Standing in the kitchen, watching for the first drops of homemade ethanol to trickle into a Mason jar: the alchemists must have felt like his, or Merlin in his cave, 'waiting for some ancient apparatus to yield up molten gold, or a potion potent enough to repel the Viking hordes. Copper coils, a bubbling pot, clear water running into a big tin pail, a soft hiss of steam like a witch's cauldron. Waiting for the elixir alcohol, aqua regia, the water of life.

It is illegal to distill your own alcohol in Canada even a thimbleful vithout having first posted up to $200,000 in bond. Each drop of liqiid vapourizing inside this pot is thus a violation of the law, so many mill ions of minuscule infractions rising from the mash. But it seems only niatural that they should violate it, a fitting gesture to tradition, to those Highlanders, bitter after Culloden, who coaxed their golden malt to flow n secret and damn any tribute to the English king or to the wild mountain men of Harlan County, cooking white lightning in the Cumberland woods with a wary eye out for revenuers. Moonshine. Tennessee wine.

Alcohol always has been taxed, attacked, cursed or banned by kings and parliaments, by George Washington putting down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, or by Ontario's Reverend J.O.L. Spracklin, blowing his rum running enemies into the hereafter in blazing Prohibition gunfights.

Levies and taxes, bonds and rules. Today, however, they include a new, hidden tax paid to the barons of Exxon, a fortune extorted by the corporate nobles out of gasoline, and here the common man's alternative should not be outlawed. If ever there were a case for poaching on the squire's turf, this would be it.

Fortunately, where alcohol is concerned, the means of resistance are conveniently accessible. Only two basic phenomena are involved:

1) The fact that yeast, introduced at the right temperature into a "mash" solution containing sugar or starches that can be changed into sugar will ferment the solution by converting the sugar to alcohol, and

2) the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling point (173.3 degrees F) than water (212 degrees) and can be separated from the mash by distilling or heating it after the yeast has finished its work.

The product of fermentation (which is permitted in Canada) may be a relatively mild alcoholic beverage like beer or wine, while that of distillation (which is unlawful) may be either a strong "spirit" beverage such as whiskey or cognac or a high-grade motor fuel.

THE MAGIC VARIATIONS

The simplicity of these two natural themes fermentation and distillation has been refined over the years through an ingenious number of variations. Whether the goal is a dram to drink or a cleaner, cheaper fuel to run a rototiller, there are as many recipes for mash and as many ways to build a still as there are distillers.

Most recipes are classified as belonging to either the sour mash or sweet mash methods. Sour mashing, normally used to make both bourbon and moonshine, utilizes some of the yeast from earlier batches to ferment each new mash. Malt or molasses or both of them are ordinarily used as catalysts to "get the mash working." The sweet mash method, on the other hand, employs only fresh yeast in each mash and often substitutes commercially made enzymes for the traditional malt. Each method has its own peculiar advantages and drawbacks.

Jerry Walstad's family has been using the sour mash method to make moonshine whiskey for many years, starting back in Tennessee, and ending up in Lancaster, Washington, where their expertise is now put to use legally. The manufacture of home and industrial distilling equipment. (In the U.S., home a farm production of renewable alchohol fuel is not only lawful, but activly promoted by several states as a energy conservation measure.)

MOONSHINE KID

"Making moonshine whiskey is what I've done since I was a kid," says Walstad. "We've tried just about every recipe and every enyzme the market, but I prefer the sour mash method. Our way of doing this has been a family recipe since 1920. It has the virtue of being simple, as the same mash can be used over and over again, saving energy and money."

The Revenoor's factory-made still available in models ranging fro five to 1,000 gallons are advertised in national magazines and so widely in the United States, but in Canada they are forbidden. "We've had a lot of Canadians who tried get them across the border withot any success," notes Walstad. "It really burns us up. Here in the U.S. government has done everything it can to encourage the use of alcohol fuel -- a permit to operate a fuel still costs nothing. But Canada is just the opposite."

The guardians of Ottawa's petro frontiers slipped up at least once however, allowing one five-gallon Revenoor still clearly labelled an "alcohol distillation unit" I cross the border unhindered en route to Camden East. With it, and the recipe provided in Walstad's accompanying instruction booklet, two batches of alcohol fuel were run with one emerging at 150 and the other 170 proof.

