Saturday, March 08, 2008

Grandpa Orlov's Vodka Recipe

Sharon Astyk is running a month-long series on food storage, and, as it is an excellent idea to start learning how to grow and preserve your own food, I highly recommend that you get with her program. Even if you do not grow your own food, buying it in bulk, when it is in season, and preserving it yourself, will save you money and allow you to take a step in the direction of self-sufficiency.

Now, "Man doth not live by bread alone..." [Deut. viii. 3] This becomes especially apparent at the onset of cocktail hour, and, in circumstances both dire and not-so-dire, having a source of home-made "spiritual sustenance" can often spell the difference between miserable company and amiable companionship.

When it comes to food, waste is a fact of life. Almost always, there is fruit left rotting on the vine or on the ground, and it usually goes straight into the compost. But there is something more useful that can be done with it: it can be made into alcohol. Anything that has sugar in it can be fermented and distilled.

For years, my father made vodka in our kitchen in an apartment in Leningrad, using the technique I am about to describe. This made him a popular man: he would pour it into brand-name bottles and bring them to parties. Most people probably just wondered how he managed to get his hands on such fancy imported booze. Due to certain official restrictions, the fact that it was moonshine was communicated on a need-to-know basis. And since the substance in question was effectively identical to the brand-name substance (alcohol is alcohol) plausible deniability was maintained.

Store-bought alcohol, with the possible exception of certain low-grade products, is made from high-quality inputs: grains, grapes, and so forth. But here is the shocking good news: you can make excellent quality vodka, something you can proudly serve in a martini glass, out of stuff that would otherwise go into compost. The key fact is that vodka is just alcohol diluted with water; the better the vodka, the more pure the alcohol. Its good taste does not come from the ingredients that were used to make it but from the complete lack thereof in the final product.

To make it, whatever it is you can get your hands on (rotting apples, pears, grapes, berries, and so forth) is mashed and soaked in hot (but not boiling) water to dissolve out the sugars. The result is strained, to get rid of the solids, then boiled to kill everything in it and poured into a large bucket with a tight-fitting lid. After it cools to luke-warm, yeast is "pitched" into it and an airlock (bubbler) is placed on top. Any book on making wine or beer will tell you how to measure and adjust specific gravity, to make sure that wild yeast (which can cause runaway frothing) is kept out, and that fermentation has a chance to runs to completion before the yeast gets too drunk to do its work.

After the bucket is allowed to sit for some weeks in a warm place, the result can be distilled. Distillation requires some equipment, such as a pressure cooker fitted with some sort cooling apparatus (glass or metal tubing submerged in cold water) to turn alcohol vapor into condensate before it escapes. Again, there are plenty of resources, on the web and in the library, on how to do this.

Now, here is the magic step that turns cloudy, stinky, low-grade moonshine into something that is indistinguishable from Stolichnaya, Finlandia, Absolut, or any other high-quality commercial vodka. Sprinkle in potassium permanganate crystals (available in bulk from pool supply stores) and agitate until the liquid turns slightly pink. Label it "Poison!" to make sure nobody drinks it, and let it stand overnight. (It's won't kill you if you drink it, but it will wipe out your intestinal fauna and give you really bad diarrhea, so it's important to make sure that nobody drinks it at this stage. If some fool does drink it, just feed him some yogurt or acidophilus tablets, plus something for the fierce hangover.)

A day or so later, the solution will no longer be pink (or toxic), but it will be cloudy, and there will be some dark precipitate at the bottom. Take a funnel, pack it with cotton, lay down a layer of charcoal (either commercially available activated charcoal or wood charcoal knocked off a partially burned log), and pack it down tight. Drip the distillate through the filter, changing the stuffing every gallon or so. The result will be clear and have no taste or smell other than the taste and smell of alcohol. Add water to bring it to 80 or 100 proof, and consume responsibly.

Bon appetit!


jewishfarmer said...

Oh, how cool is this. Not only is Dmitry Orlov saying nice things about me, but I get to learn how to make vodka! Now *that's* useful information.


Anonymous said...

This is also very illegal under our current regulatory environment. Consider building a still and applying for an "Alcohol Fuels Producer" permit to legally distil ethanol for fuel use. Ethanol is 96% alcohol 4% water before the water is separated out and the mix is denatured (usually with a little gasoline) to make it undrinkable. After TEOTWAWKI, you skip the steps to denature the ethanol and remove the water and instead mix with water to achieve the desired proof. Also, if you design and use your reflux still properly at the correct operating temperature, you don't need the potassium permanage step - the reflux still separates the alcohol from all of the essential oils and flavors.

