Alcohol holds a special place in American history, from the speakeasies of Prohibition to the modern bars and clubs that dot the landscape today. However, for many enthusiasts, nothing beats learning how to distill and make your own spirits at home.
One alcoholic beverage that seems uniquely American is corn liquor. While other countries use corn to make spirits, America has turned the process into an art form. Many American whiskeys use a corn mash bill, including Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. While corn isn’t the only ingredient, it’s the primary element that makes whiskey so tasty.
So, with that in mind, let’s dive into the brewing and distillation process for how to make corn liquor. We’ll also look at some of the history behind it.
Before we begin it is important to be aware that in some parts of the world it’s illegal to distill alcohol at home, even for personal use. As such this information is for educational purposes and to understand how these spirits are made so that you can appreciate the craftsmanship and care that goes into them. Before attempting to make any alcoholic beverage you should confirm if it is legal to do so where you live.
What is Corn Liquor?
Simply put, corn liquor is any distilled spirit made from corn. Corn is useful because it produces ethanol when ground up and fermented. Since ethanol is a natural type of alcohol, it’s very easy to make liquor from this crop.
Technically, all bourbon can be considered corn liquor because, by law, the ingredients must be at least 51 percent corn. However, distillers can make moonshine from corn, which is not held to the same regulations and standards as bourbon whiskey.
For our purposes, we’ll discuss how to make both bourbon and moonshine and how the two differ (hint: it’s the sugar content).
A Brief History of Corn Liquor
Whiskey goes way back hundreds of years to the Scottish and Irish. In the United States, many people preferred rum, as it was the most popular alcoholic beverage for many years. It wasn’t until the 1800s that whiskey started coming into fashion. Most likely, Irish and Scottish settlers brought their recipes and mixtures and learned how to distill them stateside.
Whiskey really started making the rounds in the mid and late-1800s, but at the time, there were no regulations about its contents. So, vendors could sell rye whiskey and call it bourbon or vice versa. One of the best whiskeys created during this period was that of James C. Crow. It was so good that it became the gold standard by which all other whiskeys were judged.
It wasn’t until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that the government started regulating what could be called whiskey or bourbon. President Taft made a final decision in 1909 that all bourbon had to contain a majority of corn as an ingredient. Then, during the 1930s, the government stipulated the 51-percent rule, which is still in effect today.
Moonshine is another type of corn liquor, but it’s technically just unaged whiskey. When whiskey comes out of the pot stills, it’s naturally clear (or “white”). It gets its signature caramel color from the aging process, as the wooden barrels infuse the liquid with smokiness and brown coloration. Some distillers even add caramel coloring after the fact to get the hue just right.
Since moonshine is pretty easy to make, it was a staple during Prohibition. Also, moonshine has a higher alcohol content, so individuals can get drunk faster.
How to Make Corn Liquor
Distilling spirits at home does take some education and research to learn how to do it; before attempting to make your own you should spend adequate time researching and learning how to do it properly and safely. The following is merely a guide that shows the process of making corn liquor so that enthusiasts can understand the care and attention to detail involved. Also, the distillation process requires some unique machinery and equipment which is not usually readily available to the average consumer.
That said, let’s see how to make corn liquor from scratch.
What You’ll Need to Make Corn Liquor
- Mash Pot (Min 8-Gal Size)
- Fermentation Bucket
- Stove or Fire Pit
- Brewer’s Thermometer
- Stirring Spoon
- 8.5 Pounds of Flaked Corn Maize
- 1.5 Pounds of Crushed Malted Barley
- 5 Gallons of Water
Step One: Heat Your Water
Put the water into your pot and bring the temperature to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. It helps to have a brewer’s thermometer because it will be much more accurate. Also, while you can use an open flame, a stovetop is preferable because you can make the heat level more consistent. Distilleries use large pots and steam boilers to deliver precise results. If the water is too hot or cold, it can affect the mash.
