S1E83 - Shane on Distillation
This week on Live Like the World is Dying, Shane comes on to teach Margaret about distillation and all of the things that one could produce through distillation, like distilled water, hand sanitizer, fuel alcohol, essential oils, and alcohol for drinking. They talk through the science and dispel some myths around the process.
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Live Like the World is Dying: Shane on Distillation
Margaret Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times...and it especially feels like the end times at least as we record this. I don't know when this is gonna come out, but we just had the hottest month on record. Maybe we've just had the hottest month on record when you hear this in October. I don't fucking know. I'm your host. I'm one of your hosts. I'm your only host today, Margaret Killjoy, and this week we're gonna be talking about something that I've wanted to know more about for a long time, although I'm absolutely terrified to have anything to do with it besides on informational and when-the-apocalypse-comes level because this week we are talking about distillation, the thing that should not be anywhere near as illegal as it is...or complicated legally. It's not always illegal. It's complicated legally. And we're gonna be talking about distillation. We're gonna be talking about distillation of alcohol for like...Well I guess all of it's distillation of alcohol, but we're gonna be talking about it from a like medical point of view and like having a good time point of view. And...obviously...don't do any crimes that you can get caught for. And, this podcast is a proud member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchists podcasts and here's a jingle from another show on the network. Ba buh bub bub. [Making noises like a song melody]
Margaret Okay, we're back. And if you could introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns, and then just a little bit of your background about what we're gonna be talking about about distillation.
Shane My name is Shane, pronouns are he/him. I'm a hobby distiller. I've been doing it not for that long, but I've been doing a ton of research. I've been learning a lot about it, and yeah...
Margaret What kind of....what kind of stuff....Let's point out that you live in Canada where the crime is a different one. Which isn't to say...I guess it's like...Well, obviously don't do any of the illegal stuff. But it seems like Canada has a very different attitude about this as the United States does. Wanna talk about that?
Shane Yeah. So where I am, it is illegal. It's mostly illegal under our tax laws because they don't want you making it and selling it out of your basement or whatever. It's not really enforced if you...Don't take my word for that. Like, this is always gonna be a risk, but it's not really enforced if you're just doing it for yourself.
Margaret Yeah. That makes sense. Is worth pointing out--I'm going to reiterate this way too many times on the show--that the ATF in the United States has a very different attitude about home distillation. And obviously, people still do it. And before we started recording, we looked it up and it looks like it is federally illegal, but not every state has it illegal and like some states that specifically illegal, I believe. Which, just gets into that weird thing in the United States where there's like some things that are federally illegal but are actually fine state to state.
Shane Well I believe the ATF is a federal organization. So you know, it's still a risk if you decide to do that.
Margaret Yeah, exactly. And I know for my sake, like, I'm literally not going to--usually, I'm like, like...I'm just, I'm not actually going to end up setting up a still. Even though I'm like very curious about the process, just because the cost-benefit analysis isn't going to work for me, but everyone's going to do their own cost-benefit analysis and it's information that I think is very practical and useful for situations in which you don't live under the United State's jurisdiction, whether because you live in a different country or because the United States has a collapse, which is one of the main things that we talk about on the show. So probably no one's gonna be surprised that I think that that's possible. So with that out of the way, what's distillation?
Shane Basically, it's taking everything that's not alcohol out of the alcohol and throwing it away. So, you're just usually heating it up, collecting the steam, cooling the steam down before it escapes your system, and turning it into liquid alcohol.
Margaret The steam is the liquid alcohol? Or the steam is that not liquid...is the everything else?
Shane The steam is the liquid alcohol. You want to...ideally you want to collect that as it comes off your still, run it through some sort of cooling sleeve or condenser of some kind, and then collect what comes out the other end.
Margaret Okay. I like...Whenever someone says like, "And then throw the other parts away." I'm like, "Wait, but tell me about the other parts." Is there like? Can you make like? If you make brandy out of wine, can you have like non alcoholic wine at the end too? Or like, is it just gross weird shit?
Shane It's kind of gross, weird shit. There is some uses for it. I believe you can--you may want to look this up, if you have animals before you do this--I think you can mix it with your animal feed to add some nutrition or some calories to that. I've heard of some people doing that. I think you can--well, I know one thing you can do with it--there are certain traditions around making rum that actually keep that and put it into the next batch. Sometimes they put it in a pit and let it rot to add flavor. So, be careful with that. [Margaret laughing] But that is something you can do with it.
Margaret So much like--this has come up on all the fermentation and brewing episodes--like there's so much stuff that's just weird magic-- [interrupted]
Margaret --involved in food. Like, "Oh, yeah, you put it in the pit to rot. And that makes it taste better." And like, I remember once I was picking grapes for wine at a--like someone was just like paying me eight bucks an hour to pick grapes for wine or whatever at a vineyard--and they were...I was like, "Do I pick the moldy ones?" And they were like, "Yes, that's part of the flavor." And I'm like...I'm probably still gonna drink wine, but I'm going to think more about it as I do it.
Shane There's a lot of weird magic stuff in distilling to, actually. So like this...one thing that your fermentation episode, the the magic spoon thing reminded me--or that was not the bread episode, I can't remember--But...
Margaret I don't remember.
Shane This is just folklore, but there was a thing in Scotland where when a big distillery would get a new still, they didn't really know how the flavor worked, all the chemistry of it yet. They would get a new still, but they wanted everything that came out to taste like the old one. So, in an effort to coax the spirit out of the old still, they would beat dents into it to make it looks like the old one.
Margaret Hell yeah. [Laughing]
Shane And it...that...weirdly enough, that does work. It does, like the shape of the still does affect the flavor. They didn't know why. But that's what they told themselves.
Margaret It is so...I'm so glad I'm not a perfectionist. If I ever like am home brewing or whatever. I'm not going to be like, "I am going to recreate Guinness." I'm just going to be like, "Hell yeah, I made beer."
Shane I'm the same way.
Margaret Okay, so like um...what are some of the things...You know, when you when you pitched this episode to me--I was very happy to hear from you because this is something I've wanted to talk to someone about for a while--you talked about how there's a couple different things that one might want to make with a still. I mean, you're making alcohol, right, but for a lot of different purposes. Do you want to talk about what some of those purposes are?
