Vodka is a neutral spirit that is without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. These properties are developed during the distillation process or by treating crudely distilled spirits with activated carbon or other materials. Finely distilled vodka may also be further purified and refined by treatment with activated carbon and other materials. Vodka is usually not aged and can be made from grains, potatoes, sugars, fruits, and just about anything else that can be fermented to produce alcohol. This makes vodka an economical spirit that can be made easily in a short amount of time from readily available materials.
Relatively small, multi-purpose copper commercial still with short reflux column (area with small portholes) at Rogue distillery
Get or make a still. Vodka is a distilled, highly refined product. It is usually distilled with a column (reflux) still, but pot stills can also be used. Column stills produce purer alcohol because they essentially redistill the alcohol in a single pass, and therefore further purification with a carbon filter (activated carbon) may not be needed. The distilled vodka can be redistilled additional times to produce a very pure product. Pot stills produce a crude product that contains flavor and aroma compounds that will need to be removed by treatment with a carbon filter and/or by additional distillations.
Column stills are more complex and sophisticated than pot stills. They can can be purchased or, depending on the still design, built using readily available materials. However, column stills and pot stills work in a relatively similar manner. It is important to understand that cooling water is usually circulated through a sealed compartment in the distillation column, causing the vaporized alcohol and other substances to condense in the column. This means that such a still must be attached directly to a faucet or a mechanical pump to move water from a supply into the still must be used. If not recirculating water from a single supply, thousands of gallons of water may be used to make a small batch of vodka. If water is recirculated from a central reservoir using a pump, about fifty gallons of water can be used, but the water will heat up and become less effective. See Sources and Citations below for detailed, high-quality instructions for the construction and use of column stills.
Simple pot stills are akin to pressure cookers that are attached to piping or tubing. They can be constructed very easily and cheaply. Unlike column stills that are essentially vertical columns, pot stills may utilize bent or coiled tubing or piping that can be submersed in a vessel of cooling water. Pumps and large volumes of cooling water are not required, but can be used. See Sources and Citations below for detailed, high-quality instructions for the construction of pot stills.
Choose the medium to be fermented and distilled. Vodka is commonly made from wheat, rye, barley, corn, and potatoes. Sugar and molasses can also be used alone or added to other ingredients. Rogue distilling makes an innovative vodka from Pinot Noir red wine. Whatever you choose, it must be (or have been) fermented by yeast so that alcohol is ultimately produced. When making vodka from grains and potatoes, a mash must be made that contains active enzymes that break down the starches from the grains or potatoes and makes fermentable sugars. Fruit juice already contains sugars so starch-degrading enzymes are not needed. As with fruit juice, vodka made from store-bought sugars need only be fermented, thus bypassing the need for a mash. When already fermented mediums such as wine are used, the medium can be distilled right away into vodka.
Formulate a mash. A mash is necessary when using grains or other sources of starch such as potatoes that need to be converted into fermentable sugars. There are some basic principles to consider:
Grains and potatoes are sources of starch. Starch must be broken down into sugars that can be fermented by yeast and converted into alcohol.
Malted whole grains such as malted barley and wheat are rich in natural enzymes that break down starches into fermentable sugars. The enzymes can act on the starch when the malted grains are cracked open with a mill and added to a certain amount of hot water that is held at a specific temperature for a certain amount of time. Milled, malted grains can be used alone, as they contain starch, or added to a starchy, enzyme-poor mash. The enzymes from the grain will break down the starches into sugars. It is also important to choose malted grains that are high in enzymes so that more starch can be broken down. Wheat malt is higher in enzymes than barley malt, and lighter-colored barley malt is higher in enzymes than dark-colored (highly kilned) barley malt. In fact, highly kilned barley malt may contain no enzymes. Also, the variety of barley that is referred to as six-row is higher in enzymes than the 2-row variety.
Food-grade amylase enzyme powder can be purchased from a homebrew shop and added to the mash to convert the starch into fermentable sugars. Use the recommended amount for the amount of starch to be broken down. There is no need to use malted, enzyme-rich grains such as malted barley or wheat when using enzyme powder.
For enzymes to be able to break down starches, even the starches of malted, enzyme-rich grain, the starches must first be gelatinized. Flaked (rolled) grains are often already gelatinized. Ungelatinized ingredients such as potatoes and unrolled or malted grains are heated in water to the gelatinization temperature of the particular starch that is used. Potatoes are usually boiled to gelatinize the starch before adding crushed malted grains or other sources of enzymes. However, the gelatinization temperature of potatoes is actually about 150F, and barley and wheat gelatinize well at about the same temperature, so a potato mash should only need to be heated to 150F. However, if a low temperature is used with potatoes, they should be finely shredded before adding them to the water.
