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The banned chapter

One chapter of Gastronaut never sat particularly happily with my lovely editors at the BBC, but like a fool, I went ahead and spent several months working on ‘How to make your own moonshine.’ Eyebrows were raised and When the book was finally passed in front of the BBC lawyers, they duly said ‘Erm…no.’

Here is the original text of the chapter from the book:

How to make your own moonshine

If you’re planning to make your own spirits, stop right there. I don’t want to be the cause of your moral collapse, nor the collapse of your house: home distillation is highly illegal and dangerous to boot. If, however, your interest is purely academic, or you live in New Zealand (where, oddly enough, it’s legal) you may read on, and I will put all the means to brew some banging gear at your disposal.

Moonshine is illicitly distilled alcohol, traditionally synonymous with Wile E Coyote and, by all accounts, very common in Scandinavia. It’s also common in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, where in 2003 customs officers found six illegal stills on a remote farm, busy brewing moonshine under the name ‘Highland Game’. They arrested a fellow called Peter Cox and put him away for two years.

At first, a sentimental part of me sympathized with Mr Cox – surely moonshiners are survivalist freedom fighters kicking against taxation from greedy governments? All he needed was to have his hair tousled with an ‘On your way, scallywag’. Then I read how much moonshine he was brewing at the time of HM customs officers’ visit: 35,000 litres. 130,000 bottles had been supplied to the farm and Coxy pleaded guilty to evading £529,275 in excise duty. Not exactly The Good Life, is it?

The reason it’s illegal is simple: cash. Evading duty equals ‘theft of vast sums from the public purse’ (I’ve always imagined the public purse to be the size of a house, all purple velvet, brim-full of golden ducats, with a big drawstring at the top). I had protracted conversa ­ tions with Customs and Excise about what exactly is illegal about it. Apparently it’s not the alcohol content – you can make home-brew for your own use at any level of alcoholic content. It’s all about owning and running the still. Basically, any still has to be licensed, and to get it licensed you need to meet a whole shedload of difficult criteria – it has to have a capacity of 18 hectolitres, for starters, and your premises need to have certain levels of security.

Moonshine is also potentially dangerous. If impurities or chemicals like methanol are left in, it can cause severe abdominal pain, drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision leading to blindness and the risk of coma with breathing difficulties. The customs folk warn that ‘If anyone has a bottle at home, or is unsure if it is a genuine product, they should contact their Environmental Health Officer.’ Yeah, right.

So bearing all this in mind (i.e. that you can’t, mustn’t, won’t) how would you go about making the stuff? Well, very carefully and very quietly, that’s for sure. There are, inevitably, several ways of going about this. You can make your own still but you’d need to be an engineer or survivalist fruitcake because it’s rather complicated. If you are one of those people, and you possess patience, skill and welding gear, you will find a plethora of designs, discussion and advice on the internet.

Everyone else would buy their still from legal suppliers in New Zealand or Germany as a water purifier. They helpfully break them down into several inconspicuous packages to avoid prying eyes if required.

The whole process starts off thoroughly legally, with the creation of a ‘wash’ – an alcoholic base liquid up to 20% alcohol. You can make your own wash from pretty much any organic material – one combination is water, sugar, orange juice and yeast and you can do about 25 litres in three weeks or so. But you can also buy complete kits to make a high-alcohol home-brew. These kinds of kits work a treat. I only wish I had a faster consumption rate for spirits – they tend to make 5 litres in a batch.

You could, of course stop at this point, which many people do, and add one of hundreds of different essences to your brew, including London gin, vodka, rum and Scotch. They are surprisingly authentic but they are still only 20%. Happily, this brew can then be converted into the illegal stuff by distillation. Aficionados have taken distillation to complex levels of expertise but here’s a simple approach for the novice moonshiner.

Buy some kit

There’s not much needed, and apart from the still (a reflux still is what you’re after) it’s all very cheap and can be bought online from home-brew suppliers.