Shane Yeah, well, first of all, even if you're not making alcohol--and this is part of the way that stills get sold in the States and why it's still usually state by state legal to own one--you can make essential oils with it. You can make purified water. That's actually a huge survival benefit of having a still is being able to make distilled water. The alcohol can be used to make fuel which I believe is legal in some states. But besides that, like I said, the fuel alcohol, alcohol for tinctures, you can make any spirit you can drink, like vodka, whiskey, rum, etc. You can make hand sanitizer. I know that was a big deal around the start of Covid when hand sanitizer was selling out everywhere. People were, both big distilleries and some moonshiners in some areas, were kind of coming out of the woodwork and saying "Oh, by the way, I have a still. Here's a bunch of free alcohol to sanitize your hands with."
Margaret That's cool. That makes me really happy. Like both sides of that.
Shane It's actually one of the things that made me want to get a still was the capacity or the capability to be able to do that...And the obvious reason, but...[Trails off]
Margaret Yeah, I mean...which is funny because I know that...When I used to, I used to shoot tintypes and one of the stages involves heating the tintype over an alcohol stove. And so in order to buy alcohol for that it had to be denatured, and that's when I learned that...I'm going to get the different types of alcohol mixed up. Ethanol is the drinking one and methanol is the one that you can't or something maybe?
Shane And isopropyl alcohol is the other one you can't.
Margaret Okay. And so, Denatured alcohol was alcohol that you can use as fuel. But they specifically add poison to it in order to make it so that you can't drink it, so that it can only be used for fuel? Is that...does that match?
Shane That's right. So that started around prohibition. You used to build by ethanol by the barrel for almost nothing. But, they started requiring by law that you add methanol to it because people still needed alcohol for industrial purposes, but, you know, they added methanol specifically because it was damn near impossible to separate it out. And it's extremely deadly as well. So...
Margaret We're gonna save people from the vice of drinking by murdering them if they drink this alcohol.
Shane And it murdered a hell of a lot of people.
Margaret God. Thanks, Protestants for prohibition. [Said with dry sarcasm]
Shane I think a lot of places are actually moving away from that. So now a lot of alcoholic is denatured with bitterants instead, the same bitterants they put in air dusters. Don't take that as a reason to go buy some industrial alcohol and drink it, [Margaret laughing] because I'm sure many places are still using methanol. But yeah. Also, it's gonna taste bad if you do. So...
Margaret Okay, so let's talk about like...I want to talk about the non alcohol...the non drinky stuff first. Like you mentioned fuel alcohol. What what do people...like to sell our preppers on fuel alcohol. What are you fueling with fuel alcohol?
Shane Well, the first example--and one of the things I thought of when I was gonna get a still--I do a lot of camping and I currently use one of those isobutane stoves with the big expensive, disposable isobutane tanks. I'm considering--I haven't done it yet--but I'm considering making one of those can [like tin can] stoves, which is just a small alcohol stove that cost nothing, weighs nothing, to replace that. Cooking is one big thing you can do. You did mention using the store bought alcohol stove for tintyping. I believe there are alcohol engines, at least very small ones, but I don't know much about that. I know you can add ethanol to gasoline to make it a little bit more efficient, but I wouldn't recommend doing that with what comes out of a home still. Because I'm sure that whatever comes out of your home still is going to have some water in it. I wouldn't recommend combining that with gasoline.
Margaret Oh, yeah, that sounds bad. Okay, so it's not like what you're going to put in your tractor. But, it could be what you're cooking off of. I suspect that there's ways...I suspect that there's like home heaters that can run off of it or ways to use it to heat homes, probably in very sketchy ways and possibly safer ways as well.
Shane Actually, one thing I'm thinking of there is alcohol heaters are...You can actually make them with a mason jar. I've heard of some people, making them as like a mutual aid thing and giving them to people who are stuck in tents during the winter.
Margaret Oh, yeah, there's the ones that--you're right--where you take the copper tubing and you do a little loop and you...Those are cool. And they're not fake like the...There's this thing where people are like, "Take a tea light and put it under a pot, and now you've heated your tent." People have done a lot of tests about this. It is not more efficient. It is not a very good way of heating and also it's a fire danger because the melting point...the flash point of wax is lower than the amount of heat that the terracotta pot can eventually put out. And so, you can you can start a fire that way. So actually, ironically, this like...Yeah, no, that's right, heater block. I need to have them on at some point talking about how people use these things.
Shane They're also fire risk, but I imagine less so than a camp stove going off in your tent. So...People have made chicken wire cages and stuff for them as well.
Margaret What is the like raw material that you're going to be using? Well, let's just talk about how you...How do you distill? Let's use fuel alcohol as like the main--because it's like the neutral one, right? It's not about flavor. It's just a, "Let's make ethanol." How do you make ethanol?
Shane For making ethanol for fuel, if flavor doesn't matter at all, you basically want to find the cheapest source of sugars you can find. If you're already into home brewing, I imagine grain, malted grain, is probably one of the cheapest sources. If you don't have any equipment for dealing with grain, your best bet is probably buying the cheapest sugar you can find at a grocery store, combining that with some yeast nutrient, and some yeast, and fermenting that. That's what I've...That's what a lot of people will do when they start distilling. If they're trying to make a neutral like vodka or fuel or something, they'll make what's called a sugar wash.
Margaret So a sugar wash is basically just fermented sugar with no added flavoring?
Shane Yeah. And well...People will add things that are, like I said, nutrient. And one of the more common, more popular ways of doing it, if you're trying to preserve flavor, is using tomato paste as most of the nutrient. Because if you're adding a very little, very small amount of it, then it's not affecting the flavor when it's all said and done.
Margaret When you say nutrient, I presume you don't mean nutrient for the end drinker. Is this nutrient for the yeast or something?
Shane This is nutrient for the yeast.
Margaret So they need more than just sugar to survive.
Shane Yes, like us, they can't survive on sugar alone.
Margaret But I've tried.
Shane Yes. We all have.
Margaret It's so cheap.
