Making Spirits and Liqueurs at Home - Overview
Home made spirits and liqueurs are as easy to produce as any other home brewed drink. Using similar equipment to wine making you can produce high quality, high alcohol drinks which are almost indistinguishable from their commercial counterparts and at a fraction of the price.
The first hurdle to get over is the question of legitimacy. In the UK it is not legal to distil alcohol without a licence from Revenue and Customs and this includes alcohol for your own consumption. You are free to make naturally fermented alcohol for your own use and the development of special alcohol tolerant yeasts has made the production of 'spirit and liqueur' drinks from high alcohol washes (typically 20%abv), a practical proposition. It is not unknown for some people prepared to take the risk, to make their own stills from information available on the internet. There are also some who make use of equipment intended for the purification of water or essential oils, but it must be stressed that this is illegal in the UK.
There are four stages in the production of spirits and liqueurs
The fermentation process is similar to making 5 gallon wine kits and uses the same fermenting equipment together with a specialised yeast/nutrient mix to convert glucose or sugar to a high strength alcohol and water mix known as a 'Wash'.
Its important to realise that all fermentations produce unwanted by-products known as 'congeners' which add unpleasant flavours to the product. These can be exacerbated by the use of high temperatures to speed the fermentation, or the wrong mix of nutrients and even the wrong types of yeast. It is therefore important to use a yeast and nutrient mix which minimizes the production of these congeners and to take time to make a quality wash suitable for further processing. High speed fermentation and high alcohol yeasts often require further special treatment to reduce impurities and the consequential unpleasant tastes.
In fermenting spirits and liqueurs an ordinary beer/wine hydrometer is useful. After distillation a special spirit hydrometer is necessary.
In many countries other than the UK this is the stage where distillation of the spirit wash is carried out. Distillation is a refining process designed to remove water and other by products from the wash so leaving the desired product (ethanol) in higher concentrations. This obviously reduces the quantity of liquid available by a considerable amount, but does leave a high quality spirit for further flavouring. In some countries the use of economically priced, low temperature, low volume 'air' stills intended for water or essential oil purification, can produce alcohol levels of around 60% abv.
As mentioned above it is possible to strip out the colours and flavours from commercially available spirits, particularly the cheaper brands, using a two stage ceramic/carbon filter and then add flavouring to make genuine full strength spirits and liqueurs.
3. Carbon Treatment
The main difference from making wine is carbon treatment which uses activated carbon to remove the impurities in the wash. Specially developed activated carbon contains pores designed to trap particles of specific sizes. Activated carbons are made with different sized pores for different applications so it is therefore very important to use activated carbon specifically designed for treating alcohol.
Spirit wash kits require the addition of carbon which can be either during fermentation or after stabilising the brew but before fining as a way to remove these impurities. This carbon is in the form of a liquid containing the activated carbon particles which is stirred into the wash to absorb the unwanted by-products.
In countries where distillation is legal, the passing of untreated washes through a still, will result in the concentration of the impurities to leave very noticeable and unpleasant tastes, so it is advisable to use carbon in the wash this stage. Carbon treatment is also necessary after distillation but it needs to be borne in mind that concentrated alcohol is a strong chemical solvent and can attack certain types of plastics unless it has been 'cut' to around 40% abv, before passing through a suitable purification filter. This type of filter is sometimes used to remove flavours and colours from commercial spirits prior to their re-use with spirit and liqueur flavourings.
Making spirits simply involves adding a flavouring to the alcohol. Most flavours are made in countries where distillation for home brewers is legal so they are formulated to dissolve best in high levels of alcohol. They are however perfectly suitable for use in Britain if more time is allowed for them to diffuse in our weaker 'non-distilled' alcohol mixes. There is a wide range of flavours available, some of which are intended to mimic commercial drinks and do so quite successfully. Some liqueur and cream flavours have to be mixed with glucose and/or cream solutions or with a pre-mixed 'liqueur bases' to truly capture the essence of your favourite drinks. Ideally when a distilled spirit or liqueur has had flavouring added, it should be left to stand for a week as this allows the flavour to infuse with the alcohol and produces a much better result.
Making Spirits and Liqueurs at Home – Costings (as at May 2014)
Triple Distilled Turbo system pack (makes 24 litres) £ 6.99
6 x 1kg Bags of sugar £ 4.80
Cost to produce 23l of alcohol wash £11.79
This yields 5l of spirit distilled to 60% abv and cut with water to 40% abv.
Cost per litre of 40% abv spirit base £ 2.36
To make a Top Shelf Spirit
Top Shelf Spirit Flavour (each makes 3 x 750ml bottles) £ 3.99
2.25 litres of spirit base £ 5.30
Total Cost £ 9.29
Cost per 750ml bottle £ 3.10
To make a Top Shelf Liqueur or Schnapps*
Top Shelf Liqueur Flavour £ 3.10
700ml of spirit base topped up to 1.125 l with cold water £ 1.65
Top shelf Liqueur or Schnapps base £1.99
Total Cost £6.74
Approx. Cost per 750ml bottle £ 4.49
* The volume of spirit base needed varies depending upon the flavour used so the actual cost may vary from this.