The moonshine vodka stories in Russia as reported in the West are always the same horror tales of cheap home-made hard spirits for alcoholics, laced with all sorts of deadly (and odd) ingredients resulting in many deaths. While such tragedies do occur here and there, Western Journalists (like in this report) always depict part of the picture and I think that Samogon (as moonshine vodka is named in Russian) deserves a better and more balanced coverage.
This is the central part of the Samogon [moonshine] kit : the boiler. It almost never has the same shape because it's often home made, I'd better say workshop made, as it has to be thick enough to stand the pressure. That's what you'll put on the fire.
The media loves the horror stories related with alcohol when looking for Russia stories because although a bit caricatural they're easier to outline and they spare the lengthy analysis and nuanced approach needed for this very ancient and diverse world of moonshine alcohol in Russia. And these stories are certain to hit the right nerve on an otherwise easily-bored Western reader. But it is like reducing the french wine world to rioting high-yields-growers in the south of France: people love caricatures, especially when they are attached to countries they view as rivals, it helps maintain safe stereotypes. The reality on the terrain is more nuanced (I wonder if Moscow-based foreign journalists ever wander in the Russian hinterland...), I would even say that of what I learned here, the moonshine vodka is even at times of better quality that much of the vodka sold in the stores, and for one simple reason: Most of moonshine vodka is made for personal consumption, not for sale, and there's no harmful additive on any sort added in these personal vodkas like there can be in some industrial vodka sold on the market. The lethal samogon is always made for money by unscrupulous traffickers who want to make money with minimum effort, and add dangerous industrial products to that effect.
About the unit you see on this page, let's say that it was not for real, that it was just a free run for a few pictures...
As you can see, a Samogon, or moonshine-vodka unit is quite simple. The two main pieces were made and welded at home or at work, or by someone who makes them for money, and are often derived from other containers or tubes. You'll not find them in stores of course, but Russians will tell you, they are very widespread and easy to obtain. The boiler has usually a capacity from 10 to 20 liters, and the cooling unit is usually about 25 cm long with a diameter of about 10 cm, and can be round or square. All you need is some flexible tubes to connect all that, a cold water tap in the vicinity to have cold water run through the encased alambic, and a jar to collect the alcohol. You can do it outdoors like here, or in the kitchen, on the gas stove. I guess you thought some complicated, devilesque machinery à la Dr Frankenstein was needed to make Vodka. Nope. As simple as what you see here, easy out/easy in...
Let's recapitulate: after you got your fermented brew ready (it can be bread with sugar and yeasts, or any fruits or bay), usually the fermenting stage being 10 or 12 days, you pour the fermented mixture in the boiler, seal it and connect it to the alambic (cooling part) with a flexible tube. Then you connect a cold-water tap to one end of the cooling unit, and the other end to the sink or like here, to a bucket (and of course you set the fire or the gas stove on). It's more convenient to do that on a kitchen stove, but the system works fine outdoor also, as it is demonstrated today.
The water and the fumes/alcohol-condensation go separate ways inside the cooler and never mix. The last thing is to connect the alambic to the receiving container. This is where the condensed alcohol will fall drop by drop, and it is usually this very common 3-liter glass jar that Russians use to can the vegetables and fruits that they all grow in their garden in the countryside. It takes a couple of hours, not much more, to have your 3-liter jar full with a 50° Samogon. Thanks to the cooling system, it's not even hot, ready to be served. The following steps, though (filtering and/or adding of a few bays for a few days for aroma) are very important to obtain an excellent and pure Samogon.
This was at about the same time we made this moonshine experiment, my friends wanted to go swimming in this small river which for some reason was one of the coldest I ever had. I caught a cold the following days after having forced myself twice to immerge fully into this Siberian stream. Got cured by herbes and a strong medicine against angina named "Stop Angin" (СТОПАНГИН), this thing kills your throat !