When I began teaching homesteading classes, one of the biggest class that people asked for was a moonshine class. Of course, without a license it is illegal to concentrate one drop of alcohol here in the U.S. There are two ways of getting licences in the U.S. One is for non-human consumption. I have one of these. This allows a person to brew up ethanol for mixing with their farm gas supply. For me this lowers my fuel costs by 1/3 and with gas prices looking to sky rocket this summer, I can use all the help I can get. I use homemade liquor to feed my tractors. You can also get a licence for making human grade alcohol consumption. The problem with this is it costs tons and tons of money and is usually pretty hard for the common man to get. But here in the U.S. and Canada it is illegal to concentrate one drop of alcohol without a licence. You can legally make 100 gallons of wine and beer, 200 if you are married in most states, but don't concentrate it or it will be illegal.
I know that everyone who reads this post is like me and would never do anything illegal. You always drive the speed limit, you never download music off the internet, you've never fudged on your taxes, and you certainly would not concentrate alcohol illegally. I can see all you halos and I assure you that my horns hold my halo up quite fine.
Having said that, I am just going to talk about simple stills from an academic way of learning. Don't try this unless you are licenced.
There are two ways of concentrating alcohol. One is the more familiar way of distilling. This uses the principle that alcohol turns to vapors at a much lower temperature than water. So, if you can heat up a alcoholic base, often called a mash or a beere until it is hot enough to make the alcohol turn to vapors but not the water, then you cool down that vapor of alcohol and collect it, you can concentrate that alcohol.
The second way of concentrating alcohol is a process called jacking. Jacking uses the opposite principle that alcohol freezes at a MUCH lower temperature than water. If you put some hard cider out the door of your house when it is below freezing, a slush of ice will form on top of it. That ice is the water freezing, so if you take a strainer and skim that slush of ice, you have 'jacked' or concentrated the alcohol left in the container. Now jacking doesn't concentrate the alcohol as much as distilling, but one nice thing it does is leave some of the flavor of the original mash. Here's the thing about jacking, it is so easy to do, some people may have done it by mistake. But don't fool yourself, if you do this, you are committing an illegal act. To date there is no licencing in the U.S. for jacking and anything that you buy that is called jack, such as (apple)jack, is not true applejack but formed by distilling. Do NOT leave your wine or beer outside and skim the slush off of it here in the U.S. (or at least don't get caught doing it).
There are some dangers to concentrating alcohol that for academic sake everyone should be aware of. First is that ethanol is highly combustible. That's why it can be used in the internal combustion engine. When it is in vapor form it burns darn well and if in high enough amounts it can explode like a molotov cocktail. Never have ethanol vapors around an open flame.
Second is that alcohol can contain some things in it that can do damage to you. The old saying is that if ethanol is a high spirited lap dog, methanol (methyl alcohol) is Cujo on steroids. Methanol is one of the main poisons that gave moonshine its bad name to some. Many foods, such as grapes and diet soda contains methanol is small doses (though if you suck down diet soda all day long you are getting quite a wallop of this poison-you may even feel achy because of it). Methanol is what makes people go blind from drinking bad 'shine. It irreversibly destroys the optic nerve. It's part of what gives you a hangover as it does temporary (though over time it can become permanent) damage to your joints and muscles. Let's just say you don't want a whole lotta this stuff in your finished product.
The nice thing is that it is pretty easy to separate out. If you want to keep as much of it out of your mash in the first place, always try to brew your beer, wine, or mash at the lowest temperature possible. The faster a mash brews, the more methanol you're going to have in your brew. This includes if you are making wine or beer. Cold fermenting makes better tasting, and safer wine. Of course, you can only brew it so cool before the yeast will simply not work and sometimes you are distilling someone else's mash and you have no idea how good of a brewer they are so there is a way to keep it out of your 'shine.
First and foremost, heat the still SLOWLY. Don't crank up the heat and bring your mash to a boil. I read this once on the internet and darn near tried to beat my screen down to get to the person who wrote it. These are the people who made "bathtub" gin or the crap that gives rum runners a bad name. Heat your mash up in the still just as slowly as possible. Second, discard the first 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of distilled liquor that comes out of the still. You don't have to throw this away, it can still be used externally, but to be safe, don't drink it. Follow those two simple rules and you will get rid of most if not all of the methanol that comes from the whole process.
Now, I am not distilling tonight, that would be illegal, but for academic sake I will take some pictures of what would happen if I was distilling on a very simple still that most people can make right now in their own kitchen. Once people get the basics of distilling down, they find it to be quite easy to do and wonder why there was all this fuss made about it in the first place.
For many old timers, distilling is just another part of the harvest. We freeze, can, dehydrate, pickle, kraut, fat over, ferment, brew and distill the harvest that comes from nature and our gardens. This way we can use what we grew as time goes on instead of having to consume it all at once in a feast or famine way of life. Distilling creates alcohol which can be used to preserve other food, be used in medicines, be used in cleaning supplies and disinfectants, and can be passed around in a mason jar with friends around the winter's fire. We didn't get into it to tick off the government or to become romantic outlaws. We distilled because that is what our ancestors did for hundreds of years before there were laws that limited our freedoms. We did it to barter, we did it to survive.
It is time that we take back our freedom to survive and tell big business AND big government they can make their way just like us. I tip my glass to that idea (if it were legal to do so).