In times of chaos, alcohol is a rare commodity that has universally recognized value. It can fuel engines, clean wounds, and ease social interaction. It’s also shockingly easy to make.
The first step is fermentation. Yeast cells are not good planners. If you put them in a container fitted with an airlock, they will gobble up sugar and churn out carbon dioxide and ethanol. Within a few weeks, they will fall to the bottom, killed by their own waste. This leaves us with a potent metaphor and, if conditions are right, a beverage of about 5 to 15 percent alcohol.
In the past, I have made the mash, or yeast feedstock, from Dumpstered candy bars, a truckload of overripe plums, and an industrial bakery’s disgustingly sweet pastry filling. Luckily, distillation gets rid of flavor. It also boosts the alcohol content from slight buzz to rocket fuel. You are now entering the glamorous world of federal crime. Proceed at your own risk.
My reflux still uses propane to heat a stainless-steel keg of fermented mash. Ethanol turns into steam first, rising through a metal chimney to a cocktail shaker containing a copper coil. As a pump runs water through this assembly, it acts as a condenser, cooling the vapor until it drips out as liquid spirit. Discard the first few ounces to avoid methanol—and blindness.
As the temperature rises, water boils, diluting the vapor. That’s why I packed the chimney with copper pot scrubbers. They give the water molecules plenty of surface area on which they can condense and leak back into the pot, while the concentrated ethanol continues up to the cocktail shaker. This creates multiple distillations—hence reflux still.
The booze that finally emerges is close to pure ethanol: It will run a gasoline engine. For sipping, I water it down to 130 proof—a strong punch in the face, but surprisingly delicious.
WARNING: Distilling alcohol is a federal offense and violates state laws. Some exceptions are made, but apocalypse prep isn’t one…yet.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the name “A Reflux Still For Making Moonshine.”