Distillation Column Packing 101

Distillation Column Packing 101

Posted by Mary on May 27th 2015

We’ve received a lot of questions about distillation column packing in your moonshine still so I thought I’d write a blog about it. Here, I’m comparing copper mesh and ceramic Raschig Rings, which are the two primary types of column packing used in small-scale distillation in a moonshine still. Note that you would not use either of these types of packing in a flute column because the flute column uses copper bubble plates, which eliminates the need for any other type of column packing. If you need to learn more about flute column packing, check out this blog under Section 2, bullet point 2.

What’s Better For My Moonshine Still: Copper Mesh or Ceramic Raschig Rings?

This is a matter of preference as well as what you’re distilling in your moonshine still.

Copper mesh is great for reflux distilling, plus the copper reacts with the sulfur compounds formed during fermentation. So the copper helps to eliminate these sulfur compounds from your distillate, which is important when you’re distilling beverage-grade alcohol (where legal) in a moonshine still. The downside to copper mesh is that it does have a shelf life, so you will need to replace it from time to time. You also need to clean it regularly with vinegar. We’ve had several people call in the past who couldn’t figure out why they were getting a foul-tasting product only to reveal that they had NEVER cleaned their copper mesh! EVER! This is the stuff that your vapor passes through, so if you want a clean distillate, you’ll also want to use clean column packing.

Ceramic Raschig Rings are also great for all reflux-type distillation in your moonshine still, including alcohol (where legal). Raschig Rings are also overall better for distilling things like water and essential oils, which require more of an inert type of packing. Unlike with copper mesh, you don’t have to worry about packing the column too tightly, which can cause choking. Choking is when there’s not enough room for the vapor to rise and the refluxing liquid to descend in the column. The ceramic also possesses a greater surface area because of its porous nature, so that combined with the Raschig Rings’ incapacity to cause choking can actually make it easier to attain higher purity distillate than the copper mesh. Raschig Rings are also really easy to clean because you can just use some equipment cleaner—plus, they pretty much last forever. Well, at least until you lose them.

However, Raschig Rings aren’t without their disadvantages either. You’ll need to use them in a distillation column that has a way to hold them in place, such as a screen at the bottom of the lower column portion, so they don’t just fall straight through. This is true for any type of loose column packing, so if you do want to go with Raschig Rings, make sure your distillation column is equipped for it.

How Do I Pack My Distillation Column With Copper Mesh?

1. When you receive a bag of copper mesh, it’s usually in a 30-ft strip. You’re going to cut and roll it to create a kind of mesh “plug” or “roll.” To create a plug for a standard-sized column (2” in diameter), you’ll need to cut a piece about 4 feet long, whereas you’ll need about a 10-foot long strip for a high capacity column (3” in diameter).

2. After you’ve cut your mesh to the length you need, lay it out on the ground. Then loosely roll it up until you have a roll of copper mesh that’s approximately the diameter of your column, about 4-6” wide.

3. Slide this roll into your column. When you slide it into your column, be careful not to squish it too much because that’ll reduce the amount of void space, which is room for the vapor to rise in your column. So it shouldn’t be so tightly packed that you’re cramming it in there, but it also needs to fit snugly enough to hold itself in place.

4. Then cut another piece of copper mesh the same way and repeat the process to make another roll.

5. Make as many rolls as you need until you’ve filled the entire distillation column with copper mesh—both the upper AND lower parts of a 2-piece distillation column. Some people also like to cut small pieces of mesh to put around the cooling lines as well.

How Do I Pack My Distillation Column With Raschig Rings?

1. First, you’ll want to rinse them off with plain water (NO soap!) to remove any dust from packing, transportation, storage, etc. Your vapor is going to climb through these Raschig Rings, so you want them to be clean.

2. Make sure that your distillation column is already assembled. You’re just going to lean it to the side and slowly pour in the Raschig Rings. If any rings catch on the cooling lines on the way down, it’s fine to shake the column a bit to help them work their way to the bottom.

3. Only fill the column to about 1” below where your condenser attaches to the column of your moonshine still. That’s it!

How Much Copper Mesh Do I Need To Buy?

For a standard-sized column (2” diameter), such as the Essential Extractor Pro Series II, expect to use about 1 to 1 ½ bags of copper mesh (approx. 30ft.).

For a high-capacity column (3” diameter), such as the Essential Extractor PSII High Capacity, you’ll need 3-4 bags of copper mesh depending on how tightly you wrap it.

How Many Ceramic Raschig Rings Do I Need To Buy?

For a standard-sized column, you’ll need 1 ½ L of Raschig Rings.

For a high-capacity column, you’ll want to have 5 L of Raschig Rings.

Can I Use Both Raschig Rings and Copper Mesh Together?

Absolutely! The best way to do this is to put Raschig Rings in the column first and then cut up some little pieces of your copper mesh and put them in and around the cooling lines. If you do combine them, remember that Raschig Rings are heavy: If you put your copper mesh in first and THEN the Raschig Rings, it will completely block your column! So put your Raschig Rings in first and copper at the top. Side note: As an alternative to copper mesh, you could even hit up the plumbing department of your local hardware store and get a handful of copper couplings to toss in—you just want it to have some contact with copper to get the reaction in your moonshine still.

If you still have questions, feel free to contact us, and we'll be happy to help!