A second, homemade still developed by Fred Stetson of Garden West Publishing of Charlotte, Vermor and described in his book Make Your Own Motor Fuel, was also constructed and two batches of ethanol fuel produced according to Stetson's sweet mash recipe. The resulting 100 proof fuel powered a three horse power Tecumseh lawnmower engine for a solid hour, burning with full smooth, cool efficiency that the improvement over the engine's performance on gasoline was remarkable.

SOUR MASH STEPS

Walstad's sour mash directions are the soul of down-home plainness: "If you decide to use sugar for your first batch, and are making a batch for a five-gallon still, take a container that will hold about two quarts of warm water (80 degrees F) and first place about six to eight pounds of sugar in the container. Add the warm water and dissolve. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then stir the sugar/water solution into your grain usually cracked corn which has been previously covered with water. (If using corn, use 10 to 15 pounds in the bottom of a 10 or more gallon plastic container, such as a plastic garbage can, and cover with warm, about 80 degree, water.) Add one tablespoon of distiller's yeast (reconstitute first by stirring the yeast into a cup of warm water, 90 to 100 degrees, and letting it stand for about 15 minutes). Mix all these ingredients together, adding an additional five gallons of water as you stir.

"Now cover the mash container with a screen to keep out insects, birds, mice, etc., as they seem to be attracted to anything containing alcohol. Let the mash stand and work off at a room temperature of about 80 degrees until fermentation is complete. This action may continue for only a matter of hours or up to a matter of days. The amount of time will be determined by the quality of ingredients and the room temperature. The best way to determine when the mash is at its peak, or its maximum alcohol content, is to measure a sample of it with a simple beer hydrometer, or 'vino- meter.'

"After the alcohol content has reached its peak, the liquid part of the mash, or beer, must be strained and taken off to be processed in the still. First skim off all the grain that has floated to the top of the mash. Then remove the beer, using a siphon tube, or simply pour it off through a cheesecloth strainer into another bucket.

"The remaining mash solids are still soaked with beer containing a high percentage of alcohol. Add fresh water to these solids immediately to dilute the alcohol. This will prevent the yeast in the mash from being killed and allow you to use it over again. To start fermentation of the second batch, follow the same steps as before, adding only enough grain to replace whatever was skimmed off earlier and about 10 per cent less sugar. If the mash was diluted soon enough, new yeast will not be needed."

With this recipe, anywhere from five to eight batches can be produced from the same mash.

Walstad notes that sugar is too expensive to use on any but the first couple of hatches, when the distiller is "trying to learn the ropes," and that molasses is the more practical substitute. He recommends molasses with a 48 per cent sugar content. The optimum amount to be used can depend on a host of variables. "Experiment, using small batches," he advises. The pH, or acidity, of the water used to make a mash is also important. Yeast thrives best in slightly acid water with a pH range of 4.8 to 5.2. It is advisable to measure the pH of water to be used, employing a soil test kit or litmus paper. If the pH is too high, add a few drops of muriatic acid (available at swimming pool supply stores).

The Revenoor's shining copper stills come ready-made, with complete instructions for their operation. Essentially these involve heating the beer to more than 173.3 degrees but less than 212 degrees and waiting for the alcohol to emerge from the cooler/condenser part of the unit. Getting such a still across Canada's enlightened borders, however, could prove problematic, making the knowledge of how to construct Stetson's homemade model valuable.

A HOMEMADE STILL

Any five-gallon pressure cooker with a dial-type pressure/temperature gauge and a threaded pressure release valve in the lid can be used as a "pot" or "cooker" for the still. Also needed are a five- to eight-gallon metal bucket, such as an empty lard pail, about 15 feet of quarter-inch copper tubing, a copper or brass compression union and threaded fitting (the same type threads as those on the pressure cooker's release valve), two half-inch garden hoses, one male and one female garden hose fitting, a faucet adapter to connect the hose to a sink water tap and a glass or plastic container to hold the alcohol to be produced.

