ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: What alcohol do you use to clean pipes and why

Blog by Steve Laug

I decided to write a few blogs to answer questions that different people have written or called me about. None of them will be long blogs; rather they will be short and to the point answers to the questions and some general rationale for why I do the things I do. The first of them addresses the question of what alcohol I use to clean the pipes that I work on. Some of the questions were direct and others were questioning my choice of alcohol. I chose to address both kinds of questions in this first blog. I will explain my choice and the reasons for that choice. My idea is not so much to justify my choices as to state them and explain the reasons for my choices. I don’t expect others to necessarily agree with me but I answer from my own best practices and preferences.

I have received so many private messages, emails or phone calls asking me about what kind of alcohol to use in cleaning pipes that I thought this would be a good place to start. The choice I have made is not based on ignorance. I have tried a lot of different alcohol products before settling in on the one that I now use all the time. I have read a lot of answers on the forums and different websites answering that same question. The answers are generally quite adamant in their claims to their preference of product. These answers have ranged from those who use Everclear to those who use Rum. The writers have argued their case for the alcohol of choice based on experience and preference. While some fit the gamut above there have been others who answered that they used their favorite Whiskeys, Bourbons and Scotches. I have even read of folks using moonshine and others using flavoured liqueurs to give their pipe a sweet taste. I have read those responses now for a long time and never bothered to answer or give my own opinion.

For me the answer is quite simple. I have chosen not to use an alcohol I would drink to clean out my pipe because I would rather drink it than waste it as a cleaning product. To me it has always seemed like a waste of a good drink to use it to clean my pipe. I am a bit of cheap skate so I hate to waste even a dram of something I enjoy on something it was not intended for. But beyond being cheap, I also don’t like cleaning my pipes with a product that has a high percentage of water in it. I want to use something that cleans and then evaporates without leaving behind moisture or a residual taste in either the stem or the shank of the pipe. When I smoke my pipe I do not want to taste some flavouring but I want to be able to taste various tobaccos that make up the blend that I am enjoying having to deal with the tastes of the product I cleaned the pipe with.

My decision was not made in a vacuum. I have tried each of the different alcohols I have mentioned above as well as various Pipe Sweeteners that have been sold over the years. After reading all of the much touted claims for Everclear I went to the US and purchased some to give it a try. It worked well and did leave a clean pipe, but it was not available here in Canada and I was not convinced that it was worth the effort to cross the border to purchase it. I tried a variety of high octane Rum and Whiskey (or Whisky) to clean out my pipes. It was okay but left the insides of the pipe wet for longer than I liked. It also did not do as good a job in my opinion as the Everclear did. I even tried some Maker’s Mark Bourbon because I had it here and happened to have been sipping it while working on pipes. I dipped a pipe cleaner in my glass even though it seemed like a real waste of good Bourbon and it did not work as well as the Everclear. It also left the internals wetter than I liked. I tried some Dewar’s Scotch and some other Scotch that I have enjoyed over the years and found the same issues. With each of the alcohols that I used above I had to follow up with a dry pipe cleaner to remove the moisture in the shank and airway. I was unsatisfied with the results and it seemed to make my work harder. I am not a big fan of flavoured liqueurs so I chose not to use them. They just seemed too sweet and sugary to my liking and I would have to clean out their taste to get a good smoke.  

There had to be something that would work as well as the Everclear, had a high percentage of alcohol versus water and was easy to obtain in Canada. I did some research online and talked with my pharmacist with regard to what I was looking for and the purposes I needed it. I have known her for quite a few years so I trust her recommendations. She suggested that I try using 99% isopropyl alcohol for thoroughly cleaning the pipes I was working on. It had a high percentage of alcohol so that it evaporated quickly and left behind no residue. It had a very low percentage of water, which meant it would not soak into the briar and leave behind moisture. It was flavourless, odorless and colourless so it would not leave behind a taste that would affect the tobacco. It sounded like the ticket. She said to make sure I purchased the 99% isopropyl, which was always stored behind the pharmacist’s counter, and not the one on the shelves which was 91%. With that recommendation, I figured it was worth a try. I picked up my first bottle of isopropyl and I have been using it ever since.

I have found that it works extremely well. I cleans deeply and evaporates quickly leaving behind no residue. I have used on pipes with extremely dirty mortises, shanks and airways and have been satisfied with its cleaning ability. I also use it in my retort and it boils quickly through the pipe and bowl without leaving behind any residue. It is a great universal cleaning agent and one I continually use for all the work that I do. That is what I use and what I recommend. Thanks for reading this.


7 thoughts on “ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: What alcohol do you use to clean pipes and why

  1. upshallfan

    Six years ago, I tried Everclear, than it became unavailable in my state, so I switched to 99% Isopropyl alcohol. I never noticed a difference in effectiveness, taste, etc., so even when Everclear was once again cleared for sale, I just stuck with the 99% isopropyl product for all the reasons you folks stated.

  2. Roland

    Hi Steve and all,

    For pipes with a real strong odour that even 99 % cannot deal with, I use vinegar for the final bowl deodorising . It evaporates like the alcohol and leaves smell nor taste.
    Trial and error .



  3. Charles Lemon

    I’m also in the 99% Isopropyl camp. It’s effective, inexpensive and readily available. What more could one ask? If only I could find a source of pipe cleaners equally as economical!

  4. Brian Harpring

    Everclear or equal proof labels are easily obtainable here in Kentucky. For the frequency I use it, it’s fine. If I were cleaning pipes that gunky on a regular basis I’d be looking for something more economical too. I never knew 99% Iso was kept behind the counter! Good to know.

  5. pipedreamersite

    Hi Steve, I haven’t been on for a few months as I’ve been pursuing other interests. I do save everything you, Charles and others have posted. Getting to the alcohol question, I use everclear or Graves grain alcohol at 95%. I find it works very well and understand the limited availability for most. I think you hit on the easiest and best solution. 99% isopropyl alcohol should evaporate with no lingering odor or taste. Most of us that can will use the grain alcohol because it is fit for human consumption (although I wouldn’t want to try it.). I don’t believe there is any toxic residue being left behind by the isopropyl, so it should be safe to use in pipe cleaning. The only other grain alcohol which really has no flavor or aroma that would linger would be a high quality and high proof Vodka. They are basically distilled to remove any residual flavor or smells. The higher the quality the purer the alcohol. I am not sure how high a proof you can get in Canada.

    Thanks for continually putting out the best in pipe restoration. Hope all is well with you and all the other contributors. I’ll be dropping in from time to time now that the weather is cooling off and my time outdoors is lessening.


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