Bootleg liquor, bootleg filters.

The problem’s simple. You spend the time to source the ingredients, mash the grain (or boil the wash), ferment and ferment some more, and finally distill, then again and (if you’re feelin’ crazy) yet a third time. Maybe once you’re done you run it through active carbon and maybe you don’t. You toss it in a jar with wood chips and any flavours you want and you wait. Then, weeks or months later you go to claim you prize. Unfortunately, it looks a little something like this:

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Mmmmmmm. That is some delicious high test swamp water. I know, it looks appetizing. This picture, in case you can’t quite make out the label, is the rum that I put together as my final 2015 run (which was actually in ’16…don’t judge me). To really illustrate the point, before I added the wood and the wash (to give it a little sweetness, color and molasses complexity) it looked like this:

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Yep, we went from crystal clear to bog water in about 2.5 months. It looks nasty and it’s certainly nothing that you’re likely to share with your friends. “Hey guys, check this out. No, no, it’s not from the gutter – just take a sip, you’ll love it.”

Anyway, I’ve been trying to solve this problem in a cost effective manner. The process is still in development, but here’s what we’ve come up with so far.

Step 1. – the cheesecloth funnel.

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Yep, that’s high tech. you make a plug out of cheesecloth and stuff it in a large funnel. You want the cheesecloth to be tight. Fluid needs to pass through it, but you don’t want it to be free flowing, right? remember that the point is to take out as many particulates as you can at this step.

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Then you filter it right into a large measuring cup (or another jar…which is my preference). You can see that the fluid is trickling out of the funnel. It doesn’t have the capability of forming any sort of proper stream if you’ve packed the cheesecloth right.

When you’re done with one pass, it’ll look something like this:

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I usually pull the plug at this point. Then I toss the chips and rinse the funnel. I make a new plug and then strain my old plug into the new one. I mean, come on…it’s product, right? Then I’ll do the same thing again.

Once you’ve done this 2-3 times, you should see a pretty marked improvement in the clarity. From here you have a few options. Unfortunately, I lacked the foresight to take pictures of this process from start to finish. In the interest of full disclosure, the following pictures are the bourbon from May 15, not the rum from Jan 16.

Option 1 is a Brita. I’ll be honest and say that this process worked pretty well for the whiskey and the dark rum (pictured above). The white rum that was aged with lemon peel for limoncello did not do as well. We’ll cover that in a later post. I just toss that out there so that you know to start slow with the Don’t commit all the product until you are sure you want to.

Here’s my trusty brita working on that whiskey:IMG_1534

You will note the sediment buildup in the bottom. It’s finer than the cheesecloth (thank you capt/ obvious). you should see even clearer whiskey coming out of the brita. I usually do this at least twice. I run distilled water through in between.

The clarity (with all but the limoncell0) was vastly improved both times:

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Here it is in its final form, proof tested at about 85-90 proof (along side Alex Kieth’s pride of Nova Scotia).

If I hadn’t had the recent issues with the brita leaving my limoncello cloudy, I would have left this at my recommendation. The old cheesecloth to brita was successful for multiple runs. Now, maybe it’s my fault and I should have replaced the brita filter (which is also active carbon in case you were wondering)…but I don’t know. There’s no benchmark to test it with moonshine (at least none that I’m aware of). For all I know, it may have been something to do with the lemon oil that was so prevalent in the mix. Who knows. I think that, given my recent experience, I will try with a paper coffee filter to see what that does to clarity. I’m sure that I’ll let you know how it all turns out. After all, the spring run is in the planning phase now. We need to crawl back up above freezing again and we’ll be ready to rock and roll.

If anyone has any recommendations for an improved “bootleg filtration” process, I’m all ears.

A short discussion on yeast.

We haven’t talked a whole lot about yeast in the past, and, since we’ve resolved to take the training wheels off a bit this year, now seems like a good time to dive in. Just about any home brewer will tell you that yeast is one of, if not THE, most crucial ingredients in his or her batch. Distillers seem rather quieter on the matter, but that could be for a variety of reasons…not the least of which is that distillers seem to be quieter regarding their batches in general. Most of the reading that I’ve done on the subject really focuses on making the cuts and monitoring temperature. I understand why. Monitoring the temperature is the best way to both maximize yield and ensure that you’re not boiling up a big ‘ol jar of poison. However, there seems to be little material regarding ways to improve the taste of the shine. My theory is that this is where yeast can play a pivotal role.