Starch-degrading enzymes only work at specific temperatures and are destroyed at high temperatures. A temperature of 150F is common, but temperatures above 158F will result in the destruction of the enzymes. The absolute maximum temperature is 165F, and while enzymes will work for a period of time at this temperature and it can be used, much of the enzymes will be destroyed rather rapidly.
Refined sugar and molasses may be used solely or added to starchy mashes to add additional fermentable material.
Make the mash. There are many possible mash recipes, and specific recipes will be easier depending on the availability of specific ingredients in your area. These basic recipes ultimately result in about five gallons of fermented, distillable liquid.
Wheat mash recipe: in a 10 gallon metal pot with lid, heat 6 gallons of tap water to about 165F. Add two gallons of dry, flaked wheat and stir. Check the temperature and ensure that it is between 150F and 155F. Stir in one gallon of crushed wheat malt. The temperature should be about 149F. Cover and let rest for 90 minutes to two hours, stirring occasionally. The starches should convert into fermentable sugars during this time, and the mixture should become much less viscous. banana After 90 minutes to two hours, cool the mixture to 80 to 85F. Use an immersion chiller for rapid cooling or just let it cool overnight, but don’t let it get much below 80F.
Potato mash recipe: clean 20 pounds of potatoes. Without peeling, boil them in a large kettle until gelatinized, about one hour. Discard the water and thoroughly mash the potatoes by hand or with a food processor. Return the mashed potatoes to the kettle and add five to six gallons of tap water. Mix to blend and bring mixture to just over 150F. Add two pounds of crushed, malted barley or wheat and stir well. Cover and stir periodically over the course of two hours. Let cool overnight to 80 to 85F (letting it cool for a long period of time also gives the barley malt enzymes more time to break down the potato starch).
Corn mash recipe: make a mash as with the wheat mash recipe, but substitute flaked, pre-gelatinized corn (maize) for the flaked wheat. Alternatively, sprout your own corn over the course of three days and make a mash from it without added malted grain. A root about two inches long should sprout from each grain. The sprouted corn will contain enzymes that were formed during the germination (sprouting) process.
Prepare the fermentable medium.
Fermentation is conducted in clean, sanitized vessels that are open or sealed from the air and lasts for three to five days. Fermentation is also possible in vessels that haven't been cleaned or sanitized, and the distilled product will yield drinkable alcohol, but the fermentation may result in a high level of unwanted flavor compounds and higher alcohols due to the action of unwanted yeast stains and bacteria. Oxidative cleaners such as B-Brite are available at homebrew shops, as are sanitizers such as iodophore. Five gallon batches of strained mash can be fermented in a 7.5 gallon food-grade bucket or in 6 gallon carboys. Lids can be affixed to buckets and drilled rubber stoppers to carboys, but when using a lid or a stopper, never seal the vessel completely, as pressure from carbon dioxide production will create explosive pressure. Therefore, affix an airlock to lids and drilled rubber stoppers. The airlock will allow CO2 to escape but won’t let air in. When fermentation is conducted in open vessels, put a cheesecloth over the vessel to keep out bugs and other undesirable things.
If a mash was made, strain the liquid with a fine mesh strainer from the mash into a cleaned and sanitized fermentation vessel. Try to splash the liquid and pour it from a distance so that it is well aerated. Yeast needs air (oxygen) initially to grow and start a quality fermentation. This is because yeast makes cellular material in the form of lipids from oxygen. However, oxygen is not desired after this initial growth stage, as yeast produces alcohol in the absence of oxygen.
As an alternative, ferment the mash without straining. However, the fermented mash should still be aerated in some manner, possibly with an aquarium air pump and an aeration stone. The mash will also need to be strained before it is added to the still, and it may be more convenient to ferment the smaller volume that results from a strained mash, as the fermenting mash may overflow the vessel.
If juice is to be fermented, aerate by pouring from a height through a sieve or strainer into the fermentation vessel.
Add yeast to to the fermentable medium. Hydrate the appropriate amount of dried distillers or other desired yeast and add it to the liquid. Stir with a clean, sanitized spoon to evenly disperse the yeast. If using an airlock, the airlock will bubble during active fermentation, and the bubbling will slow dramatically or cease altogether as the liquid becomes completely fermented. Keep the fermenting liquid in a room that is about 80 to 85F to facilitate good, efficient fermentation, or use a heating belt in cold areas.
