How to Distill Alcohol, Part 1: How to Make a Still

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Generally, when people think of a still, they think of liquor or moonshine.  While being able to make these items in a post-Apocalyptic world can make things easier for you.  A still can be used to make other products as well (all alcohol related, but more useful than drinking).

Basically, a still is just a sealed cooking vessel with an outlet pipe that allows the alcohol to cool.  Some stills get more elaborate than this, but they all follow a similar premise.

  1. Put a substance containing alcohol into the vessel.
  2. Heat it up such that the alcohol evaporates, but nothing else does.
  3. Wait for evaporated alcohol to exit vessel via tubing.
  4. Alcohol goes through tube and cools off, trickling into a recepticle for storage.

Cooking Vessel

Keg Still and Copper Condenser

The most important thing to consider when creating your cooking vessel is size.  Remember that you’re going to be cooking off a lot of stuff in order to get a small percentage of final product.  Think of ethanol production: Your typical mash will be between 5% and 10% ABV, so you generally won’t get more than 10% of your original volume as a final volume (depending on your still efficiency).  Basically, the bigger the better.  As far as material goes, anything that can transfer heat is good, copper being one of the best things.  You also want to make sure that as much surface area as possible  is exposed to heat.  The faster to temperature, the faster you’re done.

Condenser Tube/Coil

The condenser coil is what allows the alcohol vapor to cool down and convert back into a liquid before dissipating in the open air.  The thing to consider with your tube or coil is that you need to get the temperature of the contents of the tube down to near room temperature before it leaves the tube.  So you either need an incredibly long tube (which is where a coil comes in handy), or an external means of cooling the alcohol down (e.g. ice, cool water, etc).  Either way, this needs to be considered when scrounging or making your condenser.   As with the cooking vessel, if you have access to a material that easily dissipates heat, use it.

The Procedure

First, put your alcohol bearing material in the cooking vessel.  If you are fermenting something, you might as well do it in this vessel, just make sure you don’t completely close it off or else pressure will build up.  Next, close off the vessel and attach your condenser.  Light a fire underneath the cooking vessel.  Maintain the temperature of your material as close to the boiling point of the type of alcohol you are extracting.  Ethyl alcohol boils at ~80C and methyl alcohol at ~65C.  The amount of alcohol you can distill is completely subjective.  Basically, you’ll start out getting barely a trickle of alcohol out of your condenser, then you get a steady stream of it, then a trickle again.  The trickle at the end will be less concentrated than the rest of your batch, but viable nonetheless.


Author: Adrian

Adrian Hannah is a system administrator and poor college student at Michigan Technological University. He currently resides in Hancock, MI where he observes the outside world and puts in his two cents.