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. We have dealt with the legal question elsewhere so here we will concentrate on health matters.

Poisoning oneself. One of the classic fears that spring to most peoples' minds when the subject of amateur distillation comes up is that of going blind, or even dying, but this is a myth. Blindness, in this context, is caused by drinking methyl alcohol (i.e. wood alcohol). Anyone who ever went blind from drinking illicit liquor did so by drinking concoctions that were heavily adulterated with store-bought wood alcohol. There's a tendency for people to think that any mention of illicit liquor is referring to a product of illicit distillation. Many such illicit liquors are concocted by mixing ingredients from someone's garage or basement and are not produced by fermentation or distillation.

Although a trace amount of methyl alcohol is produced by fermentation, it does not occur at a concentration capable of poisoning an individual. In fact, such trace amounts of methyl alcohol are removed from spirits by distillation, but remain in undistilled beverages like beer and wine. The truth is, there is very very little methyl alcohol produced by fermentation, so it poses no threat to consumers of beer or wine where it remains in solution, or to consumers of distilled spirits where it has been removed. And, in the event of poor distillation practices where it may not be completely removed, it still poses no more threat than it does in beer or wine where it's not removed at all.

Occasionally, there will be a scandal in the news about someone or some people who went blind, or even died, from drinking "homemade" liquor. Everyone, including the reporting journalists, will automatically assume the "homemade" liquor was made by illicit distillation. In actual fact, the homemade liquors in such circumstances are always made by concocting some kind of a punch using wood alcohol instead of grain alcohol (i.e. ethyl alcohol).

The confusion usually occurs when some unknowing person attends a party where someone is concocting a punch using pharmaceutically pure ethyl alcohol pilfered from a university or a laboratory. Everyone drinks up and has a great time. The poor unknowing person decides to get his or her friends together for a similar punch party, but doesn't know the difference between grain alcohol and wood alcohol. The person gets a bottle of wood alcohol, makes up the punch, and people get sick, go blind, or die. Meanwhile, the press reports that these people are victims of "homemade" liquor.

Some people have asked if the distillation process could inadvertently result in the concentrating of methyl alcohol, and possibly other volatile congeners, to a level capable of poisoning an individual.

The answer is, not a chance. This could not inadvertently occur. While it is possible to concentrate any one of the volatile congeners of a fermented substrate, it would definitely require the still operator to: have a thorough understanding of the distillation process; deliberately set out to concentrate the specific congener (e.g. methyl alcohol); and process an enormous amount of fermented substrate to obtain a large enough volume of the volatile congener to be poisonous.

Furthermore, if an unscrupulous operator did set out to do this, in order for a person to fall victim to the poison they would have to, ignoring the pungent smell and the sickening taste, drink the poisonous substance. At this point, such an operator would have to ask themselves why they're going to all this trouble to isolate poisons from a fermented substrate when they could just go out and buy a bottle of methyl alcohol cheaply and easily at a hardware store.

Headaches & hangovers. The concern about going blind from drinking amateur-distilled spirits is a myth, but the concern of producing a spirit that causes incredibly bad hangovers is quite real. Fermented substrates contain a family of congeners called "fusel alcohols" (they used to be called "fusel oils" but they're not oils they're higher alcohols). These fusel alcohols are what cause the bad hangovers, and improper distillation practices will result in a spirit with an excess of them present. Most commercially produced whiskies, rums, and brandies contain a small amount of fusel alcohols as part of their flavour profile.

However, fusel alcohols are easily avoided, particularly when using the sophisticated high-separation still design featured in this book.

Explosions. Although a boiler is used for distilling beer to spirits, there is no pressure in it. The boiler is completely open to the atmosphere at all times so pressure build-up is impossible. It is no more dangerous, therefore, than a teakettle.


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