Making whiskey at home, legally

Distillation is illegal, because the stinking revenuers want their tax money. But is there a way for crafty people to make their own whiskey without running afoul of the law? Read on, my friend.

All liquors come out of the distillation process clear and most liquors get their color and flavor from the aging process. That got me thinking. If I can’t distill the alcohol (because Governor Tarkin says I can’t), I can still age it. That’s perfectly legal.

Inventive, imaginative, innovative people like homebrewers should be able to get around this. So here’s my idea, and my challenge to other homebrewers.

The idea is to create new and interesting kinds of liquor by focusing on the aging part of the equation. That is, buy some grain alcohol, dillute it as necessary, and mix it with various things to create a new flavor of liquor. (Or age it and then dillute it. I’m not sure yet which is the right approach.)

I’ve tried it, and my first batch turned out pretty well.

The People’s Republic of Maryland recently outlawed the sale of grain alcohol, but it’s still possible to buy very strong neutral spirits. I bought some Everclear that was 151 proof, which worked just fine for my purposes.

For some reason I had the mistaken notion that bourbon is supposed to be aged in charred oak barrels that had been used to age burgundy. That’s not so. Bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak barrels. But proceeding according to my misperception, here’s what I did.

I bought some oak chips from Maryland Homebrew and soaked them in red wine for a week. (I used Merlot because that’s what I had.) Then I took the oak chips out to my mini charcoal grill and smoked / charred them on a small wood fire. Then I mixed my 151 Everclear with enough water to get it close to 80 proof and soaked that on my charred wood chips for a couple weeks.

(I’m not giving you precise figures because I want you to experiment, and I’m not confident my recipe is the best place to start.)

What I ended up with was a very smoky amber-colored drink that could pass for scotch or bourbon. In fact, I think it’s quite good. I’m having a small glass right now.

I need to play with the recipe a bit. I think it’s a touch too smoky, and I want to try it again with oak chips that were simply charred and not soaked in wine. But this idea creates a whole new area of exploration and experimentation for me.

Here’s the best thing about it, in my opinion.

When real distilleries age whiskey or bourbon, they store it in oak barrels and rely on a very slow process by which the alcohol soaks into and out of the barrel because of changes in atmospheric pressure and whatnot. It’s a painfully slow process that can take years.

Since I’m soaking the alcohol in wood chips, it all happens a lot faster. No, it’s not precisely the same as the process that “real” whiskeys go through, but … I’m not trying to duplicate Maker’s Mark. I’m trying to invent my own thing, and I’m too old to wait three years for each batch.

My method — from start to finish — takes a few weeks. And it will take even less time when I skip the soaking in wine part. I think that’s pretty darned cool.

Controlling the actual temperature of your beer

The air temperature in your kegerator or lagering fridge doesn’t always track with the temperature of your beer, so a thermostat that’s measuring air temperature isn’t controlling the right thing. To get a consistent temperature you need to measure the temperature of the liquid.

I tend to be more of a “relax, don’t worry” kind of a brewer. My process makes very good beer, and that’s good enough for me. But that means that one batch of my California Common is not always the same as the next batch. They’re both good, but they’re not consistent. I’m okay with that — at least for now — but if I wanted to fix it, one of the main ways to get more consistency with your beer is to control your temperature better, especially during fermentation.

Recently I heard about the Sure Temp Thermometer and I was curious about it. I asked Chris at Maryland Homebrew about this and she said “we have been telling customers to do just this with empty white labs vials. They drill a hole in the lid and stick their thermostat controller into it.”

There’s the DIY solution if you love to tinker, or if you want to buy one pre-made, go here, or read more about it on this page — Sure Temp Thermometer Measures Product Temperature.

If you want to learn more about the importance of temperature control, here’s a good page. Fermentation Temperature Control. It says “Fermentation temperature control is the single most important thing you can do that will make the most dramatic improvements in your beer.”

Okay, maybe. Don’t people say that about sanitation?

What I learned about brew systems at “Big Brew”

On May 3 I was in the parking lot of Maryland Homebrew with a lot of other brewers, participating in their annual “Big Brew” event.

I’ve been doing all-grain brewing for quite a while now, but I have a fairly simple set-up, as did many of the Big Brew participants. But you know homebrewers — they’re a creative lot. People had some pretty fancy rigs. One guy even had the Ruby Street setup.

I spent some time looking at all the different brewers’ gear to get a sense of the benefits of different configurations and methods, and afterwards I tried to come up with a generic diagram of “best practices” for a fancy all-grain brewing rig. Here’s the diagram. Descriptions of all the components are provided below. You can click on the image for a larger version.

Greg Krehbiel's diagram of a generic all-grain brewing system

There are five main pieces of equipment.

