash without adding additional grain malt. A rung of about 5 cm should protrude from each grain. The sprouted corn contains enzymes that are produced during sprouting.

Ferment alcohol

Clean all equipment and prepare the work area.

Fermentation takes place in clean, hygienic containers, which are sometimes open. However, they are usually sealed to prevent cross-contamination. The fermentation usually lasts between three to five days. You can also ferment in containers that have not been cleaned or disinfected. There, too, drinkable alcohol is produced, but fermentation can produce large amounts of unwanted flavors and higher alcohol content due to unwanted yeast and bacteria. Oxygen purifiers like B-Brite® are available in brewery supplies, as are disinfectants like Iodophor®.

Select the airlock and place it.

The airlock is a mechanism that allows CO² to escape without oxygen penetrating. Approximately 20 liters of mash can be fermented in a food-safe bucket with a capacity of around 30 liters or a carboy with a capacity of around 25 liters. Buckets can be closed with a lid, carboys with a rubber cork. However, the container should never be completely closed, otherwise an explosive mixture would build up pressure due to the carbon dioxide produced. Always attach an airlock to the lid or rubber stopper to prevent explosive pressure build-up. Attach cheesecloth for an open fermentation process to keep bugs or other things out.

Strain the mash or liquid into the fermenter.

For a mash, use a fine cheesecloth to strain the liquid from the mass into the clean, sanitized container. Try to pour the liquid in from a higher height to get a lot of air. Yeast needs air (oxygen) to start the fermentation process. This is because yeast makes cell material in the form of lipids from oxygen. After this initial phase, it no longer needs oxygen because yeast produces alcohol without oxygen. At this point you could add a sugar solution. Oxygenate the solution by pouring into the container from a height. If juice is to be fermented, add oxygen by passing it through a sieve into the still from a certain height.

Add yeast to the fermentable product.

Add the right amount of dried stillage or other yeast to the liquid. Stir with a clean, sanitized spoon to evenly distribute the yeast. If you use an airlock, it will bubble during the fermentation process. This bubbling will decrease significantly or stop altogether when the fermentation process is complete. The fermentation process should take place in a room that is between 27° and 29° C to make the process effective. You can also use a heating belt in cool areas. Distilling yeast ferments cleanly and produces a large amount of alcohol (ethanol) and relatively small amounts of undesirable ingredients, e.g. alcohols other than ethanol. How much yeast you need depends on the specific type or brand of yeast. There may be nutrients in the yeast pack. These yeast nutrients are needed when the fermentation medium contains little of them, e.g. in sugar solutions. However, they can also improve fermentation processes when nutrient-rich products such as grain are used.

Collect the fermentation liquid (Wash).

Drain the fermented alcohol (the “wash”) from the container into the still. Leave the leftover yeast in the container as it can burn if heated. The drained liquid can be further clarified by filtering or other methods.

Choose a still

Use a distillation column if possible.

They are more complex and sophisticated than pot devices. Depending on the design, you can buy Distilling Columns or build them from existing materials. Distillation columns and pots work similarly, however. A distillation column typically circulates water through a sealed compartment, causing the vaporized alcohol and other substances to condense on the column. This device must be connected directly to a water tap or pump. If you don’t reuse the water from the spring, it may take thousands of gallons of water to make a small batch of vodka. If the water is reused using a pump from a central reservoir, then approximately 400 gallons of water can be used, but the water will heat up and become less effective.

Use a pot if you can’t find a still.

Simple pots resemble a pressure cooker with hoses or similar attached. They can be built very easily and cheaply. Unlike alembics, which consist primarily of vertical columns, pots use bent or twisted hoses or tubes immersed in a cooling water tank. Pumps and large amounts of cooling water are not required but can be used.

If necessary, use a reflux still.

This allows you to do different distillations at the same time. The material between the condenser and the pot condenses the vapor to flow back into the liquid. This “reflux” cleans the rising vapor, increasing the purity of the vodka.

Distill the alcohol

Prepare for the distillation.

Stills heat the fermented, low-proof alcohol mixture to a temperature above the boiling point of alcohol but below the boiling point of water. This way the alcohol will evaporate but a large amount of water will not. The vaporized alcohol (with some vaporized water) rises up the column, hose or tube. External cooling in the form of cold water on the column, hose or pipe ensures that the evaporated alcohol condenses back into the liquid. There it collects and turns into vodka.

Heat the liquid in the still to start the distillation.

Gas burners, wood fires, or electric hotplates are used, depending on your appliance. A temperature of about 78.3°C at sea level is desirable, but the temperature must be below the boiling point of water at sea level (100°C). When the liquid is heated, alcohol and other substances vaporize and condense on the water-cooled surfaces.

Discard the forerun.

The first distillate (called the “heads”) contains methanol and other dangerous chemicals that can be toxic and deadly . With about 20 liters of liquid, you should dispose of at least the first 60 ml of distillate. You mustn’t drink this distillate!

Collect the “body”.

After discarding the forerun, collect the distillate containing the desired alcohol (ethanol), water, and other components. This is the so-called “body”. During this time, while the column is still being cooled with cold water, the water flow can be controlled to control the amount of distillate and purity. You should aim for 2-3 teaspoons (10-15mL) of distillate per minute. Larger amounts lead to less purity.

Discard the leftovers.

Towards the end of the distillation process, other hazardous chemicals are also produced when the temperature rises to 100°C and above. These are the so-called “leftovers” that contain fusel alcohol. These residues are undesirable because they contain propanol and butanol, which is why they should be disposed of. Always make sure to dispose of these leftovers as they are not to be drunk!

Check the alcohol content and purity of the distillate.

Cool a sample of the distillate to 20°C and use an alcohol meter to measure the alcohol level. The distillate may need to be diluted to be consumed as vodka (less than 40% alcohol) or concentrated (higher than 50% alcohol). Vodka usually has to be diluted before it is bottled because the distillate often contains a lot of alcohol. The distillate may also be too aromatic and must therefore be further distilled using carbon filters.

Re-distill the liquid if needed or desired.

This increases the alcohol content and makes the distillate even purer. It is common to distil the distillate three or more times to get a very pure vodka. Make sure to discard the heads and tails every time you distill!

Put the finishing touches

Filter the vodka through carbon.

Run the distillate through a charcoal filter to remove unwanted volatile flavors. You can get these filters at brewery supply stores. Carbon water filters can also be modified to purify the distillate.

Dilute the vodka to the desired strength.

Add purified water to the distillate to achieve the desired volume percent. During the process, constantly check the alcohol level with an alcohol meter until you reach the desired level.

Bottle the vodka.

Use a so-called Gravity Bottle Filler and corks or caps. You can also create special stickers. Some gravity fillers include a 29 liter (7.5 gallon) pail with a nozzle, vinyl tubing, and a spring-loaded filler. You can also use a multi-spout wine filler.

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About the Author

eddie.miller

Eddie Miller

Eddie is an Associate Editor in London, UK. He coordinates client content and sponsored articles. Eddie has two Masters in language and spent half his life in the teaching field. He now owns an Amazon business and runs a wooden DIY workshop.