Single boiler system

The preceding discussion has been based on the use of two boilers: a large one for beer stripping and a smaller one for fractional distillation. As discussed in an earlier chapter dealing with equipment, it is possible to make do with a single boiler of intermediate size. In this case proceed as follows:

Make 50 to 60 litres of "beer" and place half of it (say 30 litres) in the boiler. With the packed column in place and the collection valve WIDE OPEN, bring to the boil and start collecting distillate. Because the valve is wide open the rate of recovery of distillate will be much faster than it will be later during the second stage of fractional distillation. Also, because the packed column is in place, there will be some reflux and the concentration of alcohol in the distillate will be higher than after a normal beer stripping. The volume collected will therefore be somewhat smaller when the temperature reaches 100oC. and you switch off.

Drain the stillage from the boiler, flush out with a little water and add the remaining 30 litres of beer. Strip it just as you did with the first 30 litres. You will now have 8 to 10 litres of impure alcohol ready for purification. Drain the boiler and again flush with water. Add the partially purified alcohol to the boiler, plus a few additional litres of water to make sure that there is sufficient volume of liquid at the end of fractional distillation to cover the heating element.

Close the collection valve and reflux the high wine for several hours to equilibrate the column. Now proceed in the usual way, bleeding off the heads until the temperature stabilizes at just over 78oC. and there is no discernible odour. Then start collecting 95% alcohol at a reflux ratio of 10:1 and put aside the first several hundred ml for later re-distillation. From then on, completely pure ethanol will be dripping from the needle valve and, after dilution to 40%, will be ready for use.

Yield of alcohol: In the chapter on fermentation it was explained that the theoretical yield of pure, 100% alcohol from 10 kg of cane sugar is 6.25 litres. This is equivalent to 6.58 litres of 95% alcohol or 15.63 litres of 40% alcohol. While it is possible to approach such a yield you will find in practice that you only reach 70-80% of this value due to various losses along the way.

One place where you can expect losses to occur is in the fermentation process ----for example, you may not have left the brew long enough for all the sugar to have been completely used up. And then there are all those unwanted side reactions which produce the congeners such as methanol, fusel oils, etc., instead of ethanol. Another place where losses occur is in the last stages of beer-stripping where time and energy consumption require that the stripping cease long before the last drop of alcohol has been extracted. As a result, the practical yield of 95% alcohol is likely to be no better than about 5 litres which is a yield of 73% of the theoretical value. This is equivalent to 11/2 litres of gin, which is not too bad.

In commercial practice such a low yield would not be tolerated, but for us it should be quite acceptable, particularly on economic grounds. Higher yields, which are certainly possible, offer an interesting challenge to the dedicated amateur.

Storage: Store your pure 95% alcohol in glass, not in plastic. A few 11/2 litre wine bottles with screw caps are ideal. There is, of course, no need to "mature" gin and vodka; it is ready for drinking the day you make it.

Before discussing flavouring a word must be said about the quality of water used to dilute pure 95% alcohol to the 40% which is characteristic of most spirits. Unless the water is very soft, hardness will precipitate out when alcohol is added because the calcium and magnesium salts which constitute the hardness are less soluble in an alcohol-water mixture than they are in water alone. Depending upon the degree of hardness the effect will vary from a cloudiness to a white precipitate which falls to the bottom of the bottle.

The effect described above is perfectly harmless, the white precipitate being nothing more than the hardness present in the original water before the alcohol had been added. It is actually quite good for you. However, it is aesthetically unpleasing and should be avoided by using distilled or demineralized water obtainable very cheaply from supermarkets and from certain stores which make distilled water on the premises. A further advantage of using it is that city water frequently contains chlorine which would interfere with the delicate flavour of a good gin or vodka.

Once pure alcohol is available there are many things you can do with it to prepare a pleasant drink. One is to mix it with fruit juices and make a tropical punch. Another is to prepare a liqueur by steeping fruit in an alcohol-sugar solution, a procedure which is fully explained in a number of books on the subject.

A third option is to purchase flavouring essence from a winemaker's supply store; these little bottles of essence come in a wide variety of flavours including rum, scotch, brandy, gin, etc. and most liqueurs such as the various fruit brandies, crème-de-menthe, etc. The fruity essences are particularly good, and the rum flavorings are quite acceptable, but the whiskies frequently leave something to be desired, having a somewhat artificial flavour. The quality may, of course, vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

In this chapter we deal specifically with gin and vodka. The latter can be disposed of very quickly --- just add distilled water to the 95% alcohol coming from the still and hey presto, vodka! It will actually be a little purer than commercial brands and will have virtually no taste, so it can be used with confidence in any of those cocktails which call for vodka, e.g. a Bloody Mary, a screwdriver (vodka & orange) or a vodka martini.

And now let's talk about gin. As is rather well known the major flavouring ingredient of gin consists of juniper berries. There are other ingredients, however, and lists of such ingredients can be found in encyclopaedias and sometimes on the labels of commercial gins. Among the more important listed will be found:

What is never mentioned is the quantity of each ingredient used in a particular brand, nor the exact method by which the flavour is extracted from the herb. These are closely guarded secrets of the manufacturer and the reason why amateurs have difficulty in duplicating a commercial gin.

Articles on gin-making stress the point that the country of origin of the juniper berries is important in determining flavour, as is the time of harvest and the weather prevailing during the growing season. The juniper berries are supposed to mature for 18 months or so after harvest and then used within a critical period of one week! It is all very reminiscent of wine-making. The amateur cannot possibly cope with such stringent requirements, but one is led to wonder just how much of these stated conditions is fact and how much merely folklore and a deliberate attempt to introduce a mystique into the operation. And if so, who can blame a manufacturer for so doing?

The amateur gin-maker is obviously on his own when it comes to flavouring, and it has to be admitted that we have never duplicated exactly the flavour and bouquet of a commercial gin. However, what we produce is very pleasing and there is the satisfaction of knowing that we have made it ourselves from authentic ingredients, so why worry? And then there is the continuing challenge of modifying the flavour by ringing the changes on the quantities of the various botanicals used.

Coriander Orris root Angelica Anise

Cassis bark Ginger Nutmeg Cinnamon Bitter almonds

Cardamom Lemon peel

The flavouring step is the only one in gin-making which involves art rather than science and where there is scope for imagination, so the absence of a commercial recipe may not be such a bad thing after all.

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