As previously discussed, yeast nutrient has some pretty nasty stuff in it. I understand that the yeast needs it to thrive in a high alcohol environment (most turbo yeasts will push up to 17%). However, there’s nothing to what impact those chemicals do or do not have on the overall flavor. So, let’s talk a little bit about White Labs and what I hope they can do for me.

White Labs is a company that does a lot, and I mean a lot with yeast. It’s safe to say they’re obsessed. If you haven’t had the opportunity you should certainly check out their page: http://www.whitelabs.com/. In addition to stocking brewer’s yeasts they do have a few strains for distillers that should provide both the strong attenuation and high survivability that distillers need. Now, I say “should” because I have not yet tried out their products. You can expect a report once I have.

The good folks at white labs were kind enough to provide the consumer with data regarding attenuation, flocculation, temperature ranges and (you guessed it) alcohol tolerance.  Their distiller’s yeast bank in particular has the high tolerance that we’re looking for. Now, I doubt that the high tolerance is 17% like the turbo yeast, but it, allegedly, is good to go until 10-15%.

If you’re unfamiliar with attenuation and flocculation, here’s a brief description.

Attenuation – has to do with how productive the yeast is. It’s calculated throughout the period of fermentation by tracking specific gravity. As the yeast devours the sugar the density of the mash/wash decreases. Tracking the density and running the numbers will let you know how much sugar has been consumed and, therefore, how much booze you have.

[(OG-FG)/(OG-1)] x 100 = attenuation percentage. (yes, I stole that formula from white labs…don’t judge me).

The reason I appreciate White Labs publishing the data is that the home distiller now has a target in mind. We can say BAM the yeast is done. It’s done all it can do according to the manufacturer and we can move ahead to distillation without worrying whether or not the yield will be as high as possible.

Flocculation  – It’s a thoroughly disagreeable word. I don’t like the way that it sounds, but that’s not really relevant. Flocculation is all about how successful the yeast is at sinking to the bottom (and out of the way) once the sugar – alcohol conversion is complete. Wild yeasts and many of the bread/brewer’s yeasts don’t really flocculate that well. Since you really don’t want particulates (including flocculated yeast) in your still, knowing what to expect from a flocculation perspective is nice . There’s not (to my knowledge) a more advanced way of measuring flocculation than looking at it and saying, “yep, it’s flocculated”. If I learn otherwise I’ll certainly post something.

The other 2 data points (temp and tolerance) are just nice guidelines. In my opinion, it’s nice to know how warm the mash/wash needs to be kept during fermentation. Understanding tolerance is also great since, well, if we’re talking about a 6 gallon fermenter, 10% is only .6 gallons. It’s a potent .6, but by the time you do your stripping run and cut using the method discussed earlier, you’re left with a pretty sad, lonely little jar. Needless to say, higher tolerance is better. We’ll see what impact the strain has on the taste of the final product.

 

 

Winter is…over?

It was a balmy 8 degrees (C) up here in Ottawa today, and it got me thinking about a few things. First, it got me thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve enjoyed a good cigar. For a variety of reasons I don’t smoke in my home. Ottawa isn’t a tobacco friendly kind of town…mostly because the government that makes the laws is the same government that oversees the healthcare system. I don’t suppose it would make a whole lot of sense to be pro-tobacco if you knew that you’d end up paying for it in the long run.

So there. I want a cigar, but I digress. It’s time to start preparing for the spring batch. I’m hoping for a fun and more active season than 2015. Don’t get me wrong, 2015 was a pretty great year for the overall quality of the product. Working on better temperature management, understanding adjuncts and making appropriate cuts did amazing things, but I want to get better.

