Shine On

Jun 10, 2010 at 12am

For the last five or six years I’ve harbored the wildly romantic notion that I ought to be a rumrunner, speeding across the Bay in an old wooden motorboat, headed toward my hidden still somewhere among the scrub on Angel Island. I’d return under cover of darkness, a full moon illuminating the city and my hooch bottles stowed carefully in false-bottomed picnic baskets. 

Maybe I’d take a Humphrey Bogart–looking gentleman with me in case things got tough, but I wouldn’t let him steer. At home I’d hide earthenware jugs under floorboards and in clandestine tippling spots around the city. Toasts to good health would burn as they went down and camping trips would never be the same. 

Perhaps for good reason (slothfulness, state park police, and a prevalence of fairly cheap alcohol, for starters), this dream has yet to materialize. My rumrunner (the boat, not the Bogart-type) languishes in a warehouse in Alameda under care of the National Park Service, and I am fairly law-abiding in nature. But the bug has bitten. 

Could a somewhat handy, decently intelligent person such as myself (when not manning the helm of a raging hangover) figure out how to make moonshine? Nine out of 10 Iowans say yes, and four hours of poring over Homedistiller.org says I may need a translator. 

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While many folks are naturally less than open about discussing home distilling (it is, after all, a felony. Yes, felony), a trip out to Brewcraft on Clement Street yields a wealth of information in a nutshell of a shop. I’d heard around town that Griz, the resident brewmaster and jack-of-all-hops is the man to talk to about anything brew related, but where to start when you’re not even sure what you’re asking about? Will I sound like a moron if I ask the difference between a pot and a reflux still? And what in hell’s name is a fermentable substrate? 

After a few awkward minutes of stumbling around his no-bullshit opener of, “So what do you want to know?” Griz offered me a much-needed beer and I let the conversation roll its course. While it would be tempting to think that Griz is Brewcraft, he’s quick to point out that it’s a completely egalitarian shop, with each person bringing home the same amount of pay at day’s end.  

Considering that he’s been at the helm of the shop since 1978, it’s a pretty damn neat way to run things. He’s also got a tattoo poking out from under his shirt cuff, a pair of denim overalls, and a psychedelic concert poster on the wall behind him. Somehow I feel like my anecdote about drinking white lightning at a Libertarian farm party with a naked lady on horseback wouldn’t impress him at all.  

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From what can I gather, pot stills are the simplest form of distilling and the ones you see in movies like  Deliverance or Coal Miner’s Daughter – hillbilly stills, if you’ll pardon the expression. There are also the classically beautiful ones, largely copper (an important component of any still as they help neutralize some of the organic acids) and look like something out of Willy Wonka’s laboratory. Pot stills collect and condense the alcohol vapors that come off the mash as it boils.  

The result is a flavorful alcohol with about 50% purity. If you decided to run that same liquid through the still again, it’d become purer but lose some of its flavor, which is similar to what reflux stills do. By creating a column between the condenser and the pot (and filling it with a packing material), you’re able to condense some of the rising vapors, causing them to trickle down through the column and wash the rest of the vapors as they rise.  

This results in a cleaner, almost flavorless alcohol, which makes reflux stills the choice for those looking to end up with vodka or gin. Give this column two or more feet of height to work its magic, and you’ll end up with (a) what’s known as a fractionating column and (b) ethanol with 95% purity and no discernable taste. A distillate not for the faint of heart. 

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On my way out into the mid-Monday sun, I stop to grill a gentleman of about my age who’s come into the shop asking about copper tubing. He’s gathered a pile of parts from scrap yards and hardware stores and is on a mission to build his own still from the ground up. A few days later I pop back into the shop for a copy of Making Corn Whiskey: AProfessional Guide for Amateur and Micro Distillers by Ian Smiley and end up spending another couple minutes chatting with the counterman named Andre.  

He’s another fount of knowledge and happily sets me on the trail of a few local folks who are similarly minded (and according to a sample of rye, quite good at what they do). It’s apparent that I’m not the only one interested in the ways of homemade liquor – it’s also apparent that a simple daydream whose largest hurdle lay in procuring a wooden boat, has now blossomed into a question of mash and wash and fermentation temperature. 

