Health and Safety

The three major concerns of people who might be interested in setting up a still at home are
1) the question of legality
2) the possibility of getting poisoned, specifically of going blind, and
3) the danger of blowing oneself up.
These are serious concerns, and people take them very seriously. In the next chapter the legality question will be dealt with at length, but for the moment the emphasis will be on health and safety.

Poisoning oneself.

The belief that there is some inherent danger in distilling one's own spirits is widespread and is reinforced whenever the news media report that a number of people have been taken ill, or even died, as a result of drinking homemade spirits. People associate"homemade spirits" with distillation, with moon-shining, but in fact there is no danger whatsoever in drinking home distilled spirits, or even moonshine properly made. The Danger lies in buying liquor from a bootlegger because in order to increase his profits may top up his moonshine with rubbing alcohol (methanol), or stove oil, or antifreeze or paint remover or any other pungent liquid he can lay his hands on. Naturally such a cocktail is poisonous, but don't be mislead into thinking that the toxicity is due to simple ignorance or lack of care on the part of the backwoods distiller. It's not. It's due to these gentlemen adulterating their booze and fobbing it off on an unsuspecting public.

Another possibility is that the moonshiner will use automobile radiators for cooling the vapours rising from his boiler, and radiators frequently contain lead soldering, so lead may get into the alcohol. Obviously there is no government supervision of a moonshiner's operation, so caveat emptor --- let the buyer beware!

Our recommendation is that you never buy moonshine made in an illegal and unsupervised still, possibly adulterated with unknown chemicals. Make your own if it's legal to do so, in which case there will be no danger whatsoever to your health. This is particularly true of fractional distillation, where you have removed ALL the impurities, but also for simple distillation where you have removed at least some of them. Your equipment will be made of glass, stainless steel or copper, and if made from copper the various parts will be joined with lead-free solder. It would be similar to a Scotch whisky distillery where copper stills have been used for centuries. As for dangers in the distilling operation itself,let us follow this through. Sugar is fermented to alcohol using bakers' yeast to make a crude "beer". No danger so far, right? The beer is boiled and the vapours collected. The first liquid to come over will contain some methanol (poisonous), acetone and small amounts of other substances which were in the original beer, the so-called congeners. They smell like paint remover and will be discarded. So we've already got a purer liquid than we started with. Then comes the potable alcohol which has no smell and is collected for use.Finally there arrive the fusel oils with a somewhat unpleasant odour so they, too, are discarded. This means that the original beer has had a second batch of unpleasant things removed and in consequence is far purer than the liquid we started out with. Anyone who says that distilling is dangerous because it produces toxic substances is merely indulging in scare tactics and should be ignored. Remember, the distillation has not created anything, it has simply separated out the noxious substances from the beer --- the heads and tails ----and discarded them.

So, to poison oneself, it would be necessary to save the heads and tails in a bottle, pour the purified alcohol down the drain and then, ignoring the pungent smell and sickening taste, drink the paint remover. This is about as likely as plucking a chicken, throwing away the meat and eating the feathers. It strains credulity to put it mildly.

Headaches and hangovers

Headaches and hangovers are well-known consequences of over-indulgence in alcohol , but what is far less well known is that these unpleasant side-effects are largely due to the impurities, the congeners, and not to the alcohol per se.

This interesting fact will be confirmed by many people who habitually drink gin or vodka rather than pot-distilled spirits such as rye, bourbon, scotch, rum or even wine and beer. More objective proof that the congeners and not the alcohol are the bad actors can be found in the scientific literature. Numerous studies have been made and all investigators find the same thing, i.e. that the symptoms of hangover --- headache, halitosis, gastric irritation, fatigue and dizziness --- were far more severe when the same amount of alcohol were consumed in the form of whisky than in the form of vodka. When you think about it,this is hardly surprising considering the poisonous nature of some congeners.

As an example of such studies, in one clinical investigation 33 men and 35 women were each given 2 ounces of either whisky or vodka on separate occasions. The incidence of after-effects in the group following a single drink of 2 ounces of whisky was halitosis 27%, gastric irritation 25%, headache 9%, dizziness 7% and fatigue 6%. These symptoms persisted during the following day. After the same amount of vodka, temporary headache and gastric irritation were observed in only 2% of the subjects while there were no complaints of halitosis, dizziness or fatigue in any of the cases. It should be noted that all the subjects in this trial were light social drinkers.