With that in mind, I thought perhaps it’d be nice to set a few new year’s resolutions for my favorite dubiously legal pastime. So, here they are:

  1. It’s time to break up with prepackaged yeast. Don’t get me wrong, I think that turbo yeast and the whiskey yeast that I’ve relied upon to date did a great job. The yield, especially the yield of the last rum run was really great. However, the stuff has an odd scent that I just can’t shake. Since I’m not really sure what chemicals are put in the turbo yeast (that proudly proclaims: “no urea”), I want to try to break away a bit. That means there will be some reading and probably some information coming down about how to provide yeast with the nutrients it needs to keep the little fellas producing for 2 weeks.
  2. I want to do a fruit run. I wanted to do it last year, and it never happened. I’ve washed with sugar and molasses. I’ve mashed with corn and barley. Now, it’s time to try something fruity. I’m not sure what just yet. I think I’ll try for a summer fruit run. Peaches, Nectarines or something like that.
  3. Time to check on consistency. I have not run the same product twice at this time. I kind of want to. I’m thinking of doing 2 consecutive weekends. I dare say, a Shine-a-thon. The same ingredients, the same cuts. How consistent can I get the taste of the product. What can I learn from such an amazing experience.
  4. Find some other shiners. No, not shriners…though, I’m sure that’d be fun too in a helping kids and riding motorcycles kind of way. Surely someone else in this town has some experience. There’s a small distillery in Ottawa (North of 7). I don’t know much about it, but perhaps they could get me a bit more plugged in to the community…if such a thing exists.

There are, of course, extras that I’m interested in. How does the water impact a the product. Afterall, everyone in KY proudly proclaims the limestone in the water gives their bourbon the subtle flavor that can’t be matched out of region. I’d like to try a copper still and a traditional condenser. I’d like to experiment with more ethanol recipes (though the limoncello is getting better and better).

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m sure there will be more to come soon.

 

Winter is coming.

One last post for the day to let everyone know that I’m officially on winter recess. Last year I learned that I lack the fortitude to stand out in the cold and run a still for hours on end. I’m not even going to attempt a new batch until at least mid March (weather dependant). I will be posting a few things in the meantime mostly technique tips, discussions on reflux stills with copper mesh vs. ceramic beads, etc. I will, of course, also be planning my spring run.

Thanks to all of you for reading. WordPress informs me that we’re getting more hits than ever. I will keep content coming in the next few weeks.

Success, thy name is rum.

I can only assume that many of you have been sleepless for the last several nights. After all, it’s been almost a week since my cliffhanger post. You were all tossing, and turning and calling out for the yeast to “Ferment, damn you!” through consecutive restless nights. Please rest assured that my time this weekend was indeed a success, and it was a success on a variety of levels.

The first success came in the form of me actually <gasp> thinking about it a bit. To frame the scene, it was very much like last weekend. I open the fermenter which, by all accounts, should have been near flammable by now (yes, that’s hyperbole, leave me alone). I gingerly dipped my new, graduated cylinder into the wash. I placed the bobber in the cylinder to be met with…exactly the same results. That’s right. The bobber read 0 proof. The NERVE. I’ll be honest and say that I almost pitched it. We were in the middle of a torrential downpour (yes, in Canada, in January). I thought that I might enjoy doing other things rather than waiting for ethanol to come crawling out of a tube all afternoon. However, I just couldn’t imagine quitting on it.

I resolved to dig deeper. I went, got a jar, and drank. I won’t say I drank a lot of it, but I drank some of it. As Forrest Gump might say, “I’m not a smart man, but I do know what booze tastes like.” There was booze in that jar. There was a lot of booze in that jar …at least compared to the successful whiskey and the trainwreck vodka that were my last 2 runs. I thought more about the measurement and realized that, unlike the whiskey and vodka where you strain out the “mash” the wash would always have the increased density because of the high sugar content (which taste told me had decreased significantly in the past 2 weeks). How could a bobber that functions on density possibly be relied upon in such circumstances? I decided that there was ethanol in the wash, dammit, and that I was going to pull it out. I’m really glad that I did.

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There’s a shot of the wash in the bottom of the fermenter (post siphon) you can see that the nearly black color that the wash had been has faded into a murky sort of brown. The smell was certainly yeasty, but it wasn’t nearly as strong as it was the previous weekend.

We’re going to skip ahead through some of the boring parts (e.g. me prepping the still, getting the burner ready, locating jars, etc.). I decided that I was just going to do the first distillation, the stripping run. That the spirit run could wait for a while. I thought that perhaps I’d toss the foreshots/heads out up front rather than distilling them twice, so I got a little jar (for the heads/foreshots) and a big jar for the hearts/tails.