Shane You put that into a bucket, probably the biggest container you can find, with some water. Obviously, don't just try to ferment the sugars alone. And leave that for about a week. If you do have a lot of the home fermenting equipment like hydrometers, and things like that, you can get a little more scientific about it. You probably don't want to go any higher than 1.01 gravity. Which is...Because beyond that, the yeast doesn't really like to be there. If you're trying to preserve flavor, don't go any higher than 1.0...or 1.007. I might be misremembering how to read these.
Margaret Wait, but then why when you make beer, you're like, you're going way higher than 1%, right?
Shane Not 1%. Sorry, when I say the starting gravity, you're measuring the amount of sugar, that's when you get that little thermometer looking thing and you float it in your ferment. So, you actually want to go to about 10 to 12%. So you can do the math to figure out how you want to get there.
Margaret Okay, so the basic...Is the basic idea of distillation...the basic idea is you make a low alcohol thing, like beer, or wine, or just a sugar wash...You make some...alcohol, right? And then you're concentrating it by pulling out everything that isn't alcohol out of it in the still by--I think you already said this--by evaporating--I assume alcohol is a lower evaporation point than everything else is like the reason it works or something--and then you like run it through some cooling and then you end up with alcohol on the other end? That's the high percent alcohol? Okay.
Shane So if you want to get a little more into distillation theory, it is a bit more complicated than that. But essentially, yeah, it is just because alcohol boils at 70 degrees instead of 100. The alcohol is gonna boil off first.
Margaret Is that Celsius?
Shane Yes, sorry.
Margaret Great. No, we can use Celsius. Yeah, just wanted to...Yeah.
Shane Especially when it comes to anything distillation related, I tend to default to that. Canada is one of the...kind of like the UK where we have a mix of units. But uh...
Margaret Yeah, I think Celsius is better for science stuff and Fahrenheit is better for like how cold it is outside stuff, personally.
Shane Especially if you're talking about boiling points of liquids. So...It's kinda made exactly for that.
Margaret Yeah, that is I guess that is Celsius' main thing, yeah. Okay, so you make your sugar mash. Okay, let's just..To run through it, you've made your sugar wash, not sugar mash, sugar wash. Now, what are we...now what are you doing?
Shane Mash is usually...If you're making it with grains, you'll call it a mash. But, after that, you will take all that and put it in your boiler, so the part of your still that's actually supposed to eat. You'll seal everything up, make sure there's no leaks. You obviously want to keep an eye on that. So one quick safety note: The most dangerous thing coming out of your still is vapor alcohol. Ideally, you don't want any vapor coming out at any point. That's why you have the condenser to cool everything.
Margaret Oh shit. Yeah, because it's explosive.
Shane It's very flammable. It's far more flammable than just a pool of liquid alcohol sitting there.
Margaret Oh shit.
Shane Unless you are...unless you have terrible terrible luck and you're in a closed system, it's not going to explode. But, it could cause a pretty bad fire. So I keep a fire extinguisher next to my still at all times. Anyway, so like I said, you want to seal everything up, make sure your water is running through your condenser, if using that kind of condenser and turn on the heat...
Margaret What's a...just tell me what a condenser is.
Shane So a condenser, because you don't want any steam coming out because it's hard to collect, it's kind of...All the steam will go through your condenser. The condenser will cool it all down, condense it back into a liquid, and liquid will come out of the other end.
Margaret This is the like...wrapped copper pipe or some...tube?
Shane Yeah, so there's a few different kinds. If you're looking at like a moonshine still, you're gonna see a copper tube coiled up through a bucket. I personally, I've had one of those. I hate that style. Because unless you're doing it outside by a river, it's kind of hard to control how much water is going through it and prevent it from overflowing. The kind I'd recommend, if you're going the DIY route, is a Liebig condenser, which is...You can look up easy plans online. So, you have a smaller copper pipe, a larger copper pipe on the outside of that with water running through it. So you'll have two, like an inlet and an outlet, and the hose or something running through that. And that's usually enough to cool down however much steam is coming out the other end.
Margaret Okay, so like the big...When people talk about distillation, right, the big things people worry about is the government, obviously, but then also safety, like the food safety level of it, right? How dangerous is it to make ethanol? Are you going to go blind if you drink it? Is it safe to make fuel alcohol, dangerous to make drinking alcohol? Is it all overblown? Are there certain things that people can do? Please, whoever's listening, don't assume that you know how to do things just because you heard about it on a podcast. See this as like an overview and an overall interest.
Shane Well, like I said, the main danger is fire safety. It's very flammable. Especially in the olden days, when they would do this on a propane fire or a wood fire or whatever. If you can avoid it, don't run your still over an open flame. I know your great grandfather probably did. But don't,
Margaret So don't use the fuel alcohol to make more alcohol. [Laughing],
Shane Preferably no. Unless you're outside and you're away from anything flammable.
Shane But as far as food safety goes, there is a tiny amount of methanol whenever you ferment something. The methanol is the thing that makes you go blind, apparently. But the thing is, you're not getting anything out of your still that wasn't in the wine, or sugar wash, or beer that you put into it. There's not really any risk of methanol poisoning unless you really screwed something up with fermenting, in which case you would also get it from drinking whatever you drank, whatever you made from, whatever you fermented. There is this myth that popped up around prohibition because...So moonshiners would make their moonshine and they will try to increase their yields a little bit by adding industrial alcohol. That is where the myth of going blind and methanol poisoning comes from. It's not from people running their still in competently, it's from people trying to pass off industrial alcohol as safe.
Margaret Okay, so like denatured alcohol got it in the mix?
Shane Yeah, exactly. And sometimes there was never even a still involved. It's just some unscrupulous guy bought a bunch of industrial alcohol, threw some juniper berries in it, and called a gin.
Margaret Okay. I'm half convinced that--I'm not from where I live right now, right--I'm half convinced that the person around here who gave me some moonshine, I'm like, half convinced that they just gave me some like,fucking vodka with food flavoring in it, and were like, "Yeah, that bitch isn't gonna fucking know the difference." But, yeah, I do...I like to think that I that they didn't do that, to me.
Shane There's a big trend of you can just buy moonshine in alcohol and liquor stores now. But it's...a lot of people kind of don't consider it real moonshine because it wasn't made in the backwoods in an old copper still.