Distillers yeast will ferment cleanly, produce a high amount of alcohol (ethanol), and produce a relatively low amount of unwanted compounds such as alcohols other than ethanol. The amount of yeast used will depend on the specific brand or type of yeast used. Nutrients may be included with the yeast in the yeast packet. Yeast nutrients are needed when fermenting a medium that is low in nutrients, such as sugar solutions, but they can also improve fermentations when used with nutrient-rich mediums such as those made from grains.
Collect the fermented liquid (the wash). Siphon off the fermented, alcoholic liquid (called the wash) into a cleaned and sanitized vessel or into the distillation apparatus. Leave the yeast sediment behind in the fermentation vessel, as it can scorch when heated in the still. The siphoned wash may also be further clarified by filtration or other means before distillation.
Distill the wash.
Before using a still, consider how stills work. They are used to heat the fermented, alcoholic wash to a temperature that is greater than the boiling point of alcohol, yet less than the boiling point of water. In this way, the alcohol is removed from the bulk of the water, but a certain amount of water as well as other substances will be distilled along with the alcohol. The vaporized alcohol along with the vaporized water and other substances condense inside a column, pipe or tube that is attached to the vessel that contains the fermented medium. External cooling in the form of cold water is applied to the column, pipe or tubing, causing the vaporized alcohol and other substances to cool and condense back into liquid. This alcoholic liquid is collected and becomes vodka.
Heat the wash in the still to begin the distillation process. Depending on the type of still used, gas burners, wood fires, or electric hot plates can be used. A temperature of about 173F at sea level is desirable, and the temperature must be kept below the boiling point of water (212F at sea level). As the wash becomes heated, alcohol and other substances will become vaporized and condense in the water-cooled area of the still. The first distilled liquid (called the “heads”) that is recovered from the still will be rich in harmful methanol. For five gallons of wash, discard at least the first 2 ounces of distillate. After this is discarded, the collected distillate will contain the desired alcohol (ethanol) plus water and some other compounds. This is the “body”. During this time, if using a column still with flowing cold water, the water flow can be adjusted to control the distillate output and purity. Try to shoot for two or three teaspoons of distillate per minute. Increased distillate output results in decreased purity. Towards the end of the distillation process, the “tailings” are collected. The tailings may be undesirable and can be discarded.
Check the alcohol content and purity of the distillate. Cool a sample of the distillate to 68F and use a alcoholmeter to measure the percentage of alcohol of the distillate. The distillate may be too dilute to serve as acceptable vodka (weaker than 40 percent alcohol), or may be more concentrated than desired (perhaps higher than 50 percent alcohol). Vodka is usually diluted before bottling, so the distillate can have a very high alcohol content. The distillate may also be too flavorful and aromatic and require additional distillations or carbon filtering.
Redistill the distillate if necessary or desired. This increases the alcohol content an further purifies the distillate. It is common to redistill the distillate three or more times to achieve vodka that has a high purity.
Treat with a carbon filter (activated carbon) if necessary. Pass the distillate through a carbon filter, such as those available at homebrewing shops, to remove unwanted volatile flavors and aromas. Carbon water filters can also be modified to purify the distillate.
Dilute the vodka to the desired strength. Add purified water to the distillate to attain the desired alcohol percentage. Use an alcoholmeter to measure the alcohol percentage.
Bottle the vodka. Fill bottles using a gravity bottle filler setup and cork or cap the bottles. Label the bottles with custom labels if desired. Some gravity fillers may consist of a 7.5 gallon bottling bucket (with spigot), vinyl tubing, and a simple spring-loaded plastic bottle filler. Multiple-spout wine bottle fillers can also be used.
Home distillation and therefore the production of vodka in one's home is legal in New Zealand.
Excellent small stills are manufactured in New Zealand.
If fabricating a still, be aware that chemicals from plastic and rubber as well as lead from solder and metals may leach into the distillate during the distilling process.
It is illegal to distill drinking alcohol in many countries, including the U.K and the U.S., without government approval.
Distillation apparatuses can build up pressure and explode.
Alcohol is flammable and potentially toxic.
Be absolutely certain that discard the first 5% or so of the distillate! It likely contains a very concentrated amount of all the impurities that boil at a lower temperature than ethanol. This is the part that if you drink it, you could wind up blind or dead.
Distillation apparatuses are heated by open flames and other means that can cause bodily injury and result in explosions, especially due to the flammable nature of alcohol. Leaks in your still, or any situation where alcohol or alcohol vapor may end up exposed to flame, can very likely lead to explosion and fire. Distillation is best done somewhere other than your house for safety considerations.
Production and consumption of alcohol while under the age of 21, in many localities, is illegal.