The lard bucket can serve as a "flake stand," or cooling condenser for the unit. To assemble the condenser, take a brace and bit and drill three holes in the bucket. Make one hole about five inches below the lip of the bucket and large enough in diameter to allow the male garden hose fitting to be screwed into it. A second hole should be drilled near the bottom of the bucket, about two inches up from the base, to accommodate the female hose fitting. The third hole, just large enough to pass the quarter-inch copper tubing through, is drilled at about the same height as the second hole, on the opposite side of the bucket.

The male and female hose fittings may then be screwed in place and soldered securely to prevent water from leaking around them. The copper tube is also soldered into its hole, but must first be formed into a vertical coil, like an automobile spring and the same height as the bucket. One way to make the coil without causing kinks is to run a bit of hot water through it to make it more flexible, then wrap it around a paint can or section of stove pipe. Insert it upright in the bucket and solder it in place with a "tail" protruding through the hole. A short piece of copper or brass wire looped over the top end of the tubing and soldered to the lip of the bucket will hold the coil steady. About 18 inches of non-coiled tubing should be left at the top to connect the flake stand with the pressure cooker.

Now remove the pressure-release valve from the pressure cooker lid and replace it with the threaded fitting. Use plumber's pipe-thread tape to get a good seal. The compression union can then be connected to the free end of the 18-inch section of tubing protruding from the top of the flake stand and used to attach the tubing to the threaded fitting. (It is a good idea to blow through the tubing, to be sure it is not clogged, before attaching it to the cooker.)

The hoses can now be attached to the flake stand, one leading from the upper hose fitting on the bucket into a nearby sink and serving as an overflow channel, the other running from a cold water tap to the bottom hole on the bucket. The latter hose can be attached to a sink faucet using the adapter mentioned previously and will provide cold water to the stand during operation of the still.

Before connecting the flake stand to the cooker, however, the distiller may want to use the cooker separately to mix up a mash according to Stetson's sweet mash recipe. This recipe, based on the recommendations of Biocon Inc., of Lexington, Kentucky, manufacturers of brewing enzymes and yeasts, produces an excellent fuel and has the advantage of working well regardless of the pH of the water used. It also by-passes the need for sugar or molasses; the only mash catalysts needed are the commercial enzymes obtainable by mail order from Biocon and other manufacturers.

First, the pressure cooker is placed on a stove burner or hot plate and filled with two and a half U.S. gallons (two Imperial gallons) of water. Next, two teaspoons of Canalfa a white powder commercial enzyme and seven pounds of ground corn (cornmeal) are added and stirred into the mixture. Note that this recipe does not use cracked corn, as in the Walstad recipe, nor corn flour, but ground corn, about the consistency of sand grains.

Turn on the heat and stir frequently until the mash reaches about 200 to 212 degrees F. This may take up to an hour, less if the cooker is kept covered between periodic stirrings. Once the desired temperature is reached, hold the mixture there for approximately 15 minutes. A long- stem or floating thermometer, available from laboratory supply firms and some home brewing supply shops, will permit an accurate temperature reading to be taken.

After the 15 minutes have passed, turn the heat down or off if necessary and allow the mash to cool below 170 degrees. As soon as this temperature drop takes place, add two more teaspoons of Canalfa. Hold the mixture steady at between 150 and 170 degrees F for about 30 minutes more, continuing to stir.

Now turn off all heat and cool the mash still further. Adding a quart or so of cold tap water, or submerging a plastic bag of ice cubes in the mash will speed cooling. When the mash temperature falls below 120 degrees add two teaspoons of Gasolase enzyme, a brown powder which can be mixed in cool water to form a paste before adding it to the mash. Continue cooling and stirring the mixture until it falls to between 85 and 90 degrees. Cooling may be speeded at this point by pouring the mash out of the cooker into a plastic fermentation vat a plastic garbage pail will do.

Once the temperature has dropped to 90 degrees, add two teaspoons of distiller's yeast, stirring the yeast in gently but thoroughly. The mash is now ready to be put aside to ferment. In this recipe, a tightly-fitting plastic lid rather than screening should seal the vat. As with the sour mash, fermentation will proceed at its optimum rate at a room temperature of approximately 85 degrees. Colder temperatures will slow down the process and a drop below 60 degrees will probably stop it altogether.