Margaret Yeah, I mean, in my mind, moonshine means illegally manufactured alcohol that's very alcoholic.
Shane Sorry, back to the like, the safety thing. There is one note. So, a lot of people will tell you when you're running you're still, that first thing you have to do is take the four shots out. And that's the first ounce or so that comes out of you're still...
Margaret What's that called, the four shot?
Shane Four shots. So that's a bit outdated. It comes from....So, basically a bunch of people were dying from from methanol poisoning and moonshiners were--the honest ones-- were scratching their heads trying to figure out what they were doing wrong. And so they thought, "Well, the methanol has a lower boiling point. So we can just take off whatever comes out first and throw that away," right?
Shane Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Methanol and alcohol have very similar boiling points, and they come off throughout the entire run. You're not going to get rid of all the methanol by getting rid of the first shot. But what you...So, you don't really need to take four shots, but when you're distilling for drinking purposes, you're not going to drink the first little bit anyway. So you're going to take your cuts, so your four shots, the first section of cuts, then there's the heads, which has some acetone, some fruity esters, some nasty stuff in it that you don't really want, and you're gonna throw all that away.
Margaret Can you use it as fuel alcohol or no?
Shane Oh, yeah, you can still use that as fuel alcohol.
Shane That's right. I shouldn't have even said throw it away. I don't throw mine away, personally. I use it when I start fires.
Margaret I'm sure it's the way people talk about it. I just have a weird like, "Throw something away?!" But I'm a hoarder...I mean, uhhh, preparedness. Okay. Yeah.
Shane The four shots thing is a bit outdated but that is...some people still do it as sort of a "just in case" or superstition more than anything. But that's the...The main thing is in the heads, there are things that aren't good for you. But like I said before, those things are going to be in your beer or your wine that you're fermenting anyway. The worst thing they're going to do is give you a worse hangover if you drink them.
Margaret Oh, okay. That...I've always wondered why different...I've had some homebrew that has caused everyone in the room to blackout.
Margaret So, I've had some...I've had some homemade moonshine, also, that caused everyone to blackout. So it was probably heads or just like poorly made or something.
Shane There's a another bit of like folklore. So there's another type of distilling you can do--this is a bit of a tangent--called a freeze...fractional freezing, where you take your--this is commonly done with apple cider--you take your cider, you put it in the freezer, you let it freeze, you scoop out all the ice, and what's left is a higher proof, higher strength.
Margaret Wow, that's cool.
Shane So, that was considered one of the first distilled beverages people would drink because it was called Applejack. And the hangovers from it were so bad that they gave them its own name Applepalsy because you couldn't take cuts when you're doing that. People would get completely sloshed on Applejack and they would...they probably woke up wishing they had methanol poisoning.
Margaret So because you've talked about how all the like methanol and acetone and all that stuff is already in your homemade beer, right?
Margaret But it seems like maybe the distillation process...like Applejack sounds like kind of was giving people a worse time than the apple cider was, is that because it's just a higher concentration, right? It's the literal amount of acetone, but there's like...it's just distilled?
Shane It's mostly because people were drinking more of it and they're drinking it faster. So, if you take like a 500 mil, or a standard bottle of cider, and you drink all of that, it's not going to hurt you any less than if you distilled that and then drank everything that came out of it. But, you know, it's easier to get drunker on spirits than it is on cider.
Margaret Yeah, that's true.
Shane No. I also...the one thing I definitely wouldn't recommend, I wouldn't recommend taking all the heads and just drinking that because then you are getting a higher concentration of the acetone and methanol and...
Margaret Right, so most people are getting rid of their heads also, and then only taking--what's the the opposite? Tails? What comes after heads?
Shane Wait, why are you watering it down? Wait, I'm a little confused. What does, "take your cuts" mean in this context?
Shane Tails is the last bit. You don't really want that either. Hearts is the good stuff in the middle. [Margaret giggles] So when you're taking your...typically, when you're running to still, you'll run it into mason jars, or any other small jar or whatever you can collect a lot of, and you'll just, you'll taste as you go, and you'll just swap out the jars as they fill up. And then the next day, when you got a fresh palate, you'll look at everything, water it down, taste it, and see where you want to make your cuts.
Shane Take your cuts is when you figure out where your heads are, like where the nasty acetone, sickly sweet stuff is. And you water it down because you don't want to be like tasting 70%. You're not going to get much out of that. So you're figuring out what's your heads, what's your heart, the good stuff, and what's your tails, which is where it starts smelling a little weird, wet dog ish?
Margaret Oh, I see. So it's not like, "The first third is this. The second third is this." Instead, you take all of it, and you keep it like all lined up so you know what's what. And then you're like, "Alright, jar three, it's starting to get a little bit less nasty. Jar five, it's smelling...it taste good. Jar nine, it tastes bad again."
Shane Exactly. So unless you have a really well established recipe and you have a very consistent still, you're never gonna base it on how much has come through, or what temperature it's at, or what proof it's at. You're gonna base on taste. So, if you're running an industrial pot still, you're probably running off of an established recipe that your boss made for you. And so you're you're measuring, okay, so the alcohol is at 65%. We're going to start our heads...or our hearts here and separate that out. But if you're running a home still, you're not gonna be able to do that usually.
Margaret Okay. Alright, so I have questions. Is there a way to test for methanol?
Shane Not at home that I know of. But again, if you are the one who fermented the product, and you're the one who put it in your still, I wouldn't worry too much about it. It's...Like I said, it's going to be in your cider or your beer or whatever. Anyway. It's almost impossible... [Interrupted]
Margaret If you're willing to drink your beer, you should be willing to drink your whiskey.
Shane Yeah, it's damn near impossible to get a lethal amount, or even a slightly dangerous amount, of methanol and your spirits.
Margaret Okay. All right. My other question is, what are the variables? Like you talked about, like people in Scotland were like, denting their stills? Or maybe they're fermenting for beer? I don't remember what they were denting.
Shane It was the stills. Yep.
Margaret Okay. So it's like, does the taste and all of that change based on how quickly it came to a boil versus how quickly it didn't? Is it? Like, like, what are the...I assume there's just like a million variables and that makes it fun. So I kinda want to hear about them.
