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The World's Simplest Still

The World's Simplest (and safest) Still

This page is by no means intended to encourage anyone to break the laws of their
country! It is presented as a simple science experiment to demonstrate a common
chemical and industrial process at your home, without purchasing any special
equipment. And if you really want to make moonshine at home for drinking, this
method is a very poor and time consuming way to go about it--it's not worth your
time. And once you take a whiff of your results, you won't WANT to drink it--it
won't smell very good. Check our distilling links at the bottom of the page for
more information.

What is Distilling?

The distillation process is actually pretty simple. As you slowly heat a mix of different chemicals,
the ones with the lowest boiling point boil off first, leaving the others behind. The part of a still
called the "condenser" cools the evaporated vapor, making it condense back into a liquid. This is
how gasoline is made from crude oil, and how whiskey is made from beer and brandy from
wine...which is what we did here. 3/7/2011
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Is it legal?

In a word, NO! The only countries we could find in which it legal to distill alcohol for drinking at
home are New Zealand, Austria and Italy. If anyone has more information about home alcohol
distillation laws in different countries that we can include on this site, please Email Us.
HOWEVER, please note that as far as we can tell, there is no US law against performing chemistry
experiments that involve the distillation of alcohol. Almost every chemistry set in the world
provides the apparatus for distillation, plus the experiment guide for distilling wine into brandy.
The key is DON'T DRINK THE RESULTS, and for darn sure DON'T SELL THEM! Measure the
alcohol content of your brandy, and dump it down the drain! Or take it outside, put it in an old
coffee can, and carefully light it on fire. Also, in the USA it IS legal to build a still and make
alcohol for motor fuel, you simply have to apply for a license with the Federal Beareu of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms, and promise them that you'll add some poison to any alcohol you make to
render it toxic for drinking.

Is it safe?

The simple "still" presented the page is very safe--UNLESS YOU DRINK THE RESULTS. In that
case, you are on your own. The design presented here eliminates any explosion or fire hazard. More
complex stills intended for producing larger quantities of drinking or fuel alcohol can be VERY
dangerous...alcohol vapor and liquid are flammable and can explode on contact with open flames.
If there is no pressure relief valve on a common still and the condenser tube gets plugged up from
improper technique, the entire still can explode from high pressure and kill you. If you intend to
build a real home still instead of our simple chemistry demonstration, be sure to thoroughly
research the design and process using our distillation links below!

Is the "Brandy" made on this page safe?

Probably not. So, DON'T DRINK IT! PLEASE. BUT, there is one important factor to keep in
mind! Distillation does NOT make any new chemicals or poisons during the process, it simply
separates the chemicals that are already there in the wine. So, drinking the 2 oz. of distillate
produced by distilling 1/2 a gallon of wine would have exactly the same effect on you as
drinking the 1/2 gallon of wine itself. Methyl Alcohol is toxic (it can make you go blind!), and it
is one of the first things that boils off in the still. SO, THE FIRST RUNNINGS FROM A STILL
ARE NON-DRINKABLE. The reason people get hurt with home stills is because of drinking just
these first runnings, or the last runnings. Personally, I can't imagine how anyone could possibly get
this stuff past their nose into their mouths! It smells HORRIBLE, like acetone and denatured
alcohol, and you would have to be a fool to drink it! Commercial distillers' procedures make an
effort to get rid of the methyl alcohol, but this simple project certainly does not get rid of it all...but
to reiterate, there's no more methanol in the distillate than there was in the wine in the first place.
But still, DON'T DRINK IT! You can safely dip your finger in it and taste it with your tongue.

OK, let's get down to it!

For this experiment, you'll need:

 A large cooking pot--a 'dutch oven' size is about right -- it holds a gallon or so.
 A Wok or round-bottomed mixing bowl--no flat bottoms, you want it round so the 3/7/2011
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distillate will drip off into the collector jar.

