The fabled liquor of outlaws and gangsters is making a comeback with craft distillers. Too bad it's still illegal
Topics: Life News
Standing in the middle of the room at the Sweetwater Distillery in Petaluma, Calif., Bill Owens held a feedbag full of stale donuts high in the air. With a crowd gathered around him, he dumped its contents — chocolate glazed, jelly-filled, iced with sprinkles — into a tank filled with hot water and plunged an industrial mixer into the liquid, splattering warm, sticky bits onto anyone who stood too close. A dog wandered up and began licking the floor.
Owens is the president of the American Distilling Institute, an organization devoted to educating people about the art and science of distilled spirits. His audience was a group of about 25 who’d come from as far away as Maine and Tennessee to spend a week learning the basics of making whiskey, from developing a mash and running a still to bottling the alcohol and testing its proof.
Whiskey, it’s worth noting, is usually made from grain. But Owens, a natural showman, was taking advantage of the fact that you can create alcohol from any ingredient that contains or breaks down into sugar, from meal to fruit to, yes, doughnuts. After adding yeast — which digests the sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide — you run the fermented mash through a still, which uses heat to separate and collect the ethanol. Owens was confident that the breakfast pastry mash would produce alcohol. The question was: What would it taste like?
Like unaged whiskey with a hint of doughnut, it turned out. But I hadn’t come to Owens’ workshop for cruller whiskey, per se. I was there to learn more about homemade hooch. As anyone who’s recently attempted to smoke their own bacon or pickle their vegetables can attest, America is in the midst of a do-it-yourself craze, inspired partially by the recession, partially by the local food movement, and partially by the same culinary derring-do that brought us the turducken. So why not homemade spirits? Most commercial distillers focus on the basics, like vodka and whiskey, but there are countless other distillations waiting to be made, from applejack and peach brandy to tangerine schnapps.
I’ll tell you why not: Distilling homemade spirits is a felony. Unlike wine or beer, which you’re allowed to make at home for personal use, making any sort of untaxed spirit on an unlicensed still remains very much illegal, punishable by a federal fine of up to $10,000 and five years in jail for each offense, plus state penalties. Bill Owens was getting away with his jelly doughnut whiskey because he was making it on a registered still. But if I were to do the same thing at home, I’d go from making whiskey to making moonshine.
Moonshine. The word evokes visions of a 1920s gangster with a gun in one pocket and a flask in the other, a hillbilly whose backwoods still is decorated with Confederate flags. Both images have truth, but moonshine itself is not particularly sinister — while it most often refers to whiskey, it’s just a catch-all term for any spirit that’s untaxed and illegally distilled. The word comes from the ideal conditions in which to make it: A moonlit night just bright enough to see what you’re doing but dark enough that it’s easy to hide.
The laws against moonshine might be a vestige of Prohibition, but the most likely explanation for the government’s recalcitrance is taxes: It collects $2.14 per 750 milliliter bottle of 80 proof alcohol, versus only 21 cents for the same size bottle of standard wine and a paltry 5 cents per can of beer. Getting a distilling license can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and requires so much hassle and paperwork that few individual distillers find it worth the effort — after all, they just want to drink the stuff, not sell it (which would turn them into bootleggers). So instead, they just make ‘shine.
We usually associate moonshine’s heyday with Prohibition — but the biggest moonshine bust in the United States actually occurred in 2001, when an eight-year crackdown called “Operation Lightning Strike” resulted in the arrest of more than two dozen people in a corn liquor operation that stretched from Raleigh, N.C., to Philadelphia; the group had dodged almost $20 million in taxes on 1.5 million gallons of alcohol. (Unaged whiskey frequently ends up in inner-city bars.) Just last month, a man pleaded guilty in a federal court to running a moonshine still on an undeveloped island in the middle of the Pasquotank River in North Carolina. And this July, a Virginia man was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $217,795 in federal taxes for making about 16,000 gallons of moonshine — enough to fill a 14-by-28-foot swimming pool more than 5 feet deep with booze.
When it comes to small-time home distillers, though, enforcement of this rule is more lax than it used to be. Gone are the days when, as one 86-year-old Kansas farm boy told me, government planes used to search out backwoods stills from the air. “In the 1970s and 1980s, when firearms and explosives became hotter issues, the alcohol work became less and less of a priority,” said Art Resnick, director of public and media affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. “To this day, it continues to be done primarily by states.” And since states’ own priorities rarely involve busting people for 3-gallon stills of whiskey, most small-time moonshiners don’t get caught.
