Basic Distilling Safety
Both the distillation and storage of alcoholic spirits (mainly ethanol) has some potentially fatal dangers associated with it. Tall neutral columns in particular can produce very high strength ethanol, at a concentration of greater than 95% abv (alcohol by volume). However, while there are some very real dangers, following some basic, common sense safety rules will reduce any risk down to an acceptable level:
If you are new to stilling, then stick to using well tested designs and materials and recipes to start with. Experimenting with new ideas is good and part of what we do on this forum, but you should learn to stand and walk properly before you try to run.
Check your equipment carefully before each run. Make sure all the openings and pathways are not blocked, and any valves are working. Set the whole still up, including connecting the coolant system up fully and testing it, before turning on the heat source for the still.
NEVER leave a running still unattended. That is just asking for serious trouble. Get to know the behaviour of the still well, and directly monitor it at all times during the run. Make sure you will not be disturbed during the run by anybody or anything. Do not run a still while you are tired or sick or upset, or under the influence of alcohol or any other kind of intoxicating drugs. Keep your mind firmly on the job.
Liquid ethanol above a concentration of about 50% abv is very flammable, and the vapours are also flammable and highly explosive in the right concentration of air-vapour mix. In these ways ethanol is similar to the dangers from petrol. Be aware of this.
Never charge the boiler with any higher than 40% ABV. Doing so creates an explosion risk.
Ethanol vapors are almost invisible, and the flame from burning liquid ethanol is almost invisible in med-strong light.
Do not allow vapors or liquid product to be anywhere near a heat source, especially a naked flame.
Place your collection vessel in a much larger non-flammable, ethanol resistant container (such as a tray or large pot). It should be capable of holding at least an hour's worth of output if your collection vessel spills or leaks.
Do not allow any leaks from the still. Use a mirror and torch (flashlight) to detect leaks, look for condensation on the mirror. If any are found, DO NOT continue the run. Turn the heat source off straight away, and repair the leak before continuing.
Make sure the stilling area is well ventilated, so even if you have missed a small leak then vapors cannot build up in the stilling area.
Wipe up any liquid spills immediately. Keep a bunch of old dry rags or a bucket of fine dry sand handy to do this. Remove them from the stilling area (to out of doors) as soon as they have been used to soak up the spirit.
Keep at least one fire extinguisher handy during distillation runs, and also in the storage area, (though not right next to the still or stored spirit). A fire blanket and a charged garden hose in the nearby vicinity are also a good idea.
Always make sure you always have an easy escape route from the stilling area.
If you ever run your still at night, and rely on electricity for lighting, then always keep a reliable flashlight within easy reach or on your person. You never know when the power will go off.
High strength neutral ethanol is also a concentrated poison that is colorless, and almost flavorless and odorless.
If ingested in any quantity, it could kill. Children are especially at risk. Do not store your spirit at high abv. After the initial ageing has been done, water the spirit down to at least 50% abv or under. The best storage strength for beverage alcohol spirits is 40% as it is a very common commercial standard for spirits that most people are accustomed too, so it will not take them by surprise after a couple of drinks.
Clearly label your product storage containers with the type of spirit in there, and the strength (in % abv). Many distillers also write the date of production or bottling on the label.
If you have children in your house, lock your spirits away safely. If you can, dedicate a specific area to your stilling, and lock the kids out (and your pets).
High proof beverage distillate should never come into contact with plastic (with the exception of PTFE/Teflon gaskets). It can eat into the plastic and leach unwelcome chemicals into your distillate. The safest known and best tested materials for contact with your handcrafted spirits are glass, copper, stainless, and certain woods (mainly French and American oak). Oak barrels made specifically for storing alcoholic spirit are good storage containers, and are in fact used for ageing and maturing some spirits, to add color and flavor.
When buying a thermometer for your still, it is best to get an electronic one with a programmable over temperature alarm. For neutral runs, set the alarm at 80 ºC (176 ºF), maybe a little higher. For stripping or pot still runs, set the temp at 98 ºC (208 ºF).
– Hook (& others)
When you clean up spills, make sure you either remove the soaks from the area immediately or place them in a sealed container or bag. I like to have a bread bag or two around with my towels in case this happens because the alcohol will still be evaporating off the rags.
On my very first run, I collected several drops in a spoon and "tried" to light it. (IT WAS LIT...I just couldn't see the flame.!!!) I emptied the spoon back into the collection jar (which, at that time, was an old plastic measuring cup because I was going to throw the foreshots away). I left the room to wash the spoon and returned and saw my measuring cup melting before my eyes..YEP..I had poured the "flame" back into it.
If a vapor leak is discovered in your rig during a run, flour dough mixed 4 parts flour to 3 parts water makes an excellent temporary patch and will allow you to complete your run before repairing the leak more permanently.