Making spirits at home is very simple, and there’s no need to make your own still – small commercial pot stills like the SmartStill do a perfectly good job. Just brew up some sugar using a high-alcohol tolerant yeast, add some fining gel, and leave it to stand for a few days. Then the liquid goes through the still, throwing away the first little bit that comes through to get rid of impurities. Finally you measure the strength of the distilled spirit, and adjust it back to 40% ABV with distilled water before adding flavourings.
Using a pot still: easy, no-fuss home distilling
If you want to distill alcohol at home but don’t want the fuss of making a still yourself, then a ‘pot still’ such as the SmartStill may be the way to go. This tabletop unit is small enough to put away with the pots and pans, and you don’t have to hide it when the neighbours call because it looks like one of those big insulated coffee dispensers you see at corporate meetings.
How to make your own spirits: the process explained
- The first step is to make a custom brew known as a ‘wash’, using sugar and a ‘turbo’ (high alcohol) yeast. Dextrose brewing sugar gives the fastest, cleanest fermentation but isn’t absolutely necessary.
- Once the wash has finished fermenting, add turbo finings to clear it and remove impurities. Leave it to stand for at least 24 hours.
- Once clear, the wash is ready to be distilled in the SmartStill four litres at a time. The first 20ml or so of the distillate (the liquid that drips into the collection jug) is thrown away because it contains toxic impurities, such as methanol. The next 700ml is the fraction that you want to keep.
- Once the still has cooled down, the liquid that’s left in it is thrown away and you’re ready to start the next four litre batch. The 700ml you kept is adjusted back to 40% ABV with distilled water (made by distilling plain water with the SmartStill) to make it safe to drink. Ideally it should be checked with a spirit hydrometer, but if you stick to the recipe supplied with your yeast the strength is very predictable.
- Add flavourings, such as a commercial spirit essence or your own combination of sugar and fruit or other ingredients, such as this recipe for sloe gin.
Why make a still when you can use a pot still?
Pot stills like the SmartStill can’t give the very high (95%+ ABV) purity that a full-on reflux column still can achieve. However, unless you want to make unflavoured spirits this kind of purity isn’t necessary anyway. Making your own still requires a bit of technical know-how and some basic metalworking skills, and the end product has to be hidden away from prying eyes – unless you’re absolutely open about brewing moonshine!
If you decide that you need to achieve very high levels of purity, you can use your pot still to double- or even triple-distil to achieve at least 80% ABV. But beware! Alcohol should always be diluted down to 40% ABV or lower to be safe for drinking.
Can you make spirits without a still?
If distilling isn’t for you, you can still make drinks of up to about 22% ABV using liqueur kits. Some of these kits describe their strength in terms of ‘percent proof’ – don’t be confused by it. To turn ‘proof’ into Alcohol By Volume (ABV), multiply by 4 and divide by 7: so ’40 percent proof’ is just over 22% ABV.
An alternative method of concentrating alcohol is by ‘freeze distillation’, which has been used to produce rough spirits such as applejack. The trouble with doing this is that it also concentrates the impurities formed during fermentation, so we don’t recommend it. Even if you manage to produce a palatable drink, it will contain some toxins your body is much better off without.
Is it legal to distil spirits in the UK?
It is illegal to manufacture spirits in the UK without a distiller’s licence which is required under the provisions of section 12 of the Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979 and this includes manufacture for “own/domestic use”. Contact HMRC’s advice service on 0845 010 9000 or visit their website to read Public Notice 39 – “Spirits production in the UK” for further information about HM Revenue & Customs’ requirements.