Ah, the magic, moment has arrived. The time when we need to take the next step forward, to move up a gear, to make a step change with the plum ‘wash’, and other phrases that betray too many Corporate rev up events. In plain English, it is time for distillation. How do I know it is time? Well, it is more a matter of practicalities. Easter is approaching fast and we have out-of-town plans after that, so best to get moving. Phone calls are made, arrangements are coordinated and last-minute instructions given. Tomorrow will be the big day. But first, one or two last-minute tasks to do to prepare the ‘wash’ for distillation.
Step 1: Measure the Alcohol Potential
This is new to me. “What is the reading on the hydrometer?”, I’m asked, as I seek instructions. “What ?“, I reply, clearly showing my ‘newbie’ status in the land of the Still Boys. I discover, eventually, that one of the items I had purchased is used to measure the alcohol potential of the ‘wash’ and should be used in a before, during and after manner. Well, let’s skip the first two stages and go straight to the “What does it say now?” stage. In the end I have trouble reading the hydrometer, and decide that stage isn’t for me anyway and go straight to Step 2, The Squeezing of The Fruit.
Step 2: The Squeezing of The Fruit
Having decided to dispense with the hydrometer, I now have to drain the ‘wash’ so that only liquid is left. This is done by pouring the ‘wash’ through a pillow case, preferably an old one and definitely one you don’t wish to use as a pillow case again. We need another bucket for this and several other pairs of hands. It turns out to be quite a mission and so we head for the bath. Dean has instructed me that it is essential to squeeze as much liquid out of the fruit, securely encased in the pillow case, as is possible. For it is in the inner recesses of the fruit that lies the real flavour, the aromas that will make this pálinka taste of, well, plums (and not old pillow cases). So we squeeze, and squeeze again. Squeeze, baby, squeeze! And slowly we wring out as much liquid as we can. I now understand why grapes are trampled on, rather than squeezed. Funny the things you learn. After an hour, I am left with left with about 17 litres of plum juice, fermented plum juice, fermented plum juice containing I don’t know how much alcohol because of the hydrometer ‘situation’ (See Step 1).
Step 3: Distillation
The next day I take the bucket of fermented-plum-juice-containing-I-don’t-know-how-much-alcohol to the house where the still resides. Dean awaits his acolyte and we begin. It is actually pretty simple. We pure the liquid into the still, ensure it is connected right, and turn it on. And wait. And wait some more. For the first forty-five minutes or so nothing happens. Or at least nothing we can see. But the heat is rising and the liquid is beginning its transformation into ‘hooch’. After forty minutes or so, we turn on the water that flows through the condenser part of the still. This is part of the magic, although it is pure science. The alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. Water boils at 100° Celsius, while alcohol (technically ethanol) is boils at 78°. When it boils it is converted in a gas (like steam when water boils). The gas travels up the still, passes besides the condenser which cools the gas so that it becomes liquid. That liquid is alcohol. Pure and simple. Amazing really. Especially to me who stopped chemistry as soon as he could at the end of the Fourth Form at high school.
After fifty minutes, the first liquid starts to flow down the tube into the awaiting plastic jug. Actually the first liquid produced is (mostly) methanol, which is poisonous, as in it will make you go blind and kill you. Badly. We discard the first 150 ml of liquid. Discard in the sense of throw it away, down the drain and far away.
We are now getting (mostly) ethanol/alcohol and wait while up to 2 litres is produced. After the first litre we need to do a measure and taste. We pour a small sample into a glass tube, insert a hydrometer into the tube and measure the alcohol. This is a different hydrometer than before so I can read this one and beside, Dean is clear it is essentially to measure the alcohol content at this stage. It is a whopping (my description) 63% and the teaspoon-size we sample packs a powerful punch. But it does taste of plums so we are on the right track. After 2 litres we measure again and this time the alcohol is down to 60%.
At this stage we need to smell and measure much more frequently. This is because as the liquid gets to a higher temperature, different stuff is produced. For example, propanol is produced between 82° and 97° and above 100° you start to get things like Butanol, which, according to Wikipedia, “may be used as a fuel in an internal combustion engine”. Right. We don’t want any of that! After much discussion, smelling the latest 250ml of liquid, and general blokey stuff, we stop production at 2.8 litres and turn off the still.
One final measure of the alcohol reveals a strength of 56%. This is really too high to be enjoyed and so need to take this down to a more ‘drinkable’ level and after much discussion and more blokey stuff, we settle on a desired outcome of 46% alcohol. And how do we get to that level? Simple, add water! Yes, we determine how much water is required using a special formula. In our cases we need to add another 626mls of water. And that is that. We are done. We pour the finished product into bottles for distribution among the rest of the Still Boys, attach labels (Péntek Pálinka or ‘Friday Fruit Brandy’) and were are finished. Not quite as we, like all good Still Men, tiidy up after ourselves and leave everything nice and clean.
The Last Step: Drink
The moment arrives. Into a shot glass, a quick smell and then down the hatch! Man, it tastes good. Very good. In fact it tastes like plum brandy. Which is about all I need to say really.
- 8 Kilos of Fortune Plums (red-fleshed), stoned
- 4 Kilos of sugar
- 60 gms of yeast nutrient salts
- 20gm Lalvin EC 1118 Champagne Yeast
- 2 large vitamin B tablets, crushed
- Wash began on Sunday, 21 March 2010
- Wash drained and squeezed, Tuesday, 30 March
- Distillation 31 March
- 1st liter produces 63% alcohol
- 2nd liter produces 60% alcohol
- Next 250 ml produces 45% alcohol
- Last 380 ml produces 40% alcohol
- Final take is 2.88 liters at 56% alcohol
- Diluted to 46% with 626 ml of water
This is really the best place to go for all your home distillation needs. Comprehensive is an understatement, and it contains everything you need to know about the process, the science, and everything else connected with making your own ‘hooch’. If you are contemplating this hobby, this site is essential.