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How To Distill Ethanol or Grain Alcohol

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Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, sometimes known as grain alcohol.

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, sometimes known as grain alcohol.

Ben Mills

Ethanol is also called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol. It's made from a fermented mixture of corn, yeast, sugar, and water. The resulting alcohol is 100 to 200 proof (200 proof is pure alcohol).

In addition to use in the lab, ethanol is a popular fuel alternative and gasoline additive. Because it is flammable, ethanol can be prohibitively expensive to ship, so it may make sense to distill your own. Anyone can have a still, but be advised you may need to get a permit in order to make ethanol.

Difficulty: Easy

Time Required: 3 - 10 days, sometimes longer

Here's How:

  1. If you are starting with whole corn, you first need to convert the cornstarch into sugar by 'sprouting' the corn. Place the corn in a container, cover it with warm water, and drape a cloth over the container to prevent contamination and conserve heat. Ideally, the container will have a slowly draining hole at the bottom. Add warm water from time to time as the liquid level falls. Maintain the setup ~3 days or until the corn has sprouts about 2 inches long.
  2. Allow the sprouted corn to dry. Then grind it into meal. Alternatively, start with cornmeal. Other grains can be prepared in much the same way (e.g. rye mash).
  3. Mash or mush is made by adding boiling water to the corn meal. The mash is kept warm to start the fermentation process. Yeast is added, if available (half pound yeast per 50 gallons of mash, for example), and sugar (variable recipe). With yeast, fermentation takes about 3 days. Without yeast, fermentation could require more than 10 days. The mash is ready to 'run' once it stops bubbling. The mash has been converted into carbonic acid and alcohol. It is called 'wash' or 'beer' or 'sour mash'.
  4. The wash is placed into a cooker, which has a lid that is pasted shut, so that it has a seal which can be blown off should internal pressure become too great. At the top of the cooker, there is a copper pipe, or 'arm' that projects to one side and tapers down from a 4-5 inch diameter to the same diameter as the 'worm' (1 to 1-1/4 inch). The 'worm' could be made by taking a 20 ft length of copper tubing, filling it with sand and stopping the ends, and then coiling it around a fence post.
  5. The sand prevents the tubing from kinking while being coiled. Once the worm is formed, the sand is flushed out of the tube. The worm is placed in a barrel and sealed to the end of the arm. The barrel is kept full of cold, running water, to condense the alcohol. Water runs in the top of the barrel and out an opening at the bottom. A fire is maintained under the cooker to vaporize the alcohol in the wash.
  6. The ethanol vaporizes at 173°F, which is the target temperature for the mixture. The spirit will rise to the top of the cooker, enter the arm, and will be cooled to the condensation point in the worm. The resulting liquid is collected at the end of the worm, traditionally into glass jars. This fluid will be translucent, and about the color of dark beer.
  7. The very first liquid contains volatile oil contaminants in addition to alcohol. After that, liquid is collected. The containers of liquid collected from over the wash are called 'singlings'. Liquid collected toward the end of this run is called 'low wine'. Low wine can be collected and returned to the still to be cooked again. The initial collections are higher proof than those collected as the distillation progresses.
  8. The singlings tend to have impurities and require double-distillation, so once the low wine has been run to the point where a tablespoon or so thrown on a flame won't burn (too low proof), the heat is removed from the still and the cooker is cleaned out. The liquid remaining in the still, the 'backings' or 'slop', can be recovered and poured over new grain (and sugar, water, and possibly malt) in a mash barrel for future distillations. Discard mash after no more than eight uses.
  9. The singlings are poured into the cooker and the still is returned to operation. The initial collections can approach pure alcohol (200 proof), with the end collections, using the flash test on the flame, at about 10 proof.
  10. The desired proof depends on the application. The highest proof usually obtained from a still is 190 proof. For using alcohol as a fuel alternative, for example, addition purification with a sieve may be required to obtain 200 proof ethanol.

Tips:

  1. If you live in the United States, a permit may be required in order to legally distill ethanol.
  2. Stills traditionally were operated close to a water source, like a stream or river, because the cool water was used to condense the alcohol in the tubing (called the 'worm')
  3. Stills needed to have removable tops, so that they wouldn't explode when pressure built up from heating the mash.

What You Need:

  • 25 lb corn meal or 25 lb shelled whole corn
  • 100 lb sugar (sucrose)
  • 100 gallons water
  • 6 oz yeast

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