White-Collar Moonshine

When he gets off work, John Sherwood, 28, makes whiskey. The culinary school graduate and café manager buys a type of processed corn at a home-brewing store, ferments it with water and yeast, and runs this “mash” through a still. He barrels the resulting corn liquor to age. He’s accumulated 20 gallons that he hopes will be transformed from hootch to mellow whiskey by New Year’s Eve 2009.

“I want to make a quality, higher-end whiskey—not like Jack Daniel’s,” says Sherwood, who, like the other home distillers interviewed for this story, asked that his real name and that of the large Northern California city in which he lives not be used, for fear of federal prosecution.


This moonshine still was bought legally and can be used for distilling water or essential oils.
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Moonshining, the criminal act of distilling your own spirits, is typically associated with hillbilly rebels from the rural South or bathtub-gin swillers from Gatsby-era Prohibition. But recently, distilling’s become the hobby du jour of urban dwellers with a geeky interest in fine food and drink. Gone are the days of using a car radiator as a condenser and a campfire as your heat source. Many of today’s yuppie moonshiners buy their stills online, and learn how to use them from friends, Web-based forums, and small-press books. And though corn liquor is still a classic, felonious foodies are experimenting with everything from brandy to absinthe. For example, in Berkeley, California, musician Allan Crown, 48, spikes his after-dinner espresso with grappa he distilled from grape seeds and skins left over from a friend’s winemaking.

“We go to these conferences on distilling at Cornell University Cooperative Extension, geared towards commercial distillers and labs, but you’ll get these [moonshiners] who are dedicated, bordering on fanatical, just doing it at home. They’ll come up and want to tell me all about what they’re making,” says Ralph Erenzo, who along with co-owner Brian Lee runs craft whiskey distillery Tuthilltown Spirits, of Gardiner, New York. “They’re coming up with very interesting things.”

Carl Pincher, 50, the Chicago owner of a manufacturing company, is one such tinkerer. Along with cutting-edge home gastronomic projects, like slow-cooking meat sous-vide, he makes his own Calvados, an apple brandy, using a still he created from a 32-quart pot. Taking advantage of tips on the Internet and from a friend in Alsace, France, who makes cherry schnapps (also illegally), Pincher learned how to mash fresh apples, make hard cider out of them, and distill the cider. He’s begun adding his own twist: frozen apple juice from the grocery store mixed in for more apple flavor.

“I’m sure that in a few more years I’ll say, ‘I really make something nice and drinkable,’” says Pincher. “But right now I’m just dabbling.”

A Wild Past

Although the new breed of moonshiners is more likely to stockpile back issues of The New Yorker than firearms, they’re part of a long history of anti-government rebellion. Home distilling, illegal in most other countries (New Zealand being one exception), has had a particularly contentious history in the United States. In the early days of the republic, making whiskey was an important part of local agricultural economies, so much so that the passage of the first federal liquor tax in 1791 sparked a populist uprising. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion, it had to be put down by the National Guard.

Prohibition, in place in the United States from 1920 to 1933, fueled an underground industry of moonshining, centered in the South, that violently pitted bootleggers and smugglers against the federal tax collectors, or “revenuers.” The public suffered not only from a spike in violent crime, but also from the products of unscrupulous distillers, who frequently stretched hootch with alcohol made from sawdust and other dangerous toxins.

Making wine and beer at home became legal after Prohibition ended (wine immediately, beer in 1978), but making spirits without a commercial license remains a federal crime. Getting a commercial license is an expensive and rigorous process.

Periodic attempts to legalize spirit production for personal use (most recently in a bill introduced by U.S. Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan in 2001) have all failed. A spokesperson for the Tax and Trade Bureau, the wing of the federal government that enforces liquor-production laws, refused to offer an opinion as to why. Proponents of home distilling say it’s a matter of money: Liquor is one of the most heavily taxed consumer goods, with 32 percent of the purchase price of a bottle of booze going to state and federal taxes. That’s more than three times the tax on wine, and twice that on beer. Others suspect that moral issues are behind the law’s staying power.

“There’s this mentality of, ‘Beer and wine are good alcohols, and spirits are bad alcohol,’” says Erenzo, of Tuthilltown Spirits.

