Home Stills

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These days, a lot of customers are buying our boil controllers for home distilling. And at least where I live in the USA it’s illegal to run a still without a federal license. But this has never stopped anyone from distilling alcohol for his own personal consumption. So, I pulled out the Still questions and answers from this site’s ’14 Top Questions’ into this Home Stills article.

Can I legally run a still in my house?

The quick answer in the USA is ‘No’, not legally without a Federal license. The Federal Government doesn’t care if you run a still. They just want to collect their Federal excise taxes on any distilled spirits you produce, which BTW is $13.50 per proof gallon. A proof gallon is one gallon of 50%, or 100 proof distilled alcohol. Produce 150 proof and your tax goes up to $20.25 a gallon. And don’t forget that you also have to comply with your State licensing and fees. And I disagree with these taxes as much as anyone else. It’s the same product as before passing through your still, you just took most of the water out!

What about Moonshiners?

I know, everyone’s seen Moonshiners. I know enough about distilling to say that 80% of what you saw on the early shows was total Bull S&#t. Moonshiners is a made for entertainment program just like any other syndicated program. Most of their early recipes and processes were very incomplete or just plain wrong. You don’t just light up a still, run through a thumper full of cold water and produce product. To work correctly a thumper or doubler gets pre-loaded with the final proof of your product. You also don’t start a mash by adding table sugar to water and then dumping in a bunch of corn. But the series has much improved over the years and they are showing more and more of the real deal. My only real issue today is the glass jars some of the actors are calling thumpers. And all these glass jars the actors are running ‘whatever’ through aren’t thumpers. But they do work well for adding flavors to your final product and the leftover fruit tastes great!

But Moonshiners is still fun to watch. And of all their cast, I believe that Tim and Tickle really do know what they’re doing and they’ve shown their stuff all long. I’m not saying the rest of the cast don’t know their stuff. It’s just that a lot of what they do, the do for TV. And even though they are a ‘made for entertainment’ program, I’d love to be on one of their shows!

But can I run a still in my house?

Sure you can, and we can sell you a 220V boil controller that will run a fine home still. Just remember that people talk. Family talks to you and family talks to others. And if you start making enough to share then someone will tell someone who will tell someone else, who will tell someone else, and soon the Feds will be knocking on your door.

Can I run a home still with two 110V elements plugged into two outlets?

You can if you plug two elements into two different circuits. 5 to 7 outlets in your house are daisy chained together like Christmas lights and then each of these chains is protected by its own breaker which means that two in the same room are probably behind one breaker. But you can plug into two different circuits by running one element to another room with a long extension cord. For example, you can plug one element into a garage outlet and the second element into a kitchen outlet with a heavy duty extension cord. You can’t plug the two into two garage outlets because they are probably on the same circuit.

Also, both should be 2000 Watt elements and one should be managed by a controller. Why? Because depending on your still and batch size, once you reach boil you might be able to just turn one element off and manage your boil with the other. Or if you need a little more than 2000 Watts then you’d leave one element full on and manage your boil with the second element.

You could also do the same thing with a much larger still that needs more than 5500 Watts to heat up. You could install two 220V 5500 Watt elements, control one with a switch and the other with a controller. Then you would start your batch with both full on then switch the one element off and manage your boil with the other element once you reach boil. Or like the two 110 element example, if you need more than 5500 Watts for boil then leave both on while managing your boil with the one behind the controller.

Do I need a brewery or mash controller to run shine?

No, but you might need a boil controller to control the rate of boil in your home still. A lot depends on the type of still you are running and it’s sensitivity to the amount of heat you are adding. Boil too fast with too much heat and the steam will carry too much water out with your alcohol. Your proof will always be low. Apply too little heat and you will waste a lot of energy trying to reach a proper boil, assuming you reach boil. With a boil controller you can run a higher wattage than you need. Then you can run your still wide open until you’re at boil and turn your heat down to the run rate you want.

And regarding free on-line advice about heating element wattages. No ‘on-line expert’ can tell you the right wattage for your still, and we sure can’t! We don’t know your batch size, the amount of alcohol in your batch, the amount of stainless steel you need to heat along with your batch or how your condenser or column is designed. And they don’t know either. These on-line experts only know what works for them, assuming that on-line person who’s handing out free advice has actually run a still! But I’ll tell you what does work, at least what works with a converted 14.5 gallon stainless steel beer keg. A 5500 Watt water heater style heating element plugged into a boil controller works, not because it’s the right size for your still but because the element plus a good boil controller can be set for the right amount of heat for your still.

An uncontrolled element plugged straight into the wall can work great with the right setup. The least sensitive home still to the amount of heat applied will be a pot still with a simple condenser. But even with one of these setups, the higher your heat the harder your boil and the weaker your output. The reason is your steam will contain more and more water as your boil rate increases and more water in your seam leads to a lower proof product. But as long as you go with a 220V element its easy enough to swap out element wattages until your set-up is dialed in right. You could start with a 5500 Watt element, step down to a 4500 Watt, a 3500 Watt, etc.. until you are close enough to the right amount of heat for your still. But a 5500 Watt element with a boil controller will give you the most flexibility with a simple pot still.

A column still is the most sensitive to the amount of heat applied because it has to balance the heat source at the bottom with the cooling coil at the top of the column. It’s easy to over-run a column still with too large an element, causing the steam to blow past your column’s cooling condenser. Because of this you really need a element managed with a boil controller to set a column still up right. With a column still, you will adjust your cooling water flow and your heat input until steam is into the tower flowing from the bottom and the temperature at the top is correct – at about 192F. And these settings will be slightly different with each run, making it almost impossible to run a column still with a fixed wattage heat source.

Do I need a Federal license to produce alcohol for fuel, even if I don’t intend to drink it?

Yes, you are still required to get a Federal license but you don’t have to pay the same amount of Federal taxes for alcohol produced as fuel. You will also need to produce a plan to denature your alcohol as soon as it comes out of your still. Denaturing makes your alcohol undrinkable and most home fuel producers denature their alcohol by adding gasoline. But don’t build a pot still with a thumper and expect the Feds to believe you are making fuel. The Feds know better, they know that a thumper setup can’t run high enough proof to run in a car engine. It takes a high end still that can run at 98% or better to produce alcohol fuel for an engine.