Prohibition laws provided loopholes for the public and illegal organizations. Many of these illegitimate organizations that were formed had the foresight to provide alky cookers or stills in one-gallon copper sizes so that many families were able to make small batches of homemade liquor in their kitchens. These were known as “family enterprises,” and they paid a nice return by the mob. The family home liquor makers were among large numbers of small- and big-time illegal alcohol producers during Prohibition. Using a small still to ferment a “mash” from corn sugar, or fruit, beets, even potato peels to produce alcohol they then mixed it with glycerin and a touch of juniper oil as a flavoring with the final ingredient being water.
Bartenders took this homemade gin and blended it with a variety of mixers from soda pop, juices, fruit garnishes and bitters to flavor this homemade alcohol. The cocktail became fashionable despite how horrible it tasted.
The federal Prohibition Bureau agents seized almost 697,000 stills nationwide from 1921 to 1925, and between mid-1928 and mid-1929 they confiscated 11,416 sills. Bigger stills could produce five gallons of alcohol in eight minutes. Commercial stills could produce 50 to 100 gallons a day at a cost of 50 cents per gallon.
Gallon stills, bottles, malt syrup, corn sugar, corn syrup, hops, yeast, bottle cappers, and concentrated grapes were legally sold in hardware and grocery stores. Licensed doctors were permitted to prescribe distilled spirits, wine, and whiskey as treatments for ailments, with a limitation of one pint every ten days. The manufacture and sale of wine used for sacraments or other religious rituals by rabbis, priests, ministers and their designees allowed for a loophole in the National Prohibition Act (Volstead) that was abused. Prescriptions were administered by doctors and pharmacists and they made a lot of money for prescribing these exemptions.
A still is a distillation apparatus consisting of a boiler connected to a tube and cooling coil used for the collection of a distillate. Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, monks and alchemists produced ointments, essential oils, and ultimately alcoholic liquids using this process. But stills have also been used to produce medicines and perfumes. Sicilians perfected this device.
Simple Pot Stills
This type of still is generally made up of four main elements.
The boiler, also called cucurbita in small stills, is where the fermented liquid to be distilled is placed. Below it is a source of heat for heating the liquid.
The capital, also known as the helmet or dome, is located at the top of the boiler and has the task to pass (or not) depending on the form of the capital, alcohol vapors.
The swan neck takes the vapors from the capital downwards and then transfers to vapor in the yane arm with the force of gravity to prevent the return of alcohol vapors.
The cooling coil, which is placed in a container and often filled with water, condenses the alcohol vapors to obtain the final result, the distillate.
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The boiler or pot of the still is filled about two-thirds full of a fermented liquid. In the case of whiskey distillation, the liquid used is a beer, while in the case of brandy production, it is a base wine. The still is then heated so that the liquid boils.
The boiling point of alcohol, 78.4 degrees Celcius (173.12 degrees Fahrenheit), is lower than that of water (100 degrees Celcius or 212 degrees Fahrenheit). The alcohol vapor concentrates first. The vapor travels up the swan neck and down the Lyne Arm. It then moves through the condenser and cools, yielding a distillate with a higher concentration of alcohol than the original liquid. The distillate, called “low wines,” has a concentration of 25-35% alcohol by volume. It can be distilled multiple times. Cognac and most single malt scotch whiskeys are distilled twice, but in the case of Irish whiskey, the spirit is distilled a third time.
The earliest distillation device was the Greek alembic still. The boiler or cucurbita was combined with the capital or dome to form a single vessel. This distillation device was claimed to be invented by Mary the Jewess, also known as Mary the Prophetess. She was an early alchemist considered to be the first true alchemist of the Western world.
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Copper has a very high thermal and electrical conductivity, which makes it ideal for even heat distribution and efficient cooling of the vapors. It is a resilient and malleable material, which means it has exceptional durability and is also easily cut, pounded and stretched into the desired shape; perfect for the “onion” shaped alembic still. Copper is resistant to corrosion, especially under extreme temperatures and humidity fluctuations; and the material has been scientifically proven to have antimicrobial effects. Therefore, it destroys a wide range of bacteria and viruses. It improves the quality and aroma of the final product and therefore is optimal for home brewing. But the most important property of copper is the fact that it reacts with alcohol on a molecular level. What does that mean? It produces a chemical reaction which removes the sulfur-compounds that result naturally from yeast fermentation. Because sulfur is foul-tasting and malodorous, if allowed to develop in the distilled spirit it would give the end-product an off taste and an unappealing smell.