The effects described above were produced by a commercial whisky in which the congeners occurred to the extent of about 3%. As part of the study the congeners were separated from the whisky and given to the subjects in the absence of alcohol. The effect was the same as when the whisky itself was imbibed, proving that the congeners and not the alcohol were responsible for the adverse reactions. The chief culprit among the congeners was considered to be one of the fusel oils --- amyl alcohol --- and not methanol as might have been expected.

These results are not really definitive --- for one thing the size of the sample was rather small --- but even without such a trial it is not difficult to believe that drinking such things as methanol and fusel oils, even in small amounts, will be bad for you. If it were a different poison, e.g. arsenic, it would not be surprising if a 3% solution in alcohol, or even in water, gave you an upset tummy. 3% is not a trivial amount when one considers that nowadays the authorities are concerned about parts per billion of contaminants in foodstuffs.

One of the conclusions to be drawn from such studies is that whisky production should be handled carefully by amateurs. As mentioned in earlier sections, pot-distilled spirits involve the retention of some of the congeners in order to give taste to the whisky,but some of these taste-providing congeners are poisonous so don't overdo it. It would be wiser, perhaps, and certainly easier, to remove all the impurities by fractional distillation to give a pure alcohol and then add a flavouring agent. The physiological effect of an alcoholic drink, the ‘buzz', is due solely to the alcohol, and everything else is merely moonlight and roses!

A final comment concerns the question of alcohol concentration in beverages. In Beer the concentration is about 5%, in wine it is 8 to 13%, while in distilled spirits it is usually 40%. Only a moment's thought is required to appreciate that the concentration of alcohol in a drink is irrelevant, it is the amount consumed which is the determining factor in determining whether or not someone becomes inebriated. Drinking a bottle of beer is not less harmful than a 1.-oz. drink of 40% scotch just because it is weaker. They both contain identical amount of the same alcohol, i.e. 17 ml. Adding tonic water to a shot of gin dilutes it from 40% to maybe 6% but this has not rendered the gin less intoxicating --- the amount of alcohol has remained unchanged.

This is all so obvious that it may seem a little absurd to even mention it but, in most countries, the concept appears to be somewhat too difficult for the official mind to grasp.This is shown by the fact that governments put a much higher tax per unit of alcohol on distilled spirits than on beer and wine. The reason for doing this, it is claimed (somewhat piously) is to discourage people from drinking something which could be harmful to their health. A more likely reason is that they see it as an opportunity to increase tax revenue. If governments wished to base their tax grab on a rational argument they should start bypassing it on alcohol amount (so much per unit of alcohol) instead of on alcohol concentration. And then, if health were the primary consideration as they claim, an additional tax would be levied based on the amount of poison (congener) present. Vodka Would then attract the lowest tax of all and we would all live happily ever after!

A final note for environmentalists and watchdog groups on health matters: Is it not time to demand that governments require all manufacturers of alcoholic beverages to list the composition on the label? This would enable us to choose the ones with the lowest levels of toxic ingredients. They do it for food so why not for drink, particularly for drink which is known to contain several poisons.

Fire and explosions.

This may sound a bit melodramatic but when you are dealing with a procedure for the first time, and know that alcohol is inflammable, you may wonder. Let's take the explosion issue first. At no time, from beginning to end, is there any pressure in the equipment used for distillation. It is always open to the atmosphere. Fully open.Completely open. You will see that this is so when you look at the equipment diagrams later on and read the description of the procedures involved. So don't worry about it --- an explosion is impossible.

As far as fire is concerned you are dealing with an aqueous solution of alcohol which is non-inflammable right up to the time you collect the pure alcohol dripping from the draw-off valve. This is inflammable, but most people will be using an electrically heated boiler so there is no open flame. Secondly, in the remote possibility that a fire occurred, e.g. if you were smoking and dropped some burning ash into the collection bottle,alcohol fires can instantly be doused with water because alcohol and water are completely miscible. For this reason it is an infinitely safer inflammable liquid than gasoline, and in thefuel alcohol industry this fact is always quoted as one of the benefits associated with ethanolwhen it is used alone as a fuel --- in Brazil for example.