Shane There's so many variables that this is like an active area of study in like industrial distilling. We don't know all the chemicals that are in like whiskey, for example. I'll use whiskey as an example because that's where flavor matters the most for a lot of people. Like when you're fermenting something, what kind of yeast you use matters a lot, what kind of grain, how much of each grain. And yeast doesn't just produce alcohol. Depending on how--people use the term stress--depending on how stressed out the yeast is, like how perfect the environment is for the yeast is going to produce different chemicals.
Margaret How its day at work was and stuff.
Shane Yeah, basically. If you ferment at a different temperature, or if you have too much sugar in your wash, that's going to affect the flavor. And if you use a different species of yeast, etc, but...And then, when it's in the still, all those different chemicals that that yeast made, and there's a lot of them, and also putting things that were just in the grain, not even things the yeast had anything to do with, all that comes off at a different temperature, at a different time. Some of it will come off in the heads. Like, I mentioned, acetone. There's also some...fruity tasting compounds that will come off in there that the yeast made or that were in the grain. The variable there is the fermentation, I guess. The next one would probably be...So you've probably noticed that most people make their stills out of copper.
Margaret Yeah. I think so. I knew the pipes were but yeah.
Margaret That's okay. It seems like we've kind of...fuel alcohol was a good base for now.
Shane The reason for that, aside from the fact that that's probably what you can get at a hardware store when you're making moonshine, is there's also some sulfur compounds that kind of give the spirit a weird taste or smell, and copper supposedly does a pretty good job of stripping some of that out. So the more copper contact the vapor has in your still, the better. For flavor, at least. We're kind of getting away from few alcohol here. But that's for...
Shane For fuel alcohol, you want to run it as high proof as you can. Ideally, don't put anything more than 40%. in you're still if you're running in your kitchen because for safety reasons. You just want to get as high proof as you can. That's the main thing. You want yield. But, for flavor, the amount of copper contact, the shape of the still matters because of something called reflux or passive reflux.
Margaret Oh, I get that...Sorry, that's a joke about heartburn. Anyway...
Shane I mean, it's similar in a still, weirdly enough, but like if you want to get more into the difference between the pot still and reflux still later, we can. But basically, a reflux still is something that does this on purpose. A pot still, depending on the shape of it and the temperature around you when you're distilling, some of the...As the vapor is going up, and before it even gets to your condenser, some of it is going to condense and fall back down. And some of it is going to condense and stick to the side of your still. And that's going to interact more with the vapor. That changes what chemicals come through it. Usually the more volatile chemicals will come through when that happens.
Margaret So y'all are nerds, I'm guessing.
Shane Oh, yeah.
Margaret That's cool. I love that hobbies have like weird deep divy shit. So people like care about what percent of their vapor is coming down the sides and stuff because of how it changes the taste and other things?
Shane Mhmm. And like I said, people didn't know how this worked before. They would literally just say, "Well, that I know that still makes some really good stuff. Let's just beat up this still so it looks like that one." And it works. So. No, you also don't have to get this nerdy with it. You can just buy a cheap Amazon or even there's....
Shane There's a good company called Still Spirits that makes a home still. You can buy one of those, throw your sugar wash in, mix it with some flavorings, and you got booze. If that's all you want to do. But..I'm a nerd about it. So yeah.
Margaret Like a cheap water purifier?
Margaret No, I mean, it seems like the kind of thing where like...I always go at things at two levels. I like first just like do it. And I like don't want to get nerdy when I first start. I just want to like, "Fuck yeah, I made some..." Well, I don't want to do this because...whatever. But like, I made some rum or whatever, right? I just want to do it and then after that, that's when I want to like do it the same over and over again or like compare the different things. And, so a lot of the variables and stuff aren't going to matter if your goal is to just have rum and you don't care if the rum is consistent because you're not a commercial thing.
Margaret And it's more about it being fun to try and create the consistency?
Shane You may still want to get nerdy with the cuts, though, because....
Margaret Because you don't want to drink acetone. you're not perceived. Acetone
Shane Not for safety reasons. Even if you're just make...even if you just want to get some rum made and try it. If you don't bother taking cuts at all, it's going to taste awful. So at least put it in the jars and taste it and see what's best. So that's as nerdy as you want to get for your first go. That's what I did. That's as nerdy as I got my first run.
Margaret What um, what was your first run? What would you recommend if they're different? What do you like making?
Shane Honestly for your first run, just do a sugar wash because you're gonna throw that away or use it for fuel anyway because you want to do a cleaning run. If you got your still on Amazon or if you made it yourself, you want to make sure you get anything that could dissolve in alcohol out of there, like any fluff solder or whatever. And also make sure you using plumbing solder not leaded solder, that sort of thing. But...After that, the first thing I did was rum, because it was kind of easy. All I had to do was just figure out a way to ferment molasses. And I live not too far away from a place that makes molasses. So, it was really cheap for me to get a big jug of it.
Margaret Hell yeah. Can I get some molasses?
Shane But for your first go, you're probably going to do a sugar wash anyway. And I'd recommend turning it into gin because it's not gonna taste great on its own.
Margaret Yeah, I was going to ask. Okay, so like...in my head, every hard liquor is like, the distillation of some soft liquor? But why is it called hard liquor? There's no other...All liquors hard liquor? Is that? Wait...
Shane If it's distilled, it's hard, I think. I don't know. Different legal definitions.
Margaret Yeah. So, like, in my mind, whiskey is like, beer that you take too far. Brandy has wine that you take too far. Not too far. But further...But maybe I like run out because I actually don't know what rum is...It's apparently made from molasses. Is vodka?
Shane Anything. Any sugar cane product. Technically a sugar wash, I think, is rum. So, sugar cane...the easiest way for me to get sugar cane concentrate is in molasses from the store. So.
Margaret Molasses is just burned sugar, right?
Shane Molasses is just concentrated sugar cane juice. So fancy molasses is that Blackstrap stuff. They boil it to get all the sugar out of it and what's left over as Blackstrap molasses. So it's like a byproduct at that point, basically.
Margaret That's kind of cool. I like weird byproducts that people have probably figured out by now. Okay, what's vodka? Is it potato liquor?