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There she is, all ready to go. You’ll note the painting project in the background. Remember that it’s always advisable to distill with a partner (even if that partner is doing something else). You can’t go wrong with getting help when and if you need it. Also, I’ll give a shout out to Mad Mads, my mad scientist buddy. He provided the new and improved cylinder to replace the broken (cheap) ones I’d been using. I also recommend having a mad scientist friend. It makes a lot of things more interesting.

I’ll condense the rest of the run down for the sake of brevity:

  1. I was very careful with the heat this time. I brought the wash up to temperature very, very slowly. I’m talking probably 2.75 hours to hit the methanol evaporation point (around 145 Fahrenheit).
  2. To put it simply, the run was textbook. With the water pump running, and the slow heating of the pot, I had virtually no issues with temperature control. In fact, I think we only crested 185F once in the 6ish hours we were running the still.
  3. The improvement in temperature control speaks to the quantity of ethanol that was produced. Once a certain chemical begins to evaporate, the evaporation will consume a lot of the energy, effectively cooling what’s left behind (i.e. humans sweat for temperature control). There was enough ethanol coming out to help regulate the remaining wash.
  4. The yield was fantastic. We pulled in about 2.4 liters (a little over half a gallon) of shine at 85% ABV, 170 proof.

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(proof tested in case you didn’t believe me).

5. I will not, at least as of now, be doing a spirit run. Given the quantity produced, and the quality of that quantity, I see little point in a second distillation. I captured the nasty stuff in a jar up front, and I shut down the still once it was getting difficult to maintain a temperature of under 185. I could have pushed for greater volume, but it was tasting good and sweet…I decided to leave well enough alone.

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Remember it’s important to chill your samples out of the still. What are we? Heathens?

So, to make a long story short, recipe 3 was a pretty significant success. It was, hands down, the best run I’ve had. Part of that is experience, but I like to think that part of it was the wash and the recipe. The higher concentration of ethanol made a lot of things easier. I can’t say for certain if the extra week helped, but I think I’ll let most of the washes/mashes I do from now on go for about 2 weeks. The taste was certainly less sweet after two weeks. The yield was also higher than the original recipe that I linked on the Links page.

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The first 1.6 liters and an empty can of delicious and refreshing Barking Squirrel.

Yeast, don’t fail me now.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the holidays seemed like the perfect time to revisit the ol’ rum recipe. For those of you who have been reading for a while, you might recall that rum was the very first thing that I tried. It is, after all, probably the second simplest project you can do. The first simplest would be to just buy some beer/malt liquor/wine toss it in your still and push play.

How can you go wrong with rum? It’s literally sugar (and molasses…which is sugar) and water. You dissolve the sugar and blamo…you have your rum. Unfortunately, it seems that’s not how it works. At least not this round.

Here’s how the story goes. Like a child on Christmas, I crept down into the basement last weekend where my wash had been fermenting. I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle of my small fermenter huddled under towels next to the furnace to stave off the Canadian cold. As I lifted the tank, I was greeted by the yeasty smell of progress. With no small amount of delight I walked, nay…scampered, into the workshop to open the tank and see what santa had brought me.

I was met with a horror. No, it hadn’t gone moldy. I’m way too careful with my sanitation for that (knock on wood), but the wash I had expected to be about 17% ABV was…2% ABV. I was, to say the least, incensed. I’ve been racking my brain for about a week wondering what could have gone wrong. Sure, the temperature dropped, but the fermenter was still at about 65 F. It’s not ideal, but it’s not low enough that the yeast should have been completely dormant. I had reports from several sources that the airlock was bubbling away throughout the week. I was judicious in making sure that the yeast was room temperature before I pitched it, and that the wash was down to about 98 degrees F. The package instructed 100. I will be honest and say that I didn’t time the mixing of the yeast in the wash, but I gave it a good, long stir. It may not have been a full 2 minutes, but I thought it was sufficient.

So, I thought about it. I decided not to pitch more yeast. I gave it a good, thorough, stir and have been waiting. Yeast, don’t fail me now…I’ll see you on Sunday.

Making the cut, part deux.