FERMENTATION CABINET

One way to ensure that a mash will be able to ferment at a constant temperature in a basement or garage where temperatures fluctuate or remain too cold is to construct a fermentation cabinet. Made of quarter- or half-inch plywood and insulated with fibreglass batts, a cabinet large enough to contain a standard-size plastic garbage can may be heated with a small desk or work lamp. A cabinet of this type, heated with a single 100-watt bulb in a metal work lamp and utilizing aluminum foil to reflect the lamp's heat, kept various mashes at a steady 85 degrees over a period of several days in a basement with an air temperature of only 55 degrees.

If the basement air temperature rises, a bulb of lower wattage may be substituted for the original 100-watt lamp. In a very cold room or shed, an infrared heat lamp could be used. The temperature inside such a cabinet can be monitored regularly by installing a standard wall bracket thermometer inside the box.

With a sour mash, the only covering for the fermentation vat is screening, which allows the ambient air to come in contact with the solution as it works. Covering this kind of mash too tightly may cause it to "pucker," or turn to vinegar. Precisely the opposite is true of the enzyme sweet mash recipe recommended by Biocon. Here, a tight-fitting lid is essential to keep ambient air out of the mash. The latter goal, however, requires the use of a fermentation lock a plastic mechanism available at any home brewing supply shop.

The reason for using such a lock is that yeast, while turning sugar into alcohol, gives off carbon dioxide gas, which rises to the surface of the mash in the form of bubbles the same kind of bubbles seen in beer or champagne. If there were no way for these bubbles to escape the vat, the pressure inside would eventually build up to the point where the gas would literally blow the lid off.

PEAKING PERMITTED

The fermentation lock, filled with a mild solution of potassium metabisulphate, allows the carbon dioxide to bubble out but prevents outside air from coming into the vat. The lock can be mounted in a plastic garbage can lid by simply cutting a hole in the lid and inserting a rubber bung containing the lock. If the seal is not tight enough, putty or children's play dough may be used to fill any cracks. The bubbles of carbon dioxide, visible floating upward through the sterile solution in the transparent lock, give an indication of how close the mash is to "peaking."

The bubbling activity of a sour mash is readily seen through the open screening covering the vat. Although not as precise as a vino-meter reading, the visible appearance of the "cap" or foam thus produced is a good rough indication of the mixture's maturity. In general, when the bubbling slows or stops, and the cap floating on top of the mash breaks up or starts to sink, the mixture is ready to distill.

The cap is less apparent on Stetson's sweet mash, but the bubbling activity can still be seen and heard whenever the vat lid is raised to allow the mash to be stirred. A sweet mash needs to be stirred periodically, while Walstad's sour mash mixture should not be stirred at all during fermentation.

Measuring the mash's condition with a vino-meter (available in home brewing supply shops and some pharmacies) is more precise. The vino- meter, a hollow glass tube with a small cup at one end and a hole at the other, is a simple instrument to employ. The instrument is first held vertically, with the open cup end upward, and the cup is filled about halfway with a sample of fermented beer. (The liquid in the vat is termed "beer" before it is distilled.) The beer will run down through the hollow inside vein of the meter and begin dripping out the hole at the bottom. After six or seven drops have emerged and all air bubbles have left the vein, quickly invert the instrument, allowing the remaining beer to spill out of the cup.

A certain amount of beer will remain trapped in the vein and will begin to descend as the holder watches. The descending column will fall rapidly at first, then suddenly it will slow. The outside of the glass tube is marked off in gradations, and the point where the falling column slows can be read on the scale. The reading on the scale will correspond roughly to the per cent of alcohol by volume in the beer. A reading of 10 per cent is excellent for a homemade mash, while five per cent is a reasonable, average percentage.

To operate the homemade still, the liquid beer is first separated from the mash solids, a task most easily accomplished by pouring the mash through cheesecloth spread over an empty bucket. As ground, rather than cracked, corn was used for the sweet mash recipe, a siphon tube would likely prove impractical. The finer particles of solid cornmeal would soon clog the tube.