Shane Vodka. A lot of people think it's potato liquor. It's really just neutral grain alcohol. So, it's basically, pretty much anything you make out of a grain...Potatoes are used for a lot of, in a lot of places cause it is what they have a lot of. But it's just anything that you've distilled up to above 95 or as high as you can go and then you water it down to drinkable 40%. So you're trying to get rid of as many impurities as you possibly can and make it as neutral as you can. That's vodka.
Margaret Okay. Alright. Then what's whiskey?
Shane You're pretty much on the money when you say it's just distilled beer. You wouldn't want to put hops in it because it won't taste very good. And you don't need to preserve it anyway. But it's any anything that's...any distilled, fermented grain. So, whether it's corn, or wheat, barley, whatever.
Margaret Is there like a secret distillers only alcohol that you like can't get in the store? I guess moonshine is this. Okay, well, what's moonshine?
Shane It depends. A lot of different people have different definitions. Like I read a thing about this on the home distillers forums--there's a whole hobby forum for this--their way of saying is whatever you consider moonshine is moonshine, because it's just any illegal alcohol. Traditionally, I think it's just an unaged corn whiskey. So just fermented corn, basically, and then distilled.
Margaret Okay. But like, okay, so, in my mind, there's got to be like, a type of...Like, you know, if you like...People who grow food, often eat different kinds of foods that you can't get in the store, right? Or, like, people are like, "Oh, there's all these fruits that you don't even know exist," you know, because you go to the store and there's like only certain things. Is there like a hidden liquor? Is there like a distillers' liquor that--I mean, I guess moonshine is the closest to this--but like...
Shane Well, probably the only one and it's more for because it's cheaper than anything but Sugar Shine. No one...like big companies aren't making sugar sugar washes mostly because, at that scale, grains are cheaper and sugar. But yeah, Sugar Shine is probably the closest thing to a secret distillers only. So it's like I said, that's when you take a sugar wash, you just fill it out. And it can be kind of good. It. It tastes like a sugar bowl smells. Does that make sense?
Margaret It seems like it'd make a good mixed.
Shane Yeah, oh, yeah. It's basically a vodka at that point. If you're doing it right.
Margaret Is there an overlap or like a hatred between the groups of hobby distillers and the people who are really into like mixed drinks?
Shane No. Mostly because anything you...Anything that comes out of a home still, you're probably mixing into a mixed drink anyway.
Margaret Yeah, okay.
Shane It's not...my long term goal is to make something that is good enough to sip neat, like to sip just no ice, just out of a glass. I haven't gotten there yet.
Margaret Alright. How...the stuff that you're making, how headachy, hangovery, blackoutty? Are you doing like pretty good on that level.
Shane I'm doing pretty....It's no worse than the commercial stuff, for sure. There's a couple things that aren't exactly distillers only, but they're less common for people who aren't alcohol nerds. One of them is absinthe.
Margaret Yeah, okay, what's absinthe made out of? I know there's a wormwood in it. That's all I know.
Shane So absinthe is...So it's a neutral spirit. You mix some wormwood and anise, usually, some other herbs and stuff in it. And you then you distill it again after it's been soaking in that for a day or so. And then you color it with more wormwood or fennel or something to give it a green color, or you can just leave a white if you want.
Margaret Alright. My other question is, how much work is it? Like how much like raw stuff to make a little bit...Like you mentioned that people distill maybe flower essences or some other essential oils. Is that what you said?
Margaret I know that essential oils are an incredibly like...like, you got to grow a field of lavender in order to make a vial of lavender essential oils, right?
Shane Essential oils is a very different process that I haven't gotten super into. But from my understanding of it, you're really just using your still to boil water at that point. You're using the steam to extract the oils. So that you're getting a very little product, I imagine. For alcohol, if you make a standard batch that you would make for like a beer or wine like a 23 liter, or I think 6 gallon, you're probably gonna get two or three bottles, like standard sized bottles out of that.
Margaret Oh, well, the standard like...
Shane Like 750 milliliter bottles.
Margaret Okay. So you can either have 24 beers or 2 bottles of liquor?
Shane Yeah, basically. And that also depends on how strict you are when you're taking your cuts and stuff. And whether or not you're taking the cuts...Oh, one thing you can do with the cuts, by the way, I forgot to mention this earlier, if you're doing a pot still, you can take that and put it into the next batch to get a little bit more of the good stuff out of it. So you're gonna increase your yield as you go, basically.
Margaret And if you make whiskey...if you make like flavored alcohols, can you still use them as fuel alcohol? Or is it like, not so good?
Shane As long as you don't water it down. Yeah, sure. I think you want to keep your alcohol above 75% if you're using it for fuel. But if you're just...if you're drinking it, you probably don't want it to be 75%, in general.
Margaret And how do you measure the alcoholness, the gravity? Is it still the same, you still use a hydrometer, or whatever, even though it's like super alcoholly?
Shane You have to get a different hydrometer. It is the same thing. But you have to get a hydrometer that's made for measuring proof. And this hydrometer will not work in your beer. You can't proof out your beer using this because there's particulates in the beer that will affect your measurement. But if you're putting it in a spirit, that'll work.
Margaret I, every now and then, get really annoyed at living in the United States. And this is one of those moments. I'm like, this sounds fun. It just doesn't sound cost-benefit fun.
Shane Yeah, so I do enjoy the cheap alcohol aspect of this. But only if I don't think about how much time I spend on it.
Margaret Oh, yeah, no, totally.
Shane It takes like an entire day to run the still. It's just like an eight hour day.
Margaret To get your like two bottles?
Shane Yeah. So, it's not not even worth it from that point. But, it's a hobby, not a not a job. So that's why if they ever come accuse me of selling alcohol, I'll just show them the math. It's not worth it.
Margaret Okay, now, is it fuel efficient, right? Like if you...I know that you shouldn't do it over and open flame, but it's the apocalypse and you have to. Do you have to spend...Do you have to burn more fuel alcohol to make...Like, do you get a net gain of fuel alcohol? Or do you get a net loss of fuel alcohol?
Shane I've never tried to run it over and open flame, so I don't know.
Margaret Yeah, don't do it. I'm just curious.
Shane I will say, it does take a fair bit of power. So I don't know if you'd actually get a...like, back in the day, they used to do it over like a wood fire. I imagine probably because they probably don't want to take their moonshine and pour that in a big bucket and light that on fire to use that instead.