The new class of home distillers don’t see it that way. “It’s so stupid, because it’s such a fun, interesting thing, and you’re not hurting anyone,” says Ben Andrews, a cooking school instructor in Manhattan. Andrews distills brandy with a piece of lab equipment called a rotary evaporator that he bought on eBay; it uses a change in atmospheric pressure to boil his liquids, rather than heat, allowing him to get what he feels are tastier, “uncooked” flavors from his end product. “It’s really a labor of love, and the yield is so low anyway.”

Most home distillers buy a still (either a pot still or a reflux still), which cost about $500 and are legal to own. That’s because they also serve legal functions, such as purifying water and making essential oils and essences from plants for perfume. Both types of stills work on the same principle: First the “mash,” or your alcoholic base—for example, fermented apple mush for Calvados or fermented corn for corn whiskey—is heated in a pot. When the ethanol (the “good” alcohol you’re trying to isolate) reaches its boiling point of 78°C (172°F), it turns into vapor that collects in another part of the still. As the ethanol vapor cools, it returns to a liquid state. That liquid is your homemade spirit.

On average, five gallons of mash produce about a gallon of 150-proof liquor, which, using the type of small pot still favored by urban enthusiasts, can take as long as three hours.

How Dangerous Is It?

Hootch hobbyists insist that distilling’s dangerous reputation is based on misinformation, or on unsafe backwoods practices they know better than to employ. The common perception is that stills often blow up, or that it’s easy to accidentally produce poisonous liquor that can make you go blind.

“I got my start distilling in my garage at home, and I had these fears,” says Lance Winters, now head distiller at the commercial artisanal distillery Hangar One, in Emeryville, California. “But if you have a lick of common sense, you’re not risking life and limb.”

Methanol, or wood alcohol, a byproduct of distillation along with ethanol, can cause blindness if drunk in massive quantities. But, as Winters and other commercial distillers point out, methanol boils at a lower temperature than ethanol does. This means that home distillers can easily cut a lot of methanol from their end product simply by monitoring the temperature of the mash and dumping the still’s first flush of booze (known in spirits-making parlance as “the heads”), which contains mostly methanol.

“When you buy moonshine from some guy in the mountains, he’s not cutting out the heads,” speculates Erenzo. “The legendary blindness, if it even exists, is the result of drinking impure alcohol.”

Most stills are not highly pressurized pieces of equipment. The hazard is mainly in using a gas burner or other open flame as the heat source (as did backwoods distillers during Prohibition). Like smoking a cigarette at a gas station, exposing an open flame to ethanol creates the risk of explosion. (When touring the Woodford Reserve bourbon distillery in Kentucky, visitors are asked not to use flash, in the unlikely case it could ignite alcohol fumes.) But many popular stills these days plug into an electrical outlet.

“The way most stills blew up in the old days was, the revenuers would cram sticks of dynamite under them,” says Winters.

The biggest risk to high-end home distillers is getting caught. Although busting moonshiners isn’t the concern of local and federal authorities that it once was, there are still serious ramifications if you do get caught: Illegal distilling carries a potential 10-year prison sentence, and if the accused used his house as home base for the crime, it can be subject to civil forfeiture. Last year, there were three federal indictments for illegal liquor production. A spokesperson for the Tax and Trade Bureau refused to discuss details of the cases pending trial. But a Department of Justice press release revealed that one indictment was the result of an undercover sting of a father-son duo allegedly producing and selling whiskey illegally in Missouri. The other two cases were also in the South.

Still, for many hobbyists, these cases belong to a world that feels far removed.

“I know it’s illegal, but so is smoking pot, and people do that all the time and don’t get busted,” says Cameron Black, 26, from Reno, Nevada. Black works in the mortgage industry and has been making rum for the past five years, which he brings to Burning Man and drinks with his campmates at sunset. “I worry about it, but I don’t let it get in the way.”

Many high-end home distillers stress the fact that they’re not out to make money, but rather to further the culinary arts. This appears to make them feel they are standing on higher moral ground—and a safer higher ground.

“You’re allowed to do all sorts of crazy things in this country. I’m allowed to smoke a cigarette before I get on a plane and go bungee jump,” says Andrews, the brandy maker from Manhattan. But it’s illegal for him to make a little glass of brandy with notes of peach and cherry. “There are a huge raft of people who just want to make something delicious. Is that a crime?”