How To Shine

Listed below are the general steps involved when learning to make your own distillate, and the items I recommend. Can you get more expensive or higher quality items? Of course, so don’t come at me that bullshit.  This list is for the average, cost-conscious home distiller who is either interested in process, or who is taking their first steps in getting started. As you get better at the process, you can add and upgrade along the way.  I try to highlight the bare minimum versus the “nice to have” in the items below to let you build the right setup for your style and needs.

And yes, many of these products are affiliate links, it’s how I support the cost of this page and the free apps I make for the community. The affiliate program does not affect your price in anyway so feel free to use this page as your “supply catalog” and feel free to re-order from here when needed.

THE LAW
First and foremost, make sure you understand the laws in your country and your state before you begin distilling alcohol. In the United States, there is a misconception that if you distill for personal consumption, that home distilling is legal. That is 100% false.

At the federal level, distilling alcohol without a permit is illegal, period. For you know it alls out there, read this. Yes, you can produce beer and wine, but those are not made with the distillation process. You must have a federal permit to even own a still. Those are free by the way, go here to start the process.

What about at the state level?  Only 8 states have laws on the books specifically addressing distillation. That means, the other 42 states with no laws, default to the federal level making it 100% illegal to distill, and in many cases, illegal to even own a piece of equipment that can distill – like a still. Most states say owning a still is okay as long as you use it to make water, essential oils, vinegar, etc., as long as the end product is not ethanol.

To get a general idea of the laws in your state, read this awesome blog post. And then contact your state’s Department of Revenue to get more specific details.

And by the way, communist Russia allows home distilling with no penalty whatsoever. Marinate on that and then write your dumbass congressman a letter asking why the “land of the free” doesn’t do the same.

 

Distilling Basics
The first thing you need to understand is that this process takes patience. Patience in yourself to first learn the basics of distilling. Patience when crafting so you don’t overlook something obvious Patience when you mess up and feel like quitting. Patience in your learning curve when the product doesn’t taste good. Understand that in many cases, you can save your mess ups! People have been making alcohol for thousands of years – people far dumber than you.

Next, I prefer grain-based spirits (whiskey) over “sugar shines” or rums or vodkas. Most of this page and these items will be grain-based, but since sugar shines are really cheap, I will include the process in here as well. Ok, let’s begin.

At it’s core, turning grain into alcohol is a 4 step process. Using corn as our example, the kernel is made up primarily of starch. When placed in the ground, the kernel (seed) converts that starch into sugar to use as energy to grow, known as germination. During germination, the seed produces enzymes that convert the starch into sugar, known as amylase.

“Malting” is the same process. You trick the seed into thinking it is in the ground and you use it’s natural enzymes to help convert starches in other grains.

When you are “mashing” corn, you are forcing this process along by skipping the germination step, because you will be adding the necessary enzymes to your mash either with malted grains, or with scoops of amylase.

So the first step in “mashing” corn. That is to cook it at a high enough temperature to break down the cell walls and expose the starch. This is known as gelatinization.

The next step in “mashing” is to add amylase enzymes to convert the starches into sugars.

After mashing, comes step three, fermentation. Yeast are living organisms that feed on sugars. As they consume the sugar, they burp CO2 (carbon dioxide) and excrete alcohol… yes, they piss out the alcohol.

Once fermentation has finished, that is, all of the possible sugars in the mash have been converted to alcohol by the yeast, then it is time to separate the alcohol from the water and the mash. This process is known as distillation.

Simple Grain Recipe
The process below will walk you through a basic corn-based recipe for a 5 gallon still. To keep the ingredient list short, affordable, and easy to find, our mashbill will consist of 85% corn, 15% barley. In an effort to cut down on costs, I am also substituting yeast nutrient with a tablespoon of yeast you will kill. Yeast are cannibalistic and the dead yeast will act as nutrient to jump start the fermentation. You will need:

  • 5 gallons of spring water
  • 8.5 pounds of corn
  • 1.5 pounds of malted barley
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon of alpha amylase
  • 1 teaspoon of glucoamylase
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 1 tablespoon of white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dead yeast (process below)
  • Lemon or lime juice (to adjust pH)

As you become more familiar with the process, you can substitute regular yellow dent corn for heirloom corns like Bloody Butcher, Orange Creole, Wapsi, etc. And you can play with other types of ingredients like 6-row barley, red wheat, rye, etc. The percentages can stay the same or you can adjust based on taste.