Approximately a million years ago, I published (yes, that verb was deliberately chosen) a post titled, Making the cut.. In the post, I discussed a my plan to separate the distillate into jars based on volume to really fine tune the end product. Now, 7 months, or one million years, later I have jarred the aged albeit still very young bourbon and I wanted to circle back to that discussion to let you all know how it went.

As I mentioned in my mashing post, the end product actually turned out very well. I mean, I’d be disappointed if I bought that bourbon in a store, but I consider it a victory for fledgling ‘shiners everywhere. My complaints with the batch have nothing to do with the quality…it just that it lacks the big bourbon flavor that comes with proper aging. We can talk a bit about what I did to age it later. I want to stick with a discussion on the cuts for the time being.

So, none of you will be surprised to note that I prepped the jars before the still began warming. For those of you who have operated a still already, you likely have your setup rituals. I can tell you that prepping jars will be a part of my regular ritual for the foreseeable future.

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12 jars all given a number. The labels were kept big so that I could note specific conditions for each jar as they were filled. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did deviate from the plan a bit.

  1. I did not write down the time for each jar. I’d have liked to, but I just didn’t get around to it. I also made a game time decision that order, temp and proof were a sufficient first attempt.
  2. I eyeballed the volume. The cylinder I use to proof test is not graduated. That is to say, it’s still in school and doesn’t have any sort of volume scale on it. I just filled the cylinder up about 80% of the way. Once I dumped that into jar number 1, I used that jar as the model for all others.

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So here we are distilling away. At jar 7 we were just a little bit past half way. Lest you be concerned for my safety, I assure you that I am neither of the two gentlemen in the background. I was the one watching the still.

<parental soap box lecture> I do recommend caution if you distill into small jars. You can see that I actually ran the hose along the top of the clamp on the welding table. This was to minimize pooling in the tube. As the hose gets heavier it tends to move the smaller, empty jars around a bit. Keep an eye out to make sure you don’t (best case) lose your product or (worst case) blow yourself up when the alcohol vapors hit the heating element. </parental soap box lecture>

With the exception of dividing the run, the process was more or less exactly the same as it was last time. Here’s a close up for those who are interested:

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Never mind the nasty rag. There’s nothing to see here.

It was all well and good to put the batch into smaller jars, but the real fun came with the mixing. Once the run was over, the alcohol coming out of the still started to acquire that telltale funk, we called it a day and proceeded to the mixing.

To mix, we simply lined up each jar on the bar.

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We proof tested each jar now that the temperature had cooled down, and made any final adjustments to the jar labels. Once that was done, we smell tested each jar. If the jar passed the smell test, we’d try a little bit of that jar in a glass. No, we didn’t pour full shots. We just wanted to get a sense of the flavor and the smell. The first and last couple of jars never passed the smell test and were, therefore not tasted.

We settled on ditching jars 1-2 and 9-12. We kept jars 3 through 8.

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To be completely honest, I would have trashed Jar 3 as well if I wasn’t being stingy about the volume of booze produced. You can see the results of the spirit run in the large jar on the bar in the picture above. I looked at the contents of 4-8 and it looked so insignificant in the big jar. I thought to myself, how can this be the sum of all my hard work. Jar 3 didn’t smell that bad, after all. It didn’t have the nice, sweeter flavor of the heart, but it wasn’t gutrot either. I’ll reiterate that I’m happy with the product, but I do wonder what it’d have been like if I kept it smaller.

I was also really impressed with the charred oak chips. I haven’t yet filtered it, but the oak did good stuff to the flavor.

And we come to the end of our tale. I consolidated the waste alcohol and kept it around as part of my no distillate left behind policy. I won’t drink it because, well, I choose life…but I will absolutely light it on fire when I get a chance.

Come spend the night inside my sugar wash.

For those of you whose minds are now endlessly looping the 1984 “classic” Sugar Walls, I’m not going to apologize. For those of you who are not familiar with the song, be thankful. I mean, you could youtube it if you want…it is almost 2016, but do so at your peril. There are certain things you can’t unhear; these things include 80s R&B songs written by Prince (under a pseudonym) and performed by white ladies with poofy hair.

But enough about her sugar walls.

