This question comes to you from behind a wall of empty gin bottles.
April 21, 2020 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a small home still? I've been going through gin like it was water and I'm interested in making my own. I have buddy with a small still and I've done the process a couple of times with him. Any recommendations for one that I can order online?
posted by humboldt32 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are you committed to starting by distilling your own? You could start with infusing vodka with botanicals as a stepping stone to taking on the whole process.
posted by Dmenet at 12:38 PM on April 21, 2020 [11 favorites]

This is definitely illegal in the US, mostly because making spirits can be pretty dangerous. It is not illegal to own a still, but you are not supposed to make booze with it. That said, plenty of stills to be bought online for making essential oils or whatever, like these.

Honestly, this seems pretty high risk, low reward to me though.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:51 PM on April 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'd like to echo Lutoslawski's thinking. It's not that hard to get a nice explosion from at-home distilling, especially indoors.

I'll also disagree with Dmenet's suggestion. Spirits such as gin, absinthe, aquavit, etc. have the flavors they have and taste good because they are distilled after being infused (a few use a carter-head still, but that's getting pretty esoteric). Chucking juniper berries, citrus peels and whatnot into vodka is not only not going to result in something that tastes anything like gin but is also going to taste bad.
posted by slkinsey at 2:00 PM on April 21, 2020

I understand the safety and legality issues. I asked this question after consulting with another buddy who owns a craft distillery. Upon his encouragement and reassurance, I posted this hoping for some sources to look at. He turned me on to one.

I'm interested in avoiding going and buying gin, is my end game.

I was hoping to hear from folks who've some actual experience with the hobby.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:19 PM on April 21, 2020

Assuming you're in a place that this is legal, I would check out the communities that have grown up in Australia and New Zealand where this is legal. They have starter kits, and I hear a decent culture to help you get going. If it's not legal where you are though I would highly recommend not, the relevant authorities are very much not kidding around.
posted by Carillon at 2:28 PM on April 21, 2020

Jesus there are some fuddy duddys in this thread. Shouldn't we be focusing on answering the question instead of scolding the asker? Any mods here to chime in?

I've done plenty of bootlegging. It's fairly easy and quite safe, and if you're asking this question, I'm sure you understand the risks. This is illegal like copying tapes is illegal, and it's less dangerous than working on a car.

I've got a couple of small stills - Still Dragon makes great small stills, and they're componentized so you can design your still exactly as you like, order the parts, and build it like Legos.

I've also got a Turbo 500, which is small but easier to use than a coffee maker. No gin basket though, but I'd make gin by mixing NGS with juniper and herbs, proof down to 120, and distill with all the herbs in the pot.

I'm assuming you don't have ready access to barrels of NGS though, in which case you'll have to learn how to ferment as well. But ya didn't ask about fermenting, so I'll wait until that question comes up :)
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 3:16 PM on April 21, 2020 [11 favorites]

Check this kit out: It's a gin basket for their alembic.

Pretty sure nothing will get easier than that.
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been brewing beer - both at home and professionally - for just under 15 years now. I've also made a lot of cider and fruit wines (at home), dabbled with home distilling, and helped set up a small craft distillery.

I'm a big fan of quality gin myself, but never went too heavily into distilling because it always seemed like a lot of work for not a lot of reward. That seems to be a pretty common feeling among brewers, which is why I recommend checking out home brewing forums for tips and tricks. I'm not a regular reader of homebrewtalk anymore, but I just popped in and it is still pretty lively and friendly, and has an active Distilling section.

I don't think your average homebrewer is necessarily any better than your average home-distiller, but you want to be careful of where get your info. If I know the guy giving the advice has the option of making 10 gallons of good beer and decided to make a gallon or so of liquor, I'm going to weigh their words differently than someone who is happy to add Bourbon Extract flavoring to distilled sugar-water.

