When I was first looking to buy a still, I decided that my interest was primarily in making smaller amounts of things using botanicals (preferably from my garden). So I bought the smallest 2.5L copper still and have it in my kitchen/dining area as it is a beautiful piece of art as well. Although it is possible to make alcohol in this still rather than my primary use of flavouring gin, the amounts that it makes are very small. I wasn’t intending to make very much so simply buying vodka to use as my starting neutral spirit made sense.
Of course, as I got into the swing of making gin (and achieving some successful blends) my friends and family were all keen to try it. A bottle of home-made gin is a great gift – especially if you create a fancy label to go with it. I also wanted to start making fruit liqueurs with fruit from my garden and perhaps some tinctures. It is also useful to have higher proof alcohol for cleaning. So, even with keeping my eye out for specials, it was becoming expensive to keep buying vodka.
I wasn’t keen on buying a larger volume still (10-30L compared with my 2.5L one) that would need a whole new space to operate it in. Then a colleague at work told me about the Air Still made by Still Spirits. This looks a bit like a tea urn and much the same size so you can easily put it on the kitchen bench. It uses air cooling so does not require connection to a water flow system.
I bought the Air Still Pro because it has 2 modes of distilling: pot still mode (similar to my column still) and reflux mode. It has a ‘foreshots’ collection set up to remove the first 30ml that you will need to discard (I have started removing a further 50ml at the beginning). In reflux mode you can simply set it up and leave it because it turns itself off once it has distilled all the alcohol. This suited me perfectly because I really don’t have a lot of interest in this aspect of alcohol production, it is simply a cheaper way of getting it.
I have tried three different ways of making the alcohol – well actually the yeast makes the alcohol, I tried different ways of encouraging them to do so:
- an Air Still Fermentation Kit
- using fruit from my garden as a wash
- making a tomato paste wash
Air Still Fermentation Kit
This seemed the simplest to do: you get Turbo Sugar (can use 2.2kg white sugar), Turbo Yeast & Nutrients, Turbo Carbon and mix it up with warm water in a 10L fermenter. After about 7 days you add Turbo Clear (Parts A & B) to remove the carbon and then leave it to settle to the bottom. The wash is now ready for distilling – 4L at a time in the Air Still.
When I first made this I used the Pot Still mode which gives 700ml @ 60% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) which dilutes to give 1L of neutral spirit at 40%ABV. However, I found the whole thing incredibly messy and it didn’t really seem like a natural process. The carbon still came through the tap in the fermenter even after it had settled; it definitely needed to be filtered after making and I found that it had a funny smell (it was after this that I started removing a further 50ml at the start and the smell has improved).
Fruit Wash (basically making fruit wine)
For this recipe I used 3kg of feijoas: scoop out the flesh, freeze, thaw then squash. Put in a large bucket (with a lid) with 5 litres of boiling water. When cooled, add 1 tsp of 10% potassium metabisulphite (helps to kill bacteria and kill any wild yeasts) and 5g of pectolase (breaks down cell walls). Put the lid on and leave for three days, stirring morning and evening.
Then strain into a 10L bucket (lid fitted with an airlock). Add one sachet of wine or ginger beer yeast and 2 teaspoons of yeast nutrients, plus 2kg of sugar and another 2 litres of water. Leave until it stops bubbling… (mine took 3 weeks). Average temp about 22C.
Using the Reflux Mode in the Air Still I got 500ml @ 85%ABV. It was very slightly fruity but you definitely couldn’t identify feijoa. It also seemed very clean and I didn’t think it needed filtering. Again this gives about 1L of 40%ABV per 4L of wash. But it takes around 4 weeks.
I had lots of feijoas so I had several batches going at the same time – some I split into 2x 5L carboys. This proved to be an efficient way of doing it and allowed me to use the extra 1-2L per batch (10L used 4L at a time) and I achieved 7L of 40%ABV neutral spirit.
Tomato Paste Wash
The recipe for this wash was given to us at the Distillation Workshop I attended but scaled for a 60L fermentation barrel. I scaled it down to suit my 10L fermenter. I really like it because you simply use inexpensive ingredients that you can buy at the supermarket – and it only takes three days. It uses a lot of yeast and keeps it much warmer than for previous ferments I have done. You do have to keep an eye on it though because sometimes it ferments so fast that the lid can lift and foam can escape over the top of the container – making a bit of a mess but not seeming to affect the result.
100g tomato paste (low salt)
2kg white sugar
Pinch Epsom Salts
1 tsp lemon juice
30g Active Dried Yeast
Heat water to 60C. Add sugar to fermenter, then most of the water and stir well to dissolve sugar. Mix tomato paste with some of the water, then add to fermenter with Epsom salts and lemon juice. Top up to 10L with water. Use a whisk to thoroughly mix and aerate the wash for 5-10 mins. This will create oxygen in the wash – yeast love oxygen! (The original recipe used a paint mixer attached to a power drill to do this). Once the wash has cooled to 35C, sprinkle the yeast over the top, and cover/insert airlock.
Ideally keep the wash at 28-35C during the fermentation process – I used a heat pad and then wrapped a small electric blanket around it from time to time (to keep the temperature up in winter). The ferment takes about 3-5 days to complete.
I recovered 350ml @ 83% ABV per 4L of wash. This is less productive than for the fruit wash but is achieved in a much shorter time.