Margaret Yeah, that makes sense. I guess there's other things that people like to burn more than...okay. I think that like answers most of my questions about distillation. Is there something amazing that I'm missing or anything that you like?
Shane Do you want to give people some more practical information on like, where they can...Where or how they can get this stuff if it's legal in the area?
Shane I've done a little bit of, I've pulled up a few things on this. So, one of the common things that people will get is a still from Still Spirits called a Turbo 500. It's like a somewhat modular, cheap ish--It's like $550--still. It's kind of an all on one set. You just kind of plug it in and go. For the most part. You gotta have water running through it, but if you're trying to...
Margaret Oh, it's electric?
Shane Yeah, it's electric.
Margaret So you don't have to like put it on a stove. That makes so much sense and it never occurred to me when you were like, "Oh, you don't have to put it over open flame anymore." I was imagining putting it on my like electric stove top. No, great. Okay.
Shane Oh, I have done that with my first still. It's a little bit of a pain in the ass. I wouldn't recommend it. It's a bit fiddly on a typical coil stove because you got to balance everything on top of the little coil.
Margaret Yeah. Okay, so anyway, so Turbo 500...
Shane Yeah, so that's a fairly common model. It's under $1,000. If you live in an apartment and you just want to have the ability to do this, should it ever come up, if you need some sanitizer or just want to make a small amount of vodka, or if you want to use it for its intended advertised purpose and purify water, you can get a air still for under 100 bucks, usually.
Margaret What's an air still?
Shane So you don't even need water for this. You put...I'll actually describe what you're supposed to do with it. You fill it with water, your tap water. You plug it in, it'll boil that water, and it'll use a fan and an air cooler on the top to condense that back into water. So, it will distill water. And it'll do the exact same thing to alcohol if you let it.
Margaret Okay, if you use it against its intended purposes, like if you were to use a bong to smoke weed instead of tobacco...
Shane Exactly. So yeah. Now, some people don't like them because there's a lot of plastics in making them and people are iffy about having alcohol vapor touch plastic. Understandably. Yeah, but, you know, if you just want to...if you're making hand sanitizer or fuel, it's a great option to have. Like it fits under your counter. It's the size of a coffee maker.
Margaret Okay, and you can put, "For tobacco use only," on it, and then people will...
Shane Yeah. And then people will try to put tobacco in your air still and be really confused. [Laughing] Okay, so that's...and then the option that if you're getting really into fermenting, you're probably going to end up getting at some point, an all-in-one grain brewing system is what they're called. So it's...Have you ever seen those like big coffee carafes they have at like churches and like food banks and stuff or soup kitchens and stuff. Like the big cylinder, stainless steel cylinder for coffee?
Margaret Yeah. Like it looks like one of those robots from Doctor Who. It looks like a Dalek.
Shane Kind of, yeah. Okay. The T-500 is also very similar to that, but it looks like one of those. It comes with like a filter and stuff to filter out your grains from your beer before you turn it into beer. And a lot of the companies that make those will include little clamps on the side so that if you wanted to, you could go buy, whether it's a T-500 condenser, so you could buy the condenser separate or make your own condenser, you can slap it on top of that, clamp it down, and now you have a still. So that's actually...If you're getting really into fermenting, I'd recommend you get one of those anyway, because if you're going to be doing any beer, any grains, you're gonna want to have that. And if you ever decide you want to make a still, you've already got your boiler. Those can be a bit expensive, but I think they're worth it. Especially if you're making a lot of beer.
Margaret Yeah. Yeah, I mean, every hobby starts at the $100 level, and then immediately goes to the $3,000 level, once you want to do it well enough, you know,
Shane You can get these all grain brewing systems for less than $1000 as well. And also, if you want to make whiskey, you're going to be working with grains anyway. So it's this exact same sort of thing. You're making a beer up until the point where you put hops in.
Margaret Okay. Is the Turbo 500, is that what you use?
Shane No, I went over the route of getting the grain brewing system. Initially, I went the route of getting the cheapest still Amazon had, hating it, modifying it, throwing all that away, and getting what I just mentioned.
Margaret Yeah, that's how I would do it too.
Shane I got a couple of neat things out of the stove top still, but I eventually wanted to get something a bit bigger and a bit safer. So yeah, I went that route.
Margaret Yeah, imagine. Are the cheap ones just like are they just like pressure cookers with some like copper coming out of the top?
Shane They're essentially just pressure cooker stills with a coil and a--like the coil condenser that I mentioned I hate them--so my first modification was getting rid of that and replacing it with the Liebig condenser. So I made my own Liebig and it worked, but it wasn't...I had to tie it to my cupboard to keep it from falling over.
Margaret So it's kind of...There's only one real object that people need. I mean, there's like ways to do it modularly, right, but there's not like a lot of different little...
Margaret Well, there's also, importantly, two different types of stills.
Margaret The reflux and the pot.
Shane Yeah, the reflux in the pot. So I've been talking a lot about pot stills. The T-500 is a reflux still, although you can modify it to be a pot still if you want. And you can also get some cheap modular reflux stills, which is what I got to put on top of my grain brewing system. If you want to make vodka, if you want to make something that tastes very neutral, or if you want to make something that's a very high percentage, you need to reflect still.
Margaret Oh, interesting. Because it's, kind of re...It's like multi...It's doing like almost like multiple passes of a distillation at once, basically?
Shane Exactly, yeah. So, you could sit there all week and just run your product through a pot still 20 times or you can put it in a reflux still, once. Yeah, that sounds better. Okay. It's also safer, because I don't know exactly why this is the case. But the hobby communities rule of thumb is nothing more than 40% in the pot. Okay, so the highest you're gonna get out of that is around 70 or 80%. Which is
Margaret Yeah, that sounds better. Okay.
Shane It's also safer, because...I don't know exactly why this is the case, but the hobby communities rule of thumb is, "Nothing more than 40% in the pot." So the highest you're gonna get out of that is around 70 or 80%.
Margaret Which is higher than I normally imagine wanting alcohol anyway. Like, I'd be watering down anything over 50% anyway, personally, but...
