Book Review: The Compleat Distiller

February 4, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that distilling in the United States without a license is illegal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read up on the topic. However, libraries are not very keen on carrying books on the topic, and I find myself having to buy books. I was in at my local homebrew supply store, and we talked though some books, and I settled on buying The Compleat Distiller, second edition by Michael Nixon and Michael McCaw in 2004 out of New Zealand, where home distillation has been legal since 1996.

As far as the book goes, I chose this one because I wanted something technical with theories and whatnot. Chapter 1 kind of glosses over fermentation, simplifying it too much too quickly, but does talk a bit about doing high alcohol fermentations, as most yeasts die when the ABV gets high. Chapter 2 talks about how distillation works with a lot coming from high school chemistry class: vapor pressure, boiling points, mixtures and solutions, and some basic techniques. However, while I don’t really know how to distill, I’ve picked up that distilling has a head, heart, and tail, and you really only want to consume the heart as the other two contain undesirables such as fusel acohols. This chapter addresses fusel alcohols by telling you to send your distilled product though a filter! It isn’t until many chapters later that it even talks about trying to separate heads and tails out so that the fusels wouldn’t be there in the first place. To me, it should have been back with the science, so while the book is very informative, it is clunky.

It is a very technical book. It talks about using different styles of stills, boilers, and condensers. It talks about equiment design, things you can build yourself, operating procedures, making essential oils, and designing a workshop. The last chapter is “The science behind the curtain.” This is some intense chemistry, talking about atoms and molecules, moles and mols, molecular structures, avogadro, volumes of vapors, mol fractions, Dalton’s Law for Gases, Raoult’s Law for Liquids (boiling of mixtures), saturated vapor pressures, latent heat vaporization, logarithms, Clausius-Clapeyron Equation, Antoine Equation, Equilibrium Curves, azeotropes, reflux, and much more.

This is indeed an intense science book about distilling, but I have a feeling it is light when it comes to types of equipment or recipes, and therefore should not have been titled “compleat.” I should note that it is written in both metric and US measurements, though most measuring, testing, and taxation I have observed in the alcohol world is done in metric.

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One Response to “Book Review: The Compleat Distiller”


  1. […] warning: Distilling in the United States is illegal without a license. It is, however, completely legal to study the topic. That […]


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