They also aren’t likely to get poisoned or go blind — that’s a reputation left over from Prohibition, when unscrupulous bootleggers used dangerous contaminants to speed their fermentation process or increase their alcohol’s proof. Sure, it’s best not to buy ‘shine from strangers, and you want to avoid obviously stupid techniques, like stills that use lead-soldered car radiators as condenser coils. You also need to be sure to discard the first part of your run — it’s more likely to contain methanol, the stuff that, when drunk in large enough quantities, can damage your vision. And trust your senses: If it smells or tastes bad, it probably is.
The biggest danger in making moonshine actually comes from the still itself — you are, after all, boiling a highly flammable liquid, often over an open flame. “I once made the mistake of turning on the propane and then digging in my pocket for the lighter,” wrote one moonshiner on a popular site called homedistiller.org, in a discussion thread titled “Tell us about your mistakes.” “Needless to say my beard and eye brows grew back, but at least I didn’t have to worry about nose hairs for a while.”
However, if you follow safety precautions — and keep a fire extinguisher close — you can avoid most hazards. It also helps to have a good still. Some moonshiners make their own (you can find instructions online), but if you don’t already have experience as a metal worker, it’s easier to just call the Colonel.
Col. Vaughn Wilson lives in Arkansas and is one of America’s best-known builders of high-quality copper stills. (A self-proclaimed history buff, he also makes cannons.) His first experience making moonshine involved rigging some of his mother’s cooking equipment into an impromptu kitchen still, an experiment that ended poorly when his parents came home early to find him cooking whiskey over the stove.
Years later, he made his first real still, using his experience at a forge to make a primitive version out of copper from the transformer company where he worked. “It was godawful ugly, but I put it on eBay and sold the thing,” he said. His technique gradually improved, and these days he estimates he’s made between 500 and 1,000 stills — he doesn’t know exactly because, much to the chagrin of the Treasury Department, which is allowed to demand a list of customers’ names and addresses, he doesn’t keep records.
When it comes to his own business, though, the Colonel isn’t shy. His Web site, coppermoonshinestills.com (warning, there’s music), contains not just numerous photos of his handiwork but pictures of the Colonel, two phone numbers, his e-mail address, his real address and several maps in case you get lost. Despite his brazenness, the government still hasn’t successfully gotten a warrant for his arrest — the Colonel has defended himself through an insistence on the gold standard and a creative interpretation of the Constitution that is available, should you wish to learn more, on his Web site’s “Beat the law ‘how to’ guide.”
What the Colonel does remember about his customer base still gives a sense of how widespread moonshining continues to be in the United States. Most of the Colonel’s customers live in Southeastern states long associated with homemade whiskey and a distaste for federal government — areas that still produce large amounts of unaged whiskey known as “likker” or “white dog.” But the Colonel recently sent his first still to Utah and estimates that with the exception of a few in the Northeast, he’s shipped stills to nearly every state in the Union.
That’s because modern moonshiners are more diverse than you might expect. Mostly male, homedistiller.org’s users include everyone from chemists and carpenters to software developers, mechanics, engineers, farmers, lawyers, accountants, chefs, bartenders — even a retired archaeologist. According to Camper English, author of the cocktail and spirit blog Alcademics, these next-generation moonshiners have different motivations than Southern pride or sticking it to the man. “It’s more about culinary experimentation than it is about cheap hooch,” he says. “They’re trying to make something you can’t find on store shelves.”
While in some ways these moonshiners are starting a trend, what they’re doing also has strong historical roots. Home-distilled alcohol in America far predates Prohibition — early colonists loved rum and applejack, and whiskey became popular in the 1700s, especially in remote areas where it was difficult to transport grain to markets. Sure, distilled spirits always had their detractors — in the 19th century, temperance advocates liked to quote medical journals that claimed heavy drinking could cause you to spontaneously burst into flames. But from peach brandy to rye whiskey, a wide variety of high-quality homemade spirits were being made across the country.