COOKING THE BREW

The liquid beer is then poured into the pressure cooker (which has been washed out in the interim) and the mash solids put aside for later use in mixing feed for livestock, or dumped onto the garden compost heap.

The lid of the pressure cooker should be fastened securely in place, and the copper tube from the flake stand firmly attached to the brass fitting in the cooker lid. The dial pressure/temperature gauge may be removed temporarily during the early part of distillation to allow a long-stem thermometer to be inserted into the cooker. Later, when the mash is close to vapourization temperatures, the dial should be replaced to prevent the loss of valuable alcohol. Again, plumber's pipe-thread tape may be used to provide a good seal.

The heat source, whether a stove burner or hot plate, is then turned on and the mash heated to between 173.3 degrees and 200 degrees no more. Heating it past 200 degrees runs the risk that too much water vapour will rise off the mash along with the alcohol. If the temperature gets high enough to cause the whole mash to boil vigorously, the mixture may "puke,"

spraying undistilled beer out the receiver tube and requiring the whole process to be halted.As soon as the mash begins to approach vapourization temperature, the cold water hose leading from the kitchen tap to the bottom hole in the flake stand should be turned on and water allowed to fill the bucket. Let the water rise until it just reaches the overflow hose opening at the top of the bucket, and hold the flow' of water at that level. This way, water will circulate continuously through the bucket and around the cooling coil, but not overflow onto the floor. Keeping the level at a point where both air and water are sucked into the overflow hose with a burbling noise permits the distiller to know that the level is correct without having to keep checking it visually. As long as the noise of burbling continues, the water level is correct.

Heated inside the pressure cooker, alcohol will rise as vapour and flow into the copper tube leading to the flake stand. One way to check whether the process has begun is to touch the tube. If it is too hot to hold, alcohol is likely passing through. As the vapour enters the part of the copper coil that is surrounded by water in the bucket, it will cool and condense. The liquid alcohol will then run through the coil and out the "tail," or receiver tube at the bottom.

PROOF HYDROMETER

The resulting solution should be tested to ascertain how much alcohol and how much water remain in it, that is, to determine its proof. For this purpose, a proof hydrometer and glass beaker, obtainable through laboratory supply firms, are used. The alcohol solution is poured into the beaker and the proof hydrometer inserted and allowed to float. The point on the hydrometer scale where the surface of the liquid passes through will give the proof reading. In North America, the proof number is double the actual per cent of alcohol by volume in a solution. Thus 100 proof alcohol would be 50 per cent alcohol and 50 per cent water, 150 proof alcohol would be 75 per cent alcohol and 25 per cent water.

Some engines will operate on alcohol as "thin" as 110 to 120 proof, but a minimum of at least 160 proof is generally considered necessary for good motor performance. The ideal to shoot for is 190 proof, although this high a grade of fuel is rarely achieved on homemade equipment.

One way to raise the proof of a batch of alcohol is to run it through the still a second time. To do this, the original, already-distilled mash beer is dumped out and only the freshly produced alcohol poured back into the cooker. Distilled again, the solution may rise by 20 or 30 proof, although the volume of the final product will be reduced.

One batch distilled for Harrow-smith emerged at 150 proof. Two quarts were then poured back and re-run through the still. The result was one quart of 170 proof alcohol and one-half quart of 130 proof fuel. The liquid left inside the cooker was mostly water. Usually, the first part of a given batch of alcohol will be of a higher proof than the "tailings" emerging at the end of the batch.

The actual proof of that first batch, however, should be of little significance to the newly-initiated fuel brewer. Time enough later for scientific distinctions and quality control. As an old Kentucky friend from university days once put it, "it's plentiful satisfyin' " merely to know that Exxon, Gulf or Imperial Oil had nothing to do with this product.

ETHANOL ECONOMICS

Excluding the initial investment to purchase or build a still, Walstad estimates the cost per U.S. gallon of homemade alcohol fuel produced with a molasses sweetener at approximately 40 to 60 cents, compared to a price of $1.40 per gallon for regular gasoline in Ontario. The price per gallon of any batches of alcohol fuel made with sugar would, of course, be vastly higher, but these are considered "learning" batches produced only to give the user familiarity with his still and with the fermentation process and to provide a standard against which to measure the performance of later, molasses-based mashes.