As for where to purchase the grains, if you are new to this process, I highly recommend going to your local feed and tack shop and picking up cracked corn. You will pay more money to ship corn than you will for the corn itself if you try to buy it online. Just ask for cleaned, cracked or crushed yellow dent corn.  As for the barley in this recipe, here is a 2 pound bag of malted 2-row.

Simple Sugar Recipe

If this is your first time distilling, I highly recommend you start with a sugar wash. It allows you to skip the entire mashing process, and get right into fermentation. I created a section between mashing and fermentation called “Sugar Wash” that let’s you skip right to it. You can then follow the same steps starting at fermentation, and your ingredient list will include:

  • 5 gallons of spring water
  • 8 pounds of white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 1 tablespoon of white sugar (can use from the source above)
  • 1 tablespoon dead yeast (process below)
  • Lemon or lime juice

 

01. WORK AREA HYGIENE

A clean work area and clean equipment will not only improve your efficiency, but it will improve your product’s taste as well.

I buy the concentrated solution of StarSan, mix it in a trigger sprayer, and spray EVERYTHING that touches mash, ferment, or distillate.

Dilute it according to the instructions and this becomes a no-rinse solution saving you time.

02. MASHING

Step 1

Place the 5 gallons of water into a pot that can hold at least 8 gallons of water, and bring it to 185 degrees F. You can use a turkey fryer pot, a crawfish boil pot, etc. but try to use stainless steel if possible.

As for the grain, I highly recommend mashing in a mesh bag. It will make your life so much easier when it comes time to either separate the grain for fermentation (known as off-grain) or separating grains after the fermentation if you do an on-grain (which is my preference).

NOTE: Aluminum pots typically have small grooves and lines made during manufacturing that can harbor bad bacteria and fungi. It’s the same reason why you should never use an abrasive sponge on a plastic bucket that may hold your fermentation. Those tiny scores can grow nasty little creatures that will kill your fermentation.

Step 2

Once you dump the corn into the pot, it will drop the temp quite a bit, so cook the corn between 165 and 170 degrees F for 60 minutes. Stir at least every 5 minutes making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom.

This process of applying heat and water to the grain, called gelatinization, will break down the cell membranes of the corn and cause the starch to swell. After a few minutes of stirring you will notice it becomes more and more difficult as the grain absorbs water to thicken the mash. (In another post we will discuss pros and cons of thick and thin washes.)

Anyway, any thermometer will do but if you have a deep pot, these long stem therms clip to the side and work great. Of course if you want instant and accurate, go for the digital gun!

Step 3

After about 60 minutes of cooking, you should be able to turn off the heat, and do the rest of the run during cool down. You might have to bump on the heat so leave it on your heating source just in case.

Once the mash cools to 155 degrees F, add the 1.5 pounds of barley and simmer between 30 and 45 minutes. Try to keep the temp above 148 degrees during this time, constantly stirring to avoid scorching.

At the same time (155 degrees) you will add your 1 1/2 teaspoon of alpha amylase and mix thoroughly. Notice how soupy and easy the mash becomes to stir. That’s because the enzyme is breaking down the starch into sugar!

It is critical to understand that enzymes have optimal temperature zones as well as death zones. Pitch alpha too hot, and you neutralize it.  If it’s pitched at too low of a temp, it won’t convert as much of the starch to sugar.

Step 4

After the barley has cooked, let the mash cool to 147 degrees F, at which time you will add your 1 teaspoon of glucoamylase as well as the 1 tablespoon of yeast, and mix thoroughly for about 10 minutes. (See note above about pitching your amylase at just the right temps.) The reason you add some yeast now, is to kill them. They will act as a yeast starter for the next steps.