 Small drinking glass--an 8 ounce drinking glass works great.
 Magnet--To keep the collection glass from moving around the pot.
 Cheap Wine--We used wine-in-the-box, a red version to contrast with the clear distilled
result! About 1/2 gallon needed.
 Snow or Ice Cubes--This cools the vapor quickly so it will condense and drip into the
collector glass.
 A Weight--To keep the wok tightly pressed down against the pot and avoid alcohol vaopr
leakage. I used a 4 lb steel weight. A brick or 2 would work too. Optional, but nice:
 Proof Hydrometer--For measuring the alcohol content of your results. Available from
homebrew beer and wine suppliers for about $15. Also called a 'Customs House
 Thermometer--for measuring the liquid temperature. Handy, but not essential. Needs to be
about 130-212 degree F in range, or more. Must be submersible.

The basic parts -- Pot, wok, glass and wine! (magnet in glass not visible)

Pour some wine into the pot. Somewhere between a quart and 3 quarts works fine. Put the
collection glass in the wine pot, in the exact middle. If you are using a magnet, put the magnet in
the collection glass (see below for info about why we used the magnet).

Collection glass with magnet inside 3/7/2011
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Start heating the wine with the burner on high. When the temperature gets to about 120 deg F, turn
the burner down to low -- very, very low! Fill the wok with ice or snow, and place on top of the
wine pot. Adding the weight on top will help it get a good seal--which is critical to your success.
Since the wok is just sitting on top of the pot, there's no danger of pressure buildup and explosion
like there is with a regular still.

Now you want to bring the temperature up very slowly, over the course of about 30 minutes.

This is what it looks like when its running

As the wine heats up, different chemicals with different boiling points start to evaporate from it.
Methyl alcohol boils at 148.5 deg F. Ethyl alcohol soon follows at 173 deg F. The alcohol vapor
rises, hits the very cold inverted bowl, and condenses. The condensate runs to the center, and drips
down into the collection glass. We had problems with bubbles forming under the glass and pushing
it to the side of the pot, and had to add the magnet to stick it down to the center of the steel pot.

The keys to making you 'run' are BRING THE TEMPERATURE UP SLOWLY and DO NOT LET
THE WINE BOIL. If it boils, you'll get water dripping into your collection glass, diluting the
alcohol. If you were really into it, it would be useful to drill a hole in the wok and insert a rubber
grommet through which you could insert a thermometer, while not letting any vapor out.

As the temperature starts approaching the boiling point of water, most of the alcohol will be gone
from the wine. It's time to remove the distillate collection glass, and dump the hot wine down the
drain. If everything went well, you should have 2-4 ounces of alcohol from a half gallon of wine. If
you have a hydrometer, wait for the alcohol to cool to room temperature before measuring. The
best we've ever got with this simple project is 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). Don't drink the
alcohol! But it is safe to dip your pinky in and taste it. 3/7/2011
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hydrometer reading showing about 80 proof

Distilling Links -- lots of free information, and an excellent and
inexpensive e-book you can download. These folks from Sweden are REALLY into it! -- tons of free information! An extremely thorough site. -- good books on home distilling. -- information and equipment - real stills. New Zealand. -- books, equipment, really cool glass still.


-- Pretty Darn Safe --

This experiment is quite safe. The 'still' can never build up
pressure, and there's not enough alcohol involved to make a fire
hazard. JUST DON'T DRINK THE RESULTS! 3/7/2011
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We will gladly accept, review and consider your science experiment submissions
for inclusion on this site, whether you are age 6 or age 100! Email us for details.
Every experiment on these pages must be done with adult supervision only!!! If you are already an adult, we
recommend getting a friend to help so you don't do anything childish and hurt yourself. We'll try to provide
safety warnings, but cannot be held responsible for your own safety. Many of these experiments and many of the
books we sell are from another era when safety was not a consideration, so PAY ATTENTION to the hazards of
what you are doing! Wear safety goggles and gloves. Don't be stupid--YOU are supposed to be the adult here!

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THIS PAGE LAST UPDATED 4/2/03 3/7/2011