Dmitry Orlov said...

To my mind, alcohol fuels are a dumb idea. Another dumb idea is brewing and selling moonshine. Yet another dumb idea is getting a license to do something if you don't want anyone to know that you are doing it.

As far as the regulatory environment, a useful data point is that the Bolsheviks tried to outlaw moonshine as well, but they certainly didn't stop my father. What he did was extremely low risk.

The point is, if the substance cannot be proven to be moonshine, because it tastes like brand-name vodka and is served in a brand-name vodka bottle, then there is no crime. To fool even a spectrograph, mix it with a bit of the real brand name stuff, to introduce trace amounts of this and that.

As far as skipping the permanganate step and just tweaking the still, it will produce something chemically acceptable, but the palate is far too sensitive. For those who know their vodka, the difference is quite easy to discern. And if your still is as cheaply made and technologically primitive as possible (a pressure cooker on a wood stove with the valve opening fitted to a condenser coil from an old fridge that's immersed in a pan of water is sufficient), there is no hope of tweaking it.

Anonymous said...

You neglected to mention discarding the "head" when distilling. This would be about the first 50cc of condensate to be produced if you were using a pressure cooker based pot still.

The head contains contains Methanol, Acetyl aldehyde, Ethyl Acetate, Fusel oils and other toxic or at least foul tasting stuff not wanted in the final product.

If you include this step the need for permanginate can probably be skipped.

Also, be aware that as a strong oxidizer with "other uses" purchases of permanginate are probably now being tracked, or will be soon, in these "secure" times.

Jon said...

I remember hearing that my grandmother ran her own still during prohibition (Didn't everyone’s?) She probably used the ubiquitous crab apples in her back yard, they were good for nothing else, after all, and boiled the wort on her kerosene kitchen stove.

They knew how to have fun back then.


Anonymous said...

This is great-I'm trying to malt some grains as I type! At least beer brewing is legal.

If this interests you, look up "solar stills" before you invest much time and money in this. I'd probably burn myself with a wood-fired still. Also, invest in a thermometer. Until the wood-fired still gets to 173 F (I think) what comes off is contaminated with methanol and other undesirables. I'm still doing research on solar stills, but they may not get that hot or do as good a job concentrating ethanol as the pressure cooker on the wood stove.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Useful comments!

Yes, potassium permanganate is, in the US, considered a crystal meth precursor chemical, and there are some efforts to track and control its distribution. But it is widely available all over the world, and you don't need a lot of it.

No, you can't get good-tasting vodka with just a reflux still. It will taste like cheap vodka. The permanganate and charcoal filter step is essential.

If you don't have access to some sort of heat that can be accurately adjusted (propane, natural gas, or electrical hot plate) you can still set the still temperature accurately if you use a water jacket (put the pressure cooker in a lobster pot full of water). The still temperature is lower than the boiling temperature of water. It is between the boiling temperatures of ethanol and of water.

Do throw away everything that comes out while the still is getting up to working temperature, and then some, because that's the stuff hangovers come from (and worse).

A thermometer and a hydrometer are both required equipment. You can make your own hydrometer (my father did). Or you can get the whole kit at a beer brewing place.

And, of course, don't make anything in commercial quantities, lest you let yourself be known as a commercial sort of person. During the Prohibition, it was known as the "bucket business." I do not advocate anyone becoming a bucket businessman.

Anonymous said...

Dmitri - You just qualified for my recipe for hard cider. Buy jugs of unpasturized cider. Pour some out so it won't boil over. Put the cap back on so that one side is slightly open to let air out. Set for about 3 weeks or longer at room temperature. Store in a cool place for around a month or more. Carefully pour out what you need until you get to the dregs. Use the dregs like brewer's yeast in soups and stews or pour some down your drain if you have a septic system. Occasionally a batch has a vinegary taste. Sweeten, mull, or use as vinegar. Most batches are delicious, low in sugar, high in vitamins C & B's. Small amounts are a health drink. Large amounts give a buzz like wine without the sulfites. It is legal unless you leave it in a very cold place, freeze it, and pour off the concentrate. So don't do that.

Anonymous said...

just brew beer or make wine. There are several easy to make kits availiable. I've been making both beer and wine for years, it's easy, fun and the results are fantastic!! I never buy beer or wine anymore!!!

Jon said...