And then came Prohibition. Not only did the 14-year, near-total ban on making and selling alcohol fail to prevent many people from buying and drinking it (which, incidentally, Prohibition did not prohibit) — but it gave home-distilled spirits a bad name that they’re still struggling to shake. That’s because once a black market developed for alcohol, the emphasis switched from quality to quantity. Bootleggers souped up their products with everything from methanol and acid to embalming fluid and horse manure, which, besides occasionally being poisonous, also made the alcohol taste bad — in fact, the poor flavor of Prohibition moonshine helped encourage the popularity of mixers and cocktails.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, the quality of America’s spirits improved, but only recently have people begun resurrecting some of the more unusual spirits that died off during Prohibition. That was a surprise to Matthew Rowley, author of the blog Whiskey Forge, who came across a startling array of spirits as he was writing his book “Moonshine!” “The people who are distilling their own spirits at home these days are making some pretty interesting stuff,” says Rowley, who has sampled dozens of homemade creations, from New Orleans absinthe to New Jersey applejack, Oregon grappa and Michigan sour cherry brandy — all in the name of research, of course. “Who would have thought that 30 years ago? It’s an entirely different, additional demographic.”
I found a few of these next-generation moonshiners — some of whom prefer the term “craft distillers” — near my own home in Oakland, Calif. The first was “John Danger,” a bartender in San Francisco who got his start legally distilling botanicals in his kitchen, and then, as he puts it, “started doing stuff a little less legally.” After becoming entranced by a chocolate mint eau de vie he made in a small desktop still, he commissioned a metalworking friend to help him build a larger version. Danger nicknamed the new still “Frankie” (short for Frankenstein) and began running it over an open flame in his backyard in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood better known for its potheads than its pot stills.
After practice and a few well-placed bribes to neighbors, things went well until a gasket blew and spirits started leaking out of his still as he tried to pull whiskey out of an oatmeal mash that had taken four days to make. “It was really stupid,” he said, “knowing that if a different seal had broken or it started really spurting spirit and caught on fire, it would have been a flame thrower directed at my building.” Reluctant to sacrifice his precious mash, Danger attempted to stop the leak with his shirt, but after burning himself and failing to fix the problem, he had to resort to the fire extinguisher. Frankie is now out of commission, still caked in foam and crusted oatmeal. But Danger claims that some of his products were “blindingly good” (interesting choice of adjective) and doesn’t feel regret about breaking the law. “You can actually see, touch, smell and taste spirit being made,” he said. “While what I was doing was illegal, I wasn’t doing it for illegal purposes.”
That’s the general feeling among most home distillers. Instead, as Matthew Rowley explains, “The men and women who are making spirits today are just busting at the seams, proud of what they’ve done.”
That’s certainly true of Stephen and Brian, a chef and a winemaker who share a 10-gallon copper reflux still — made by the Colonel and nicknamed Bessie — in Napa, Calif. (We’ll leave out their last names, just in case the government is reading.) The scene is as far from “Deliverance” as you can imagine — Stephen lives on the grounds of a winery near a Dean & DeLuca, and welcomed me with glasses of white wine and a plate of hand-crafted salumi. But then Brian pulled out several tall, thin bottles labeled with yellow Post-it notes and filled with clear spirits — and immediately transformed himself from a law-abiding winemaker into a felon.
Brian’s easy access to fruit led him to specialize in brandies — apple brandy, grappa (made from the solids left over from pressing grapes) and, in a shout-out to his Slovenian heritage, a type of throat-searing plum brandy known as slivovitz. The distillations were strong, but they were also captivating, each releasing a unique fruity scent that I’d never experienced in a store-bought spirit. The pride on Brian’s face as he poured samples made the law seem that much more absurd — after all, if professionals like Brian were allowed to create and sell their own spirits, they’d be creating an entirely new (and entirely taxable) market. Consider absinthe: Illegal from 1912 till 2007, it is now a mainstay at upscale cocktail bars.
And yet, unfortunately for home distillers, the laws on moonshine seem unlikely to change any time soon . “The distillers don’t band together in public the way home brewers do,” says Rowley. “And until they get organized, you won’t see a change in legislation.” In the meantime there may be an upsurge in legit microdistilleries — and small distillers can sometimes rent time at licensed stills. But home distillers are trapped in a Catch-22: If they want legalization, they have to show their faces; but until home distillation is legalized, even relatively forthcoming distillers like Stephen and Brian will be forced to be secretive about their craft — sometimes to the point where it becomes an inside joke.
“I remember one time when I was running the still on the lawn outside my house,” said Stephen, “and some guy walked by on his way to the winery and asked what I was making.” Stephen wasn’t worried about getting arrested, but he also didn’t want to publicize the fact that he was distilling alcohol, so he resorted to an old fallback: purifying drinking water.
The visitor smiled.
“I live on an apple farm and I like to ‘purify’ my apple juice,” he said.
“After that,” said Stephen, “I knew we could talk.”
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