There’s a Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this blog, so if you’re in a hurry just scroll all the way down for the quick and dirty version. Just remember, making moonshine with a pot still is really an art that you’ll hone with practice. The temperatures here are great guidelines, but the more you distill, the more you’ll be able to decide when to make your cuts based on your own taste and aroma preferences.
When it comes to making moonshine with a pot still, you’ll hear people talk about “making cuts.” A cut is basically where you start and stop collecting your distillate. When distilling, you always want to collect in many separate glass containers, like the classic Mason jar, because the alcohol content and flavor changes throughout the distillation process. It also helps to label and number each jar because that will help you at the end of the process when you get to blending. Where you make your cuts and how you blend your finished product has everything to do with the taste and purity of your moonshine.
The first stuff that comes out of the still is the bad stuff. The foreshots contain methanol and other poisons that you don’t want in your product. Not only do foreshots contain very little ethanol, but they’re also the reason why you get that headache when you’re hungover. So this is what you want to collect—and then discard.
You’ll collect the foreshots until your vapor temperature reaches about 175°F (80°C), and Rick recommends collecting at least 4 ounces per 5 gallons that you’re distilling. This would be at least 5.2 ounces for a 6.5 gallon batch, or 10.4 ounces for a 13 gallon run. Again, this is what we recommend as a minimum to collect and discard. Someone else might say you can get away with collecting less, but we just don’t think it’s worth it.
Next up is the heads, which you can save for blending or for re-distilling later. The vapor temperature will be over 175°F (80°C) when the heads start coming, and it will continue up until the vapor temp reads about 196°F (91°C). Heads usually clock in at around 80% abv (160 proof) and above. They’re high in proof but aren’t quite as smooth as the hearts, which will come next.
This is the sweet spot. Hearts, also known as your Middle Run, start at around 80% abv (160 proof) before falling to 60-65% abv, or even 40% abv if you prefer. Hearts give you that clean taste you’re looking for. You’ll start collecting hearts at a vapor temperature of around 196°F (91°C) and finish at around 203°F (95°C).
Tails are the last part of your distillate, constituting anything that comes out once your vapor temp reaches 203°F (95°C) - 207°F/208°F (97°C/98°C). Although some people choose to use some of their tails for blending, Rick doesn’t recommend using tails “as-is” for drinkable alcohol due to their combination of reduced alcohol content and increased congener content. However, you can always combine the tails with the heads that you’re not using and re-distill them as neutral spirits.