  • The hot liquor tun
  • The mash tun
  • The kettle
  • The pump and
  • The wort chiller

There are also two sources of heat, lots of hoses, the frame you put it all on, etc. I’ll explain all that as necessary.

Hot liquor tun — This is where you heat up your strike and sparge water. You can just leave it at that — a simple pot to heat water in — but some people add a coil inside the hot liquor tun to recirculate wort through the hot water. This is helpful to manage the temperature of your mash, but it also helps in getting very clear wort into the boiling kettle because as you re-circulate your mash water, the grains in the mash tun form a very effective filter. It’s like a really long vorlauf.

Mash tun — Many home brewers make a mash tun out of one of those orange or yellow picnic coolers — like the ones you see strapped to the back of a construction truck with bungee cords. But sometimes it’s a metal pot, a converted keg, or something along those lines. The spigot to draw liquid out of the mash tun has to have a filter of some type. Some mash tuns have a false bottom, some have a kettle screen or equivalent, and some have both.

Kettle — This is where you boil the wort, of course. Some kettles are quite fancy, with built in thermometers and glass water gauges, and some are quite simple. Here’s a 20 gallon boilermaker brewpot.

Greg Krehbiel's Beginner's Guide to All-Grain Brewing

If you’re feeling intimidated, don’t worry. You don’t have to do all this stuff to try all-grain brewing. In fact, I often wonder if it’s worth the trouble. I have a very simple system and don’t fuss with half the things these guys try to manage, and my beer comes out pretty well. If you want to read about the basics of all-grain brewing, try my Beginner’s Guide to All-Grain Brewing. It will take the intimidation out of the process.

You don’t have to create a micro-industrial process in your garage to brew beer at home. Still, this stuff is pretty interesting, and if you’re going to have a hobby anyway ….

Systems like the one I’ve diagrammed here rely on a series of hoses and a pump to move liquids from place to place. There are gravity fed systems that use a stand like this one, that don’t require a pump, but for this post I’m going to focus on systems that use a pump.

All the “ins” and “outs” in my diagram need to be connected with appropriate tubing. Silicon tubing is best. The connections are diagrammed above, but I’ll explain them as I walk through the process.

Starting from the beginning, you’ll fill the hot liquor tun with your strike water and heat it to the appropriate temperature. (Just pour the water in the top. The “in” on the hot liquor tun — #1 — is for the recirculating coil, not for the strike water.) The water comes out of the hot liquor tun through #3 above (yellow). That spigot is connected via tubing to #3 on the in (left) side of the pump. #4 on the right (out) side of the pump is connected to the #4 (green) on the mash tun.

Note that extra little diagram involving #2. There are two lines that need to go in to #4. One from the pump and one from #2.

Those gray lines in my diagram on each side of the pump are valves. You start with all the valves closed. To transfer the hot water to the mash tun you’ll open valve 3 and valve 4. (Note that homebrew pumps often need to be primed, so it’s possible you’ll need an exhaust option on the right side of the pump.) Once you’ve transferred the strike water to the mash tun you close those valves.

As I mentioned, some brewers like to circulate the wort through the grains in the mash tun, and through a coil in the hot liquor tun. You can adjust the temperature of your mash by changing the temperature of the water in the hot liquor tun.

To recirculate the wort in the mash, you have to add more water to the hot liquor tun and bring it up to the right temperature. Then you let the wort out of #5 (blue) to #5 on the pump, then out of #1 on the right (out) side of the pump to #1 (grey) at the “in” side of the coil in the hot liquor tun. A hose then runs from #2 (red) to #4 (green) to make a continuous flow. (Note again that little diagram involving #2 and #4. You’ll need to adjust that valve to get the flow from #2 to #4.)

To transfer wort to the brew kettle you connect #5 (blue) through the pump to #6 (pink).

To cool the wort you connect #7 (light purple) through the pump to #8 (dark red), then from #9 (brown) to your fermenter.

I’ve been through this diagram a couple times and I’m pretty sure it all works, but look it over yourself and see what you think. If you see any problems, let me know.

Again, this is all very cool, and I’m half-tempted to create a rig like this myself, but — as one of my fellow brewers reminded me on Saturday — you can make excellent all-grain beer on your kitchen stove with a Papazian-style “zapap” lauter tun. There’s no need to make it complicated. But if the bug bites, I hope this diagram and explanation helps.

“Takes the intimidation out of homebrewing”

Greg Krehbiel's beginner's guide to home brewing

If you’re just getting started with homebrewing, or curious about it, please check out my introductory guide, available on the kindle for just $0.99, or in a (very short) paperback edition.

Reviewers say it teaches the lingo and the basics without getting bogged down in details.

If you’re interested in advanced brewing, please try my recently published Beginner’s Guide to All-Grain Brewing, also $0.99 on the Kindle.