Step Two: Stir In the Flaked Corn
Once the water reaches 165 degrees, turn off the heat source and add the flaked corn mixture. Stir it in as you pour so that it doesn’t clump or stick together too much. Once it’s all in the water, stir for seven minutes. Again, professional distilleries utilize large stirring sticks to make their mash as smooth and consistent as possible.
After seven minutes, check the temperature of the mash. Stir for 30 seconds every five minutes until the concoction has cooled to 152 degrees Fahrenheit.
Step Three: Add Crushed Barley
Once the mixture is at 152, stir in the crushed barley. Be sure to mix it slowly and steadily to blend the barley and corn well. You’ll need to stir for 30 seconds every 20 minutes until the mix cools to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Be aware that this process can take several hours. Distilleries use machines and immersion coolers to speed up the process and ensure a smoother mixture. As you might imagine, it gets pretty tiring to do all of this manually.
Step Four: Add Yeast
The best option is to create a yeast starter before adding it to your mash. Doing this ensures the yeast is active before it touches the corn and barley, speeding up the fermentation process. To make a yeast starter, add one tablespoon of yeast to water heated to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, add one teaspoon of sugar. Stir thoroughly until both the yeast and sugar are mixed. Do this shortly before your mash is about to reach 70 degrees.
Step Five: Aerate Your Mash
Dump the mash into a container, then pour it into another container. Do this for several minutes to add air into the mash. This step helps the yeast work more efficiently, so you get a better yield. Again, distilleries often use machines for aeration to save themselves the hassle.
Step Six: Strain Your Mash
The solids are now waste – all you want is the remaining liquid. Put cheesecloth over a bucket and strain your mix slowly and thoroughly. Squeezing the mash into the cloth extracts more liquid, creating a better yield. You can find ways to reuse your mash, such as in a compost pile or as a starter for sour mash. Or you can just toss it into the trash.
Step Seven: Start Fermentation
You can ferment your liquid for up to three weeks. During this period, it’s important not to move it or disturb it at all. You’ll notice the mixture bubbling and foaming – that’s normal.
It’s essential to seal your fermentation container so that no more air gets inside. If it does, it can throw off the process and yield unpleasant results. Once your liquid is in a fermentation container, seal it with a stopper and wrap the top with some plastic sheeting. Also, make sure you leave plenty of room in the container for off-gassing. If you fill in all the way, it could explode.
Step Eight: Distill Your Corn Liquor
For distillation, you need a pot still and heater. This process itself is relatively complex, but we’ll break down the basic steps here to understand how corn whiskey is made.
- First, you need to siphon your liquid (also called a wash) into the still. You do this to remove all the sediment and particles left over from fermentation.
- Next, you heat the still according to the manufacturer’s recommendations for about an hour. Overheating the wash can give it a burnt and unpleasant flavor.
- Once the wash reaches between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll turn on the condenser. This piece captures the steam rising from the boiling wash and cools it back into a liquid. You’ll see it drip out of the spout. You have to remove at least the first 1/4 cup of liquid because it will have methanol and other volatile compounds. This amount is called the head.
- After disposing the head, you can capture the rest of your wash and bottle it. If you’re planning to age the corn liquor, you’ll pour it from a container into a wooden cask. During the collection process, the still temperature should be between 175 and 185 degrees.
- Once the still reaches 205 degrees, you’re at the end of the wash. Dispose of the remaining liquid (the tails), as they contain oils that can contaminate your liquor.
- If you’re planning to drink the liquor without aging it, you should dilute it with water to cut down the sharp flavor. Unaged corn liquor will also have a higher alcohol content because none of it has evaporated.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, making corn liquor is a pretty straightforward but time-consuming process. So, next time you buy a bottle off the shelf, you can appreciate the effort that went into making it. You can also give thanks to the pioneers who discovered how to distill liquor and whiskey so that we may enjoy it today. Who knows how many poor souls drank the heads and tails of whiskey and paid the price of a terrible-tasting beverage.