As much as I prefer gin, I recommend starting out by making fruit brandies. You can make a strong must (concentrated juice) with cheap frozen apple or grape juice concentrate. Ferment it with the right yeast, and you'll amazed at the flavor. My favorite for most cider and brandy purposes is Red Star Cote des Blanc

I discovered it by accident when a friend (who worked at a brewery that had a giant fruit press) and I decided to buy a pallet of local apples from the upcoming harvest to make into cider. I wanted to experiment with yeast, so I got the cheapest gallon bottles of cider I could from the local wholesaler and pitched a different yeast into 4 batches. The first thing I discovered was that they were all quite good. The fake, cloying taste of cheap apple juice had been transformed into crisp, fresh apple flavors. Cote des Blanc was the cleanest, with the perfect hint of sweetness up front, a floral nose, and a hint of tartness in the clean finish.

Your first few batches of booze probably won't be that great, and it takes a bit of time to dial in your process and figure out where the "heart" of the distillate is. By starting with a strong fruit wine, you save a bunch of time and money by skipping the whole wash process* (making the fermented liquor to distill). Once you're consistently making good fruit brandy, you can confidently start playing around with the wash and adding herbs and botanicals.

*I'll note that the craft distillery mentioned earlier is intentionally sited in the same business complex as a brewery - who they contract to make all their washes.

Last bit of advice is to take your time finding the head, heart and tail of the spirit. I like to take at least a dozen samples for neutral spirit and twenty or more for something with botanicals/spices/etc. I then dilute all of the samples to no more than 10% abv. I usually shoot for 5% if it's convenient with the equipment I have. This is because you are tasting for subtle differences, and even if you are taking tiny sips and/or spitting, you're going to tire out your palate very quickly.
posted by Anoplura at 3:52 PM on April 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Are you already a home brewer? Tasty home distillery is a couple rungs up in difficulty from good home brewing. If you are not a home-brewer, I would not engage in this hobby. I am a decent (not great, but okay!) home-brewer, and am thusly a less-decent bootlegger. It's fine, it gets the job done, it is safe, but WL Weller, it is not.

I find a small still a wonderful, slightly dangerous tool like many others a home has (table saws, ladders, knives, chainsaws, torches, cars), to produce a great number of products that are sometimes, but not necessarily alcohol based. Owning a small still can provide you with essential oils, distilled water and concentrated vinegars, liquid smoke...all sorts of useful things!

Home-distillery isn't much more dangerous if you pay attention to what you're doing, and not afraid to throw a batch away if you fuck it up, or even get close to fucking it up. The reputation for danger comes from folks doing large scale-under-the-radar operations.

Home distillery is illegal in the united states, but so is cannabis. Unless you're running a large, large still and trying to sell a fuck ton of booze, you're going to be fine.

You will not save money on booze. Repeat; you will not save money on booze. You will need to order specific, heavy things that are just as difficult to get during covid-times as actually getting to the liquor store. This is not the easier path in that regard (but it's fine to want to engage in the hobby!).

There are some auto-stills that are pretty cheap, apartment friendly, and work well enough. They produce raw alcohol that you can then infuse to your delight (which is how most gin is made); this is how I started, and, but yields are very small. I have used this little friend before, and it works pretty damn well, and works with an induction burner as well (again, small yields). You'll soon outgrow either of them if you get serious, and end up towards a Turbo 500 as referenced above. Mile Hi Distilling has good gear at decent prices but their marketing materials are quite misogynistic and your local brew supply store probably carries what you're looking for as well (and probably hurting for business something fierce).
posted by furnace.heart at 4:02 PM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

First, distilling is extremely safe, in the sense that it's no more dangerous then making a large pot of soup, using a propane bbq, or filling up your lawnmower. Could you be burned / have an explosion in those circumstances? Sure. Are you going to if you're a reasonably competent adult? No.