At this point, you can completely remove the pot from the heat source as you want the mash to cool down to 85 degrees. To speed up the cooling process, you can drop sealed ziplock bags of ice into the mash (sterilize the outside first) and then remove them when they turn to water. Or you can stick the pot in a tub of cold water. If you are outsize, you can run a water hose on the outside of the pot to help cool it.

Ok, so let’s talk for a minute about the difference in the amylase enzymes. From a high level, alpha is able to break down the very long chains of starch that were created during mashing (gelatinization) into smaller chains. Glucoamylase steps in and breaks those chains down even further making yeasts job much easier. Think of alpha amylase as cutting your steak up for you to eat, and beta (or glucoamylase) as putting that steak in a blender so you can drink it.

At this point, you are technically done with the mashing process. As you get more comfortable with the process and gain more experience, I recommend picking up some iodine to perform a starch test.

Remember, mashing is about exposing the starches in the grain to the amylase enzymes so they can convert it into sugar. A tablespoon of mash and a couple of drops of iodine will let you know if there is any starch left. If there is, give your enzymes more time to finish their conversion.

So now you can move to Fermentation. Again, I have included the sugar wash section below for those wanting to use sugar instead of grains.

SUGAR WASH

This section is specifically for a sugar based shine. The reason this is called a wash and not a mash, is because mashing is the process of exposing starches to enzymes, and letting those enzymes convert the starch to sugar. Once that process is finished, you have a “wash”. Since you are already starting with sugar, you are in the wash phase – therefore, it’s a sugar wash.

Step 1

Place the 5 gallons of water into a pot that can hold at least 6 gallons of water, and bring it to 120 degrees F. You can use a turkey fryer pot, a crawfish boil pot, etc. but try to use stainless steel if possible. (See notes in Mashing Step 1 on aluminum pots)

There is no need for a brew bag since there will be no particulate in the wash.

Step 2

Once the water reaches 120 degrees, you can kill the heat and remove it from the heat source if you would like. Now add the 8 pounds of white sugar to the pot and stir evenly until fully dissolved.

Any thermometer will do but if you have a deep pot, these long stem thermos clip to the side and work great. Of course if you want instant and accurate, go for the digital gun!

At this point, you are technically done with the sugar wash process and can proceed to the fermentation instructions below.

03. FERMENTING

Step 1

Once the mash or sugar wash has reached about 90 degrees F, you can begin making your yeast starter. I find it’s easier to use a glass measuring cup for this process.

Dissolve 1 tablespoon of white sugar in 1 cup of hot water (no need to boil or anything, hot water out of the tap works just fine).

When the cup of water cools to 85 degrees F, add in 1 tablespoon of yeast and mix vigorously. You want to aerate the mixture thoroughly to give the yeast a lot of oxygen to start with. I typically use an egg whisk to really pump in the air.  Once it is mixed, leave it alone and set it aside for at least 10 minutes.

As you see in my TikTok videos, this is my favorite part of the process. You can not only watch the solution “grow” minute by minute, but you can see the yeast converting sugar into alcohol. You will notice small bubbles (CO2) coming to the top and a little “current” in the glass.  Lean in and give it a deep inhale… heaven!

Step 2

Once the mash or sugar wash has cooled to 85 degrees F or below stir in the yeast starter you made in step 5. Just like with the starter, mix the yeast into the mash vigorously. Again, you want to aerate the mixture thoroughly. I use a long drywall paste mixing blade and a drill and stir it like crazy for least 10 minutes.

Or, get a long wooden dowel rod that’s at least an inch thick. I use that too to make me feel like I am in the 1800’s with my great grandfather.

Step 3

After the yeast has been mixed thoroughly, you need to make sure they have a healthy environment to live in. This starts with the pH of your water.

Now, if you used store bought spring water, you really don’t need to worry about the pH when you first start the mash. However, if you use tap water and are in an area that has hard or soft water, be sure to adjust the pH to around 6 when you start the mash.