You’ll need:

  1. A 25-litre reflux still. You will have to get this from abroad. Bear in mind that it’s not illegal to own or use a still until you use it specifically for distilling liquor.
  2. Two thermometers: a beermaking one (about £2.50) for the wash that measures between 10ºC and 40ºC and one for the still (£5–10) that measures between 40ºC and 110 ºC.
  3. Two hydrometers (about £2.50 each) to measure the density of liquid, and hence the level of alcohol, one for specific gravities from 1.100 to 0.960 for the feedstock and another for the spirit, measuring much lighter specific gravities. These sometimes show alcohol levels between 0% and 100%.
  4. A 30–litre fermenting bucket (about £10) with a lid and a tap near the base.
  5. An airlock. This is usually a curly glass tube (about £1) – it’s just used to keep oxygen out of the brew whilst letting gas escape.
  6. A couple of syphon tubes (about 50p/metre), a pick-up tube (about £1) and some bottle corks (about £1 for 12).
  7. Sterilizing product (about £1.50 for 100 g).
  8. Yeast (about £3) or the faster-acting turbo yeast (about £3.50) and yeast nutrient (about £1–£3.50).
  9. Sugar (about £4 for 6 kg).
  10. A coffee filter of the old paper type, with some filter papers (about £6).
  11. A bag of activated carbon (about £3.75).

Make your wash

Either use a kit (as mentioned above) or make your own. Here is a very simple recipe to make about 25 litres of wash (enough to make about 2.5– 3 litres of ethanol.

Here’s a recipe for the basic sugar-based feedstock:

  1. Sterilize all of your equipment – everything. Always.
  2. In your fermentation bucket dissolve 5 kg sugar with 60 g yeast nutrients in 20 litres hot drinking water. Allow it to cool until it’s below 30ºC.
  3. Dilute 50 g dry baking yeast (or a packet of turbo yeast) in some warm water and then add it to the water in the fermentation bucket.
  4. Put a lid on the bucket and leave in a warm place at around 20º–25ºC.
  5. Check the specific gravity daily using your hydrometer until the brew gives you a reading of 0.990. This should take 1–3 weeks (if you use turbo yeast this will be more like 1 week). It will reach a natural end-point when the yeast has used up all the sugars. A word of warning: the feedstock can occasionally get ‘stuck’ for no apparent reason, and stop fermenting. If this does happen, you can kick-start it by adding molasses, wholewheat flour and dry malt extract. If you fancy it, you can take a jug of the brew and mix a couple of egg whites with it, and pour it back in before leaving it to clear for another 3 days or so. When it has gone clear, pour the liquid off, avoiding the yeast sediment, into some firm plastic containers ready for use.


Distill it

This is the naughty bit. Basically, you use a still to heat the wash and separate the ethanol (the alcohol) from the beery gloop (quite strong at around 12%). This is also the dangerous bit: ethanol is highly flammable, and at high concentrations, a spark can cause an explosion.

The still is like a big kettle with a column for the steam to travel through. This column has a cooling mechanism (usually a flowing water system) to cool the evaporated ethanol, which is then collected in another chamber (which you may need to buy separately depending on your supplier). But don’t use a domestic kettle. Never use a kettle. In fact, forget I ever mentioned the word ‘kettle’. If you use a kettle, you’ll blow your house up.

  1. Before using your still for the first time, run some water through it to clean it out.
  2. Pour your wash into the base of the still up to a maximum of three quarters full and get the heat going. Once it’s up to temperature (78º–82ºC), ethanol will start dripping through the system. Don’t smoke anywhere near the still and don’t let it boil dry.
  3. Throw away the first 50 ml of your wash as this may contain some nasties (possibly methanol, which has a lower vapour point). I know it hurts – do it anyway. Now carry on until the dripping has nearly stopped – this can take up to 8 hours. Bear in mind that it might not smell great at this point. Near the end of your batch, stop the process if the distillate begins to look cloudy.
  4. Your alcohol will be very strong. Use your hydrometer to test and dilute it down to 40% using tap water (or distilled water if you have any). Filter this using your coffee filter to remove any potential impurities.
  5. Put a handful of activated carbon per litre of 40% brew in a clean plastic container. Leave it for two weeks.
  6. Decant and filter the clean alcohol, leaving the carbon sitting in the container.

And that’s kind of it. You’ve got a basic pure alcohol here that you can mix with whatever you fancy – gin flavouring, etc. Just don’t make it in batches of 35,000 litres. In fact, the whole thing is illegal. Don’t make it at all. Stop thinking about it.

Music suggestion

Johnny Cash’s The Man in Black – the Very Best of Johnny Cash. Strange and beautiful, like good poteen.

ÓStefan Gates 2005