Next, how small is small? You've got two components to consider - the boiler and the still head. A reflux column on, say, a 50 litre keg boiler is going to take up more space than a little stove top unit with a pot head. I'd encourage you to go as big as you can, though, because making the wash and running the still takes time, and you're going to be better off if you only have to get this all set up occasionally. An electric keg boiler is a good start, and will let you click on a reflux column and a pot still head if you really get into this. Otherwise, the all-in-one T500 unit linked up the page is fine. Consider a Grainfather, too - you can click a still head on it, but also use it for super easy all-grain homebrewing. Finally, you could consider a hybrid like this well-received unit from Clawhammer Supply (also comes in 1 gallon and 10 gallon sizes).

If you just want to make a bunch of decent gin, making a neutral spirit with a reflux still, using an off-the-shelf flavouring essence to get most of your base gin flavour, then steeping a few extra botanicals gives a fantastic result without having to muck around with sourcing / steeping base botanicals and then taking heart cuts on a pot still. Neutral spirit is also super versatile for making mixers and bitters (and hand sanitiser!)
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:45 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I (panic) bought an air still about a month ago. I now have 3.5L of fairly ordinary vodka. I have yet to try distilling it a second time (need to research more, there are no instructions with the kit), or doing more than mixing it with apple juice, lime juice and maple syrup and hoping I don't go blind. Online distiller communities are pretty dismissive of air stills generally, but they are cheap, and I'm having fun, so whatever. It's quite a neat small piece of equipment, if you don't have a lot of space.

A friend has one, which is how I knew about them, and she uses the tomato paste/lemon juice/bakers yeast method to make the wash, which she says that it makes better vodka than the stuff that came with the kit. I'm going to try that next. This gin recipe is also on my list, though without the long soak, because where is the immediate gratification in waiting two weeks to be able to distil something.
posted by kjs4 at 9:25 PM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you want to go much more of a DIY route pressure cookers fit standard NPT threads and copper tubing isn't SUPER expensive sowhat it is possible to do is connect up some copper tubing to the pressure cooker. (I used a small wide pipe as a reflux column stuff it with steel wool to get more theoretical plates (you don't need to understand this reference just putting it in from my classes in analytical chemistry good old Height Equivalent to a Theoretical plate) and then a reducer to some more narrow copper tubing. WHen you're at the plumbing store also buy some larger bore flexible plastic tubing. Make two holes in the flexible tubing with some distance on both ends to allow for access to cold water. Thread the copper tubing into the plastic tubing and seal the holes with sealent to prevent leaks. Connect everything up give the tubing a slight coil around a largish cylinder (I used a juicy juice can)and simply fill the pressure cooker with what you want to distill and put in a trickle of cold water into the plastic tubing and heat the pressure cooker gently.

Making gin is a 2 step process, essentially fitst you make vodka or grain neutral spirits. Then these get steeped in the botanicals and then that is again distilled and what you get is gin. If you start from vodka that you have purchased I think it is completely legal as the tax has already been paid on the alcohol. If you are starting from grain then it is probably illegal, but for personal consumption you're probably REALLY safe as I suspect a cop isn't going to care at all that you're making 2L of gin a month. You will have to dilute the product to get it down to a reasonable strength as you will be making about 90% strength distillate and you really want more like 40% so adjust accordingly.
posted by koolkat at 1:01 AM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hey thanks for the great follow ups folks. Still Dragon is who my friend suggested. I'll dive into the other links and keep all your advice on in my pocket.

posted by humboldt32 at 9:54 AM on April 22, 2020

If you can afford it, get the Baby Dragon column. I’ve got a 4” Crystal Dragon column on my 13 gallon pot, and it is IMMENSELY satisfying to watch those plates in action. Like watching a fire.

Pair it with a milk can base, stick a 110v 1500watt element in there, and you’ve got a turnkey still that will look gorgeous.
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 3:15 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, and lastly - the Still Dragon guys are super helpful and easy to work with. When I bought my still off them, I emailed them “this is kind of what I want”, and they did all the work to build me a parts list and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. We went over it all on the phone, and when I was satisfied I paid the PO they’d generated and the still arrived 2 weeks later.
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 3:17 PM on April 22, 2020

Hey, thanks for the follow up. Yeah, my buddy said the Still Dragon guys are great.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:30 AM on April 25, 2020

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