No matter what your water source is, however, it is important that you check it and make adjustments now, otherwise you risk slowing or stalling out the fermentation.  The goal is to get the mash to 5.4 to 5.6 – that is the optimal range.  (If you are doing the sugar wash, keep the pH meter handy after fermentation, as it can become very acidic and stall the fermentation.)

 

With a grain-based mash, you are usually lowering the pH, not raising it. To lower the pH you simply need some citric acid. And instead of buying overpriced acid powders, just get some liquid lime or lemon juice.  Add 1 tablespoon at a time to your mash/wash and check the pH between each addition.

If you are using a sugar wash, chances are you will need to increase the pH since sugar is more acidic. You can do this with items that contain calcium carbonate like crushed oyster shells from your local feed and tack shop.  Or head over to the canning aisle in your grocery store and pick up “pickling lime”. Add tablespoons at a time until the pH gets between 5.4 and 5.6.

Step 4

The final step in the process before you leave it alone for a few days, is to check the starting gravity with a brewer’s hydrometer. These are usually called “triple scale” hydrometers as they contain not only specific gravity (SG) but also Brix, and estimated Alcohol By Volume (ABV). If this is your first time, consider getting the kit as it comes with the testing cylinder and scale.  Otherwise, the hydrometer alone will work.

NOTE: A brewer’s hydrometer is NOT the same as a distiller’s hydrometer. A brewer’s hydrometer tells you the sugar content (measured in specific gravity) of your mash whereas a distiller’s hydrometer (alcoholmeter) gives you the proof or alcohol by volume of a distilled spirit. So when you see the distiller’s hydrometer below, understand these are two different items and you will need to purchase both.

Step 5

Put the lid on the container and move it to a place that will remain warm. Yeast like it warm but not hot. If you can keep it between 75 and 85 degrees, the yeast will be happy. So cover it with quilts or wrap insulation around the pot or do what I do, drop an aquarium heater in there. Set the temp to 80, put the entire thing underwater, use the suction cups to stick it to the side of the pot, and do the same with the thermometer probe.

Now leave it the hell alone! Trust me, I know it is tempting to want to check on it everyday and fiddle with it by adding more yeast, or more nutrient, or giving it a shake or two. But if you hear and see bubbles, the yeast are just fine!

Most beginners think they need to completely seal off the lid and use an airlock for maximum protection against bacteria, but that simply isn’t the case. Yes, an airlock will help keep out physical contaminants like hair, dust, fruit flies, etc. but keeping out bacteria is damn near impossible. In fact, having a “lacto infection” can enhance the flavor of your mash giving it a hint of fruit and butter.  Google Image search lacto infection in mash.

 

04. DISTILLING

I am intentionally leaving this section blank for now. Once you get to this stage, you should follow the instructions from the still manufacturer because each still is different.  Plus, there is a great forum at www.homedistiller.com loaded with information. I will use the space below to give thoughts, ideas, dispel myths, etc. on distilling.

For now, find you a still, I recommend North GA Still Co. and pick up a distiller’s hydrometer.

A distiller’s hydrometer is used after you distill. It will not work in mash or ferment. The scale measures alcohol by volume in % and proof, 0 to 200.

If you are just getting started, pick up the kit, otherwise, the single hydrometer will do. And remember, always have 2 hydrometers on hand because one WILL break!

OPTIONAL ITEMS

To keep the process simple and your work area cleaner, you can ferment in the same pot you mash in. If that is not an option, pick up a 7 gallon plastic bucket (or two 5 gallons from Home Depot) and move the mash to this vessel after it cools. You can even add a spigot to the plastic buckets and small hoses to help transfer liquid.

And If you don’t have room on your stove (or if the pot will be too heavy to manage) consider picking up a deep frying burner.

Here are a few more items you may want to consider “upgrading” along the way when it comes to mashing. I added the yeast nutrient as an option here if you want to avoid killing a tablespoon of yeast in the previous steps. I highly recommend this nutrient as it does a good job of kickstarting the yeast.