THERE ARE a few myths linked to the ancient practice of distilling your own spirits at home.
These myths can make some people unreasonably scared to give it a go… or it can cause unnecessary stress during the process.
Here are a few of them… enjoy!
It is a popular myth that illicitly-distilled booze makes you blind.
Methanol (wood alcohol) makes you blind. If you hear about people being blinded by illicit booze, they did not actually distill it, they made some sort of punch with denatured alcohol or antifreeze.
Yeast fermentation of grains does not produce methanol – if your distillate contains methanol, it has come from somewhere else other than the yeast. If your starting mash contains natural or added pectins (grapes, berries, over-ripe fruit (such as windfall apple cider)), then the alcohols produced will have only traces of methanol.
The FDA say that a methanol level of 0.1% by volume is considered safe.
According to Tony Ackland, a chemical engineer who started distilling in 1997, fermenting pectin-based fruits can produce 2-3 parts per million of methanol.
To produce a fatal dose of methanol, you would need to distil roughly 27,000 litres of mash. Daily doses of methanol below 600mg are considered safe – a dose of that level would require the consumption of 70 litres of 40% whisky per day.
Some people say that illicit booze gives you a bad hangover.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes be correct.
Neglecting to watch the temperature, or heating the wash too quickly, can result in concentration of higher-order forms of alcohol called fusel alcohols or fusel oils (because they look oily).
A small amount of fusel alcohols are naturally present in whisky, and can give a spicy, hot or solvent-like flavour.
If you get those flavours in a distilled spirit, watch out for a hangover.
Be aware: Very high concentrations (usually caused by incompetent distillation) can cause acute illness, including headaches, nausea, vomiting, clinical depression, or coma.
Such liquor may be referred to as rotgut.
If in doubt, you can always pour what you have made so far back into the vat and distill it again.
Some people distil the wash twice. They throw away the residue of the first batch, and put the spirits through again. Second distillations should be done more slowly, and greater care taken to watch the temperature, as the temperature of the vapours will change more quickly.
Home-made still tend to explode.
No, they don’t.
They are open systems, there is nowhere for pressure to build up. If the system leaks pure ethanol, you will get flames.
Explosion may be a risk if you distill in an enclosed space and allow alcohol fumes to build up to stupidly high levels, but that’s your room exploding, not your still.
Using the wrong metals in your still will poison you.
If you are using your still properly, the liquid booze will only touch your condenser.
Stories of lead-poisoning originate with people using car radiators as their condensers.
Stick to a copper coil (see step 4), and you’re fine.
The metals of your vat and column will only get into your final product if you heat them enough to vapourise the metal, or you have it so over-filled that the boiling mash bubbles over into the condenser.
Until next time… Happy Distilling!