Harrowsmith's first sour mash batch yielded two and a half quarts or 62 per cent of an Imperial gallon of fuel --- and demonstrated just how impractical regular use of sugar would be. The sugar cost $5.49 for 10 pounds and the cornmeal $5.95 for 55 pounds. Only seven pounds of sugar and 12 pounds of cornmeal 70 and 21 per cent respectively of the quantity purchased were used in the mash, thus reducing the total to $5.08 ($3.84 plus $1.24) for 62 per cent of a gallon, or $8.19 per gallon. The same cornmeal can be used up to eight times, however, thus reducing its cost per gallon to 15 cents. The amount of sugar needed drops by roughly 10 per cent per batch, cutting the sugar cost to $5.71 per gallon ($28.55 for eight batches yielding five gallons). Total cost would be $5.71 plus 15 cents plus a cent or so for the hour's electricity used to heat the still, or $5.87 per gallon. Ninety-seven per cent of the cost was for sugar.

Biocon Inc. sells a yeast/enzyme starter kit with sufficient product to make 120 gallons of alcohol for $45 U.S. or 37 cents per gallon. Including the cost of cornmeal for a nonreuseable batch $2.00 ($1.24 for 62 per cent of a gallon) and a cent for the electricity, the price of a sweet mash batch would come to $2.38 per gallon. Buying enzymes in bulk quantities and making alcohol in larger batches of 55 gallons or more would reduce this price sharply. Biocon vice president Stanley Parker, for example, estimates the enzyme cost for bulk production at only eight to 15 cents per gallon.

But the significance of that first batch goes far deeper than cost. It penetrates to the yeoman soul in us, that far from vestigial spiritual organ linking us with our forebears, whether they were Polish peasants cooking vodka out of potatoes or Scottish Highlanders distilling the finest Scotch in the world. It is racial memory, a family communion.

The water in the flake stand bubbles and burbles, the steam inside the pot hisses gently, quietly, while cold, clear water runs out into the drain. The receiver tube hovers over an empty jar, dry. Then a soft, barely perceptible gurgle is heard inside the tube. Another one.

Magically, silently, a sudden drop of clear liquid appears at the end of the tube, swells, drops off.

Plink. Into the jar.

Another drop, another, swelling to greasy and unexpectedly cold as the alcohol evaporates, reducing the temperature on the surface of the skin. The aroma is unmistakable.

Alcohol. Real, honest-to-God alcohol fuel. Homemade. Your own.

Our pioneer ancestors made it to drink, to ward off the winter's cold and the loneliness of the wilderness. We can make it to fuel the engines that do the work of our civilization. But the principle is the same.

SOURCES

MAKING YOUR OWN
MOTOR FUEL
By Fred Stetson
Garden Way Publishing
530 Ferry Road

Charlotte, Vermont 05445 Complete, detailed directions on how to build a five-gallon and a 55-gallon still from scrap, plus a description of how to convert an automobile engine to run on alcohol. Very well written.

HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN ALCOHOL FUELS
By Larry W. Carley
Tab Books Inc.
Blue Ridge Summit, Penn. 17214

Similar to the Stetson book, but with more technical detail and fewer illustrations.

 

 

YOUR REVENOOR ALCOHOL FUEL STILL
By J.W. Walstad
The Revenoor Inc.
Box 185
La Center, Washington

Available, along with a catalogue of Revenoor factory-made stills, for $8.50, this booklet contains much valuable information on the sour mash method.

THE ART OF MAKING BEER
By Stanley F. Anderson
with Raymond Hull
Academic Press Canada
55 Barber Greene Road
Don Mills, Ontario

Provides good background information on the process of fermentation, as well as an explanation of the use of various types of brewing equipment.

The glowing copper Revenoor still comes in sizes from five to 1,000 gallons, but it is illegal in Canada where archaic laws prevent the maufacture of ethanol fuel.

Revised 2013 by Larry Gentleman