Making alcohol revolves around two processes: fermentation and distillation. Fermentation is a chemical reaction that occurs when the yeast breaks down the sugar. One result of that reaction is alcohol. Distillation is the process of evaporating the alcohol (which boils at a lower temperature than water) and collecting the steam before condensing it back into liquid form.
Here's the whole process, step by step:
- The corn is ground into meal. Today, some moonshiners use commercial hog feed because it's mostly made of corn and is easy to buy without attracting a lot of attention.
- The corn meal is soaked in hot water in the still. Sometimes sugar is added (or even used instead of grain), but traditional moonshiners added malt to convert the starch in the corn meal into sugar. Then the yeast is put in, which starts the fermentation process. (See How Beer Works for details on the fermentation process.) This mixture, called mash, is stirred thoroughly and heated for a set amount of time in the still. The still and all the metal piping used are made of copper, which conducts heat well and doesn't leech into the alcohol.
- The stone furnace beneath the still is brought up to about 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 C). Wood, coal and even steam have been used in the past to heat the still, but most moonshiners started using propane decades ago.
- The alcohol evaporates. As pressure builds in the still, the alcohol steam is forced through the cap arm, a pipe that leads out of the top of the still.
- Some moonshiners use a thump keg, which is simply a heated barrel into which the steam is forced. Some solid material from the mash usually comes along with the steam, so the thump keg, so named for the thumping sound the bits of mash make when they drop into the barrel, re-evaporates the alcohol, filtering out the mash. If a moonshiner wants to make his or her alcohol extra potent, he or she might "charge" the thump keg -- add undistilled mash or a few gallons of alcohol into the keg so the steam picks up extra alcohol vapor on its way to the worm box.
- The steam travels into the worm, a coiled length of pipe that winds down the inside of the worm box. The worm box is a crate or barrel that has cold water, usually diverted from a nearby creek, flowing into the top and then back out the bottom. This keeps the worm bathed in constantly circulating cold water, which condenses the alcohol steam into liquid.
- A spout, tap, or hose leads from the end of the worm into a bucket, usually through one last filter.
- The resulting clear liquid is ready to be illegally bottled and sold.
Next, we'll see what makes moonshine different from store-bought liquor.