What is a Moonshine Still?
A moonshine still is an apparatus designed to create a homemade mash whiskey called "moonshine." It gets its name because distilling operations are often run under cover of darkness, ideally when the moon was full. The cool night air also helps with the distillation process, as vapor is converted back into liquid form. There are many different design variations on the basic still, but essentially, it is a large copper pot with a tight lid and a narrow conical vent at the top. This vent leads the vapors through a coiled length of copper tubing and ultimately into a container for storage.
Because the production of alcohol without a license is illegal in some places, including the US, a moonshine still might be hidden deep within a mountainous region. Ideally, it would be set up near a flowing creek, which would serve as a primitive cooler for the copper tubing. The moonshiner would first mix together a slurry of corn meal, sugar, water and yeast in a large container, then transfer the mixture to the device itself. After a few days of fermentation, this "corn mash" would acquire a distinctive odor, which is another reason why a still is generally set up in isolated locations.
Once the corn mash has had time to ferment, it is heated with a gas burner or even firewood, although the heat source must be controllable. The corn mash is carefully heated to the point of vaporization, around 173°F (approximately 78°C). The mash is never supposed to reach the boiling point at any time. The vapors from the mash are drawn into the narrow cone at the top of the still and eventually through the coiled copper tubing. The tubing could be contained in a second pot or placed under the flowing water of a nearby stream.
The distilled liquid that eventually drips from the end of the copper coiling is pure grain alcohol, or moonshine. It is usually stored in clay jugs or Mason canning jars after production, then sold illegally by bootleggers. A moonshiner may own the still and create the product, but he often leaves it up to others to sell it or store it. A quality moonshine still can cost a great deal of money to make, so moonshiners often go to great lengths to hide their operations from government officials and others.
It is legal to own a moonshine still in the US, but it's illegal to produce and sell alcohol without a proper license. Many home brewing enthusiasts use a high-tech version to produce other distilled beverages for their own personal consumption. Before investing in a home distillery system, however, it pays for individuals to know the local laws concerning the production of alcoholic beverages.
Buster29, I've tried some of the legal alcohol sold as "moonshine" and I thought it tasted like paint thinner. I don't know how people can put something that strong (close to 190 proof) in their stomachs. I thought I was going to die after a few sips. I passed on a chance to taste real moonshine, but that's another story.
It's the constant temperature control that makes moonshining so difficult. Someone has to constantly monitor the heat source under the mash so it doesn't boil or get too cold to vaporize. Most moonshiners would probably love to have a "set it and forget it" kind of arrangement, but it just doesn't work that way. Someone's got to watch over the process all night.
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