How to make a still

There is a way to produce spirits at home.

Wine and beer aficionados often enjoy making their own. Even if it's just a casual hobby, the experiments are fun and often produce some worthwhile results. But making vodka, gin and others is partly just a matter of continuing or altering slightly that same process.

There are two basic types of commercial stills that have been in use for centuries. Pot stills are basically what they sound like, a large pot in which a mash is heated. Column or reflux stills take the technology to the next level. But a third type, closer to the pot still concept, is possible using household items alone.


5 lbs of ice
5-quart copper-bottom pot
Large wok
Pyrex jar

A copper-bottomed pot isn't mandatory, a regular steel or aluminum one could be used, but copper tends to work better because it retains heat better. Place it on the stove and put the Pyrex jar or other heat-resistant glass in the center. Pour wine or beer around the jar until it's a few inches deep.

Place the wok on top, making sure there's a small gap between the jar or glass and the bottom of the wok. The wok should cover the rim of the copper pot, however. Place a pound of ice in the wok.

Heat slowly on low flame or setting to avoid boiling. This is essential since the goal is to evaporate off just the alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than other components in the liquid.

Add ice to the wok as the previous amount melts.

At around 65-80C (149-176F) the alcohol will 'boil off' and deposit onto the bottom of the wok. The wok's low temperature (caused by the icy water) will then cause the vapor to condense. The curve will cause some of it to move to the center where it drips into the jar. The distillate in the jar is alcohol.

Special Note

It is illegal to distill alcohol at home in the U.S. without a special permit. The following instructions are for educational or entertainment purposes only.

Note there are two (and possibly more) kinds of alcohol possible here: ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and methanol (methyl alcohol). Their boiling points are not too far apart and it's possible that the desired alcohol (ethanol) will be contaminated with methanol. (Ethanol boiling point: 78.4C - 173.12F and methanol boiling point: 64.7C - 148.46F). Drinking the liquid is not recommended. Methanol can cause blindness.

A more sophisticated arrangement helps overcome the problem to an extent, but careful control of the temperature is required to improve the odds.

Instead of a wok, most home stills use a copper cap with copper tubing. The pot can be copper or a 10-gallon steel milk can. The cap is secured onto the pot and the tubing is coiled. This provides a means of slowly condensing the alcohol into another container to which the tubing leads.

Since the methanol has a lower boiling point, it is evaporated off first, then discarded. Commercial distillers call this 'the head'. The temperature is then raised to the boiling point of ethanol, but still below the boiling point of water (100C - 212F). What's left behind is called 'the tail'. The distillate then becomes, in the words of the pros, 'the heart of the run'.

In principle, using wine or beer as a base eliminates the problem, since they contain only ethanol, not methanol. But heating them can cause one to turn into the other to a degree, since they're closely related chemically. Once again, drinking the liquid is not recommended.

Note also that vodka, gin and other clear spirits are made by combining the distillate with botanicals. Whiskey, cognac and others are aged in oak barrels for several years to acquire their distinctive flavors.

Making genuine spirits requires a fair amount of knowledge and experience, not to mention some additional equipment. But experimenting with distillation can still be fun!

To read all about spirits, of the earthly kind, the introduction to spirits is the first step.