I brew beer using kits from the local brew emporium. It’s not bad and a lot of fun in the process. When I was a mere barley sprout in eastern Connecticut, my Ukrainian grandfather (Not quite Russian, Dmitry, but close) taught me how to make wine out of the concord grapes on his farm. It was as bad as it sounds, but hey, it was booze (just barely.) My father taught me how to brew beer, like they did on his childhood farm in Kansas. It was awful. Now my daughter and I have deep discussions about permaculture and society over 15 year old scotch.

I guess we’d better adjust our tastes soon.


Unknown said...

Where I live in Alpine Slovenia it's an epidemic. I used to think all those apple trees were for food. Silly me! Along comes autumn and with it the spectacle of the nation's five- and six-year-olds pottering around the countryside getting rid of buckets of fruit slops, and smoke pouring out of enigmatic sheds. Some weeks later the results are forthcoming in every house - as far as I can see - except mine. Next year will be different, just you wait and shee. Apparently my neighbours also have to water their fruit schnapps down from 80% alcohol on the first distillation. Not that I'm calling you guys wimps you understand...

Anonymous said...


Thank you. I am reminded of my late & loved father who would say "Vodka is vodka!" He was a gin man. His recipe for a gin martini: ice, cheap gin, 2 olives, a dab of vermouth behind each ear, and a splash under each armpit. He was a practical man, and would have cheered your idea about the bottles. (I remember him making beer, wine, and rootbeer in his cellar "office".)

Hallie Flanagan

Anonymous said...

I am surprised at the lack of motivation on people's part to better prepare themselves for what has arrived.

Perhaps some more shocking to the system will need to take place, and when people can no longer afford to simply buy their consumables, they will start learning the steps to make things more on their own.

The problem, I feel, is that people are still slaving away trying to keep money flowing. I wonder what the trends are for people who have been laid off?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post kollapsnik! I am considering taking the family still (a 90 year old copper boiler) out of the garden this summer and attempt again to use it for it's intended purpose. As for the final filtering, do you think a Brita type pitcher would work as well as your described method?

Anonymous said...

Memo to me: must build still. If I can make gin from compost I will never leave the house.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that using Ozone would also work like the oxidizer.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing about the Brita comment....

A colleague of mine recently mentioned making bad vodka taste good by running it through a Brita.

Anonymous said...

Pretty good NYT article on home distilling.

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Anonymous said...

to all:

excuse my english :)

to Dmitry Orlov:

Greetings from St-Petersburg! (not a motherland of Tom Sawer, but the cradle of three russian revolutions :)

You topics about coming collapse of US are great! Very structurized and good style is also present.

But this topic about Grandpa's Orlov vodka is a headshot!!! It is mother***ing cool!

It reminds me one chapter from "Zolotoy telyonok" ("The Golden Taurus") satyric nowell, then the main character Ostap Bender learn american guys, exosted by The Dry Law, how to produce self-made vodka, or "pervatch". Hey, Dmitry, to keep the 100% coincidence you must attach layout of compact home-assembling vodka machine :)

But let's talk seriously.

Dmitry's crysis survival advisory is realy useful for present generation. Why? Because then USSR collapsed the generation born in 20-s were still alive. And the memory of hard times was still alive. This generation passed through The Great Motherland War (WWII) and reconstruct USSR in the hardest hunger and poorness. So they really know how to survive "from kitchen gardens". And they pass their experience for theis kids and grandkids. My grandma always said at 90-s: "it's a bullshit in compare of war times!". But US have no "historical memory" of hard times. I don't think, many of people, who remember The Great Depression times are still alive. At least three generations of US people have carelessly life without serious troubles.

So, my dear US friends, listen to Grandpa Dmitry and dont forget to make summary from his topics.

P.S. by the way, this summary must be in printed form, because then collapse will come, you'll be not able to pay for internet and electricity as well.

Anonymous said...

For those with only high school chemistry, what is the permanganate doing? Breaking down more complex alcohols? Into what?

Could you substitute food grade hydrogen peroxide?

Anonymous said...

Re: Chemistry

Permanganate is a very strong oxidizing agent, and will react to break down the undesirable aldehydes, ketones and assorted other stuff into less offensive compounds that are easier to filter out with the charcoal. Peroxide may be *too* strong an oxidizing agent, running rampant through the solution trashing your lovely -OH groups and converting them to carboxylic acids; not the optimum outcome, if the optimum outcome is preserving the alcohols and getting rid of the rest.

Anonymous said...

Wow!that's'll be a big hit with beer & wine lover people. Although I'm to a big fan of Vodka brand liquor.thank you for share your post.