Shane But if you want to make gin or absinthe or anything that starts with a neutral, or a vodka, for example, you're going to want to go up as high as you possibly can, which the highest you can go is about 95. Because the higher the higher you go, the less flavor you're getting out of it.
Margaret Yeah. Which actually...It's suddenly making me think of Everclear. And like, the reason that I keep Everclear in my house is for like preservation and like herbs and tinctures and stuff, you know, which is something that I hadn't even...We didn't...Maybe you mentioned it in the list of things, but I'm only just now thinking of is like one of the other reasons that it'd be really useful for people to have access to make alcohol.
Shane That's actually the reason I got it. Where I am, I actually can't buy Everclear because, you know, to protect us, I guess.
Margaret Half the states are the same way.
Shane But the thing is, I wanted to make orange liquor, is one of the first reasons, first things I thought of when I got into this. I wanted to make orange liquor, but I couldn't find Everclear Yeah, so I had to make my own.
Margaret That's cool. That seems like that would be even more rewarding. Like I feel like trying to like learn how to make like a signature whiskey would be like fun, right? But what seems rewarding is making some 95% proof stuff that you can use as a mixer, or use to preserve things, and make medicine, and make things last a long time. But I'm also obsessed with making things last a long time.
Shane And you can make sanitizer and medicine and stuff like that with what comes out of a pot still, but it's gonna be more effective...Well, it's gonna smell less bad on your hands, I guess, if you're making hand sanitizer, but you actually do want to water it down to 70 anyway, so...
Margaret Oh, interesting. Yeah, and is making hand sanitizer basically just make 70% alcohol and then you like put that on your hands? Or is it like...are you using like...Do you like gel it up? Like, what do you do?
Shane I mean, if you're just trying to get something, get some cheap sanitizer, yeah, you just make 70 or 80% alcohol and put it on your hands. You could mix aloe vera or lotion or something in there to make it, you know, less harsh, but...
Margaret Okay. Well, is there any any last thing we're missing? Or a question that I should have asked you?
Shane I don't think so. The last detail I wanted to get in there was make sure you don't try to use 100% or 95% alcohol sanitizer, because it doesn't work as well. I think a lot of people learned that around Covid, though.
Margaret Okay, and then one weird thing I know about hand sanitizer is that hand sanitizer is very good for certain things. But if you live off grid and you put it in your outhouse or whatever, it doesn't do any good there. Hand sanitizer is effective for...My doctor friend will be mad at me if I don't get this exactly right. It's not good for the fecal oral transmission route. It is good for like stopping colds and stuff.
Shane Now, I didn't know that because when I go camping, every outhouse I see has hand sanitizer in it.
Margaret Oh, yeah. And you know what? It's great. It stops other stuff that is unrelated to what you just did. A good thing to have.
Shane A false sense of security there, I guess.
Margaret Yeah, exactly. And you know, and if you have other safety practices in place for your off grid bathroom then you should be good in terms of distance from your kitchen. But more importantly, like, if--this is completely just a PSA--if you're setting up some kind of like outhouse space for a lot of people and your camping or whatever, you're going to want to set up a hand wash station that use soap and water because that is what stops transmission of things along the fecal oral route. And I don't remember what the thing that, the word for what hand sanitizer does is, but I think it's the breathey-iny-type stuff is what hand sanitizer is good for. I hope I got that right. And if not, do your own research. Don't listen to some girl on the internet who's interested in everything and not good at any of it.
Shane Also, one last note. The same for this stuff. Don't listen to this podcast and then immediately buy a still. There is a lot of information, like hobby information online. There's the Home Distillers Forum. There's a couple of Youtubers that make content about this. So get your information from more than one place.
Margaret Well, is there anything you want to shout out or plug either something that you do or something that you want other people to pay attention to here at the end?
Shane Beyond what I just said, No. I don't really want to be found. So, don't have anything to plug. I just wanted to make this information available to people.
Margaret Well, I really appreciate it. And thanks so much for reaching out. And thanks for coming on.
Margaret Thanks so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode, if you didn't, why did you keep listening? Was it that you set it on in the background and then went about your day and have been like sort of angry the whole time that you've been walking your dog or driving that you're still listening to it and you wish you'd been listening to something else? If so, don't tell me about it. But if you did like listening to it, you should tell other people about it. You should tell people, "Live like the world is dying!" and then people will be like, "What?" And you'll be like, "Sorry, it's the name of a podcast I like. Don't actually do anything different about the fact that the world's ending. Just go about living your life," and then people will be like, "You're exactly the kind of reason that we don't like listening to doom say..." Okay, so if you like this podcast, you can support it by telling people about it. That's the single biggest thing that you can do. You can also support it by supporting us financially on Patreon. Our Patreon is patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness, because this podcast is put out by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, which is an anarchist publishing collective that puts out podcasts as well as books, and zines, and a bunch of stuff. And we've been around for almost 20 years. We haven't been doing podcasts that whole time, because there weren't podcasts when we started. Instead, it was mostly zines for a while. But in particular, I want to thank, first and foremost and always, Hoss the Dog. And I want to thank Michaiah, Chris, Sam, Kirk, Eleanor, Jenipher, Staro, Cat J., Chelsea, Dana, David, Nicole, Mikki, Paige, SJ, Shawn, Hunter, theo, Boise Mutual Aid, Milica, Paparouna, Aly, Paige, Janice & Odell, Oxalis, Jans, Funder, Anonymous--names are getting really interesting more recently--BenBen, Princess Miranda, Trixter, and Lord Harken. Sorry, just a silly way to pronounce that. I think. All right. I'll talk to you soon. I'm gonna go eat fucking dinner because I've been recording all day. Jesus. Which was months ago now by the time you're listening to this. Why are you still listening to this? You should hit stop. There's not any like big secrets that I'm going to reveal if you keep listening. I'm just going to tell you what I ate for a snack, which was that I air fried some frozen potatoes and thought to myself, "I wonder if I can make my own frozen potatoes. I wonder if that's what I can do with old potatoes before they go bad, if I don't eat them in time. I wonder if I can cut them up into little shoestring fries and put them in a freezer bag and then put them in the deep freezer and eat them later?" Are you still listening? Bye.
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