How to build a whisky still

Written by edwin thomas
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How to build a whisky still
An example of a copper pot alembic still. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unlicensed whiskey distillation is illegal in the United States, but there are plenty of people who quietly do it anyway. The process of distillation is an old one, and is meant to concentrate the alcohol made from fermenting a mash of grain into something much stronger. Making a copper pot alembic still is a bit of a challenge, because it requires a solid base in soldering to complete the process. However, the parts and tools are all commonly available, and with the requisite soldering skills, the procedure is relatively straightforward.

Skill level:
Moderate

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Things you need

  • Copper pot with lid
  • Drill (both standard and metal-cutting bits required)
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Large rubber stopper
  • Soldering gun
  • At least six feet of copper tubing
  • Old soda bottle
  • Clamp
  • Pocket knife
  • Caulk
  • Used water carboy with lid (preferably glass)
  • Campfire cooking stand

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Buy the biggest copper pot with a lid that you can find. How much alcohol you can get out of a batch of mash can vary with the grain recipe, but a good predictor is only 3 quarts of 40 per cent alcohol whiskey per 5 gallons of mash. To make a substantial amount of whiskey, you will need the biggest pot you can get.

  2. 2

    Use the drill and reciprocating saw to cut a hole in the lid big enough to fit the rubber stopper. This stopper needs to be big enough so that it can accomodate both a thermometer and the copper tubing that will be added later.

  3. 3

    Solder the lid to the pot, so that it is permanently attached and completely sealed. You can test this by fitting the stopper, boiling some water in the pot, and seeing if any steam escapes through the seals. This is now your "kettle."

  4. 4

    Take the copper tubing and bend the central three feet into a coil. A handy way of doing this is to use a clamp for better grip, and bend it around an old glass soda bottle. The extra foot and a half on either end are needed for insertion into the kettle and a water carboy. The tubing can be longer if need be, but consider six feet a minimum.

  5. 5

    Use the drill and a pocket knife to cut openings in the rubber stopper for the thermometer and the copper tubing, and then insert these parts. Both need to go through the rubber stopper, extending out to the other side, but the fit will need to be very tight so that as much of a seal forms around these parts as possible. If you cut too much away, you can shore up the seal by caulking the outsides of the openings around the tubing and thermometer. Do not caulk the inside.

  6. 6

    Cut a hole in the lid or cap of the water carboy to fit the other end of the copper tubing. Unlike the kettle, this fit need not be a perfect seal, but it should not be so loose that the tube will slide out.

  7. 7

    Set the kettle outdoors and on a campfire stand.

  8. 8

    Bend the copper tubing down, and insert it into the water carboy. The whiskey still is now complete.

Tips and warnings

  • To operate the still, fill the kettle with fermented mash, and build a fire or set a burner beneath the kettle. Heat the mash to a temperature between 172 º F. and 212 º F, which will boil the alcohol but not the water. The alcohol vapour will rise through the copper coil and condense back into a liquid. It will drip down into the water carboy for collection. One distillation will not make very strong whiskey, so plan on having to distil the spirits at least twice and preferably three times.
  • Quality whiskey requires ageing. Consider ageing your product for at least two years, either in an oak barrel or a carboy with a handful or two of oak chips in it.
  • Remember that alcohol vapour is flammable and therefore hazardous. Never operate a still of this size indoors.

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