We are, after all, gathered here today to discuss my sugar wash. That’s right, after a little over a year, I’ve gone back to make changes to my first attempt at Rum. If you look way, way back in the blog, you’ll see a brief statement on the initial rum. I pulled the recipe offline, and it was my very first attempt at the distillation. It was a success, and a good first experience. However, it wasn’t perfect and there were issues with the flavor, and specifically the aftertaste that needed to be addressed. So, fast forward a year and we’re making another attempt.

I’ve changed a few things, and learned a few techniques that should make a difference. First, if you haven’t yet seen it, you should go look at the recipe on the recipes page. You’ll note a few things:

  1. The new recipe relies much more heavily on dark brown sugar than the other recipe.
  2. The potential ABV of the wash is only a little less than 17%

The brown sugar decision was made in the hopes of giving the rum a little bit more depth. The combination of the molasses and the 5 kilos of brown sugar gave the wash both a rich brown color, and a really nice flavor. The flavor of this wash has significantly more depth than the white sugar wash that was made last year. The final volume of the wash was too much for my 6 gallon fermenter, so I actually kept a little of the wash to help give the distilled product that “rummy” taste. I’m sure you’ll hear more about that in the coming days.

The potential ABV/Sg could have gone up, but I was out of brown sugar, the pot was awfully full (so I didn’t want to add molasses), and I didn’t want to add any more white sugar. The High Spirits Turbo 48 yeast will only take us to 18% ABV. I decided to call it at 16.9% and sacrifice the 1% of potential product.

As we speak, the wash is fermenting away. I’ll certainly take what I’ve learned forward. This includes a stripping and a spirit run. The batch will be split into jars and mixed according to taste, smell, and proof. The high yield should be enough to split the run into traditional rum as well as some other experiments (like Limoncello).

Here we go again.

You probably noticed that the journal went dormant for a while, and it went dormant just as things were getting good. I’m working to consolidate my batch notes from the May Bourbon run, but I’m not going to lie and say that the fragmentation of the info is not going to hurt the accuracy of the report.

I won’t bore any of you with the details, but suffice it to say that there have been some large life changes on this front. All good, but hey…changes are changes. It took me a while to carve out some time for the ol’ shine. Unfortunately for all parties my newly discovered free time falls at the end of December, so we’ll again be dormant for the winter season. That being said, I did prepare a nice sugar wash that will be in the pot next weekend. I look forward to telling you all about it.

M*A*S*Hing the grain.

There was a fair bit of ramp up to the bourbon batch, but not a whole lot has been said subsequently. I’ve been asked by a few people how it went, so I’m going to come right out and say it. It went very well. In fact, the whole run went very well, so it’ll be tough to stay on topic. However, stay we must.

I think that I mentioned that I was going to head out to Berwick Organics, an organic feed store between Ottawa and Montreal. I was very pleased with the cracked corn, and the people were absolutely fantastic. It was a great product at a great price. The only problem I have is that I currently own a dizzying amount of cracked corn with only one way to get through it all.

I procured the malt from the usual place (beergrains). They were excellent as always.

Here’s a sweet snapshot of the goods:

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I made a few other changes since the infamous vodka run earlier this year. First, since it wasn’t miserably cold, I mashed outside using a turkey frying rig. I also bit the bullet and turned in my silly plastic spoon for a mash paddle. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the mash paddle was one of the best 35 bucks I ever spent. The long handle allowed me the leverage needed to stir the thick mash comfortably.

Here’s a shot of the turkey fryer:

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I know it’s not terribly impressive, but it works. The mash came together gloriously. I followed the recipe almost exactly as documented on this website. I did, out of fear, add a tiny bit of amylase because the memory of the vodka was just too fresh. I honestly don’t think that it was strictly necessary, but I think I’d do it again. It didn’t hurt anything, and (as I finish this post some 7 months after I started it) the bottling went very well. The whiskey, having sat on charred oak for about 7 months turned out well.

Things that I learned from Grain Mashing:

  • Patience is key – it’s going to take a while to get the corn softened up.
  • Taste it – yeah, I know that we’re not talking about food grade corn, but if you don’t taste it, you won’t fully experience the process.
  • Use your senses – as the starch converts into fermentable sugars, the mash will start to thin. It’ll feel like stirring porridge up front, but as the enzymes set in, it’ll start to thin out, like soup.
  • I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: don’t kill the enzymes (from malt or amylase…though I think the amylase is more robust) with heat. You need those little fellas.