The trips to Brewcraft also left me with the notion that distilling is much more than just an interesting alternative to buying 151. Homemade liquor is a beautiful thing, ranging from the wait-five-minutes-to-light-a-cigarette-after-swallowing-lest-you-become-a-human-Molotov-cocktail that is “white lightning,” to barrel-aged rye that surpasses anything carried at Cask. And then there’s everything in between, some of which will strip the enamel off your front teeth while you wander around with a case of the rolling blackouts.  

Or maybe that’s just the stuff made from candy corn.  

The truth is that homemade liquor can be whatever you want it to be: smooth or fiery, flavorful or tasteless (unless you count that burning sensation as a taste) and containing as low a percentage of alcohol as its creator desires. Distilling is an art and it takes patience, both to learn the process and to craft something that’s actually palatable. Sure you can blast out some straight ethanol, but for the $200 or so it’ll take to get a still together, why not just buy a case of Everclear?  

It’s the passion and the process, the crafting of something that’s the exciting part and, according to Griz, home-brewing of any sort is not a hobby for everybody.  

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While it’s legal to brew wine or beer in the comfort of one’s own home (the head of household is allowed to brew 100 gallons annually, or 200 if a second adult resides there), home distilling is strictly illegal. Much like the loopholes surrounding the myriad of shops selling “water pipes,” the illegality of buying or selling a still doesn’t fall on the side of the object itself, but rather on how it’s marketed and ultimately how it’s used.  

While the most glaringly obvious purpose of a still would seem to be the production of alcohol, it can also be used to distill water (who would have guessed?), as well as make essential oils. Though neither of these is going to help when the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover tracks you down with a closet full of mason jars labeled “paint thinner” and a handful of happy winos on your stoop, it does mean that (at least in the state of California) it’s not the owning of the still that’ll get you busted.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB for a smaller mouthful), according to part 29 of title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations, has “the right to require manufacturers of stills to give [TTB] the name and address of each customer. If we choose to impose this requirement, we inform the manufacturer of the stills by letter.” How often does TTB choose to do this? Statistics were never my strong suit, but neither Brewcraft nor the few online shops in the United States selling stills were being forced to keep records of these sales. Of course, unless you can walk in, pay cash and leave, you’re running the same risk as having a joint bank account and using your ATM card at Cheetahs – there’s just no way to prove you’re not up to no good.  

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That is, unless you get yourself a permit. Any still used to make alcohol is required to register – and of course if you’re manufacturing for the purpose of sale, that leads to taxation. While it’s not necessary to register a still that doesn’t produce alcohol as an output (because who doesn’t need distilled water?), if caught using the latter as the former a person can be slapped with a fine of up to $10,000 or get under five years in prison – and that’s per statute: As in a slap for owning the components, making the mash, having the still in an improper area (including sheds – they’re on to everything) and so on. When the first drop of elixir hits the pails you’re already breaking more statutes than you have fingers. If only Alcatraz still took lodgers, it might be worth it.  

So, is it impossible to own a still, make hooch, and not land in the slammer? Sure. There’s always the good old Prohibition way of fortitude and secrecy, but if a grandmother somewhere forgot to pass down the nerves of steel, there’s another option, and a timely one at that. In its simplest form a still produces ethanol. Ethanol is an alternative energy source. Not only does it make you witty beyond belief, you can run a car on it.  

The TTB says you can produce it at home, without being taxed, but it has to be for fuel purposes only and you need to apply for a permit, receive approval, and follow all the requirements having to do with construction, usage, recording, reporting, etc. If only you could convince them your body really does run better on a full tank… 

So the dream remains a dream, but there’s no lack of moonlight and Angel Island isn’t leaving the Bay anytime soon. Who knows? Maybe one of these days they’ll find a crate of unlabelled hooch washed up on Baker Beach… and I’m definitely pleading Not Guilty.

Do It Yourself 

If you’re interested in making alcohol of any kind, Brewcraft is the place to start. For the beer-minded it offers free classes with brewing kits, and the staff are more than happy to answer questions about distilling and winemaking. Coppermoonshinestills.com sells some incredibly beautiful (and expensive) stills, as well as books, recipes, and pearls of wisdom from Colonel Wilson on “How to get diplomatic immunity” and “How to revoke a plea bargain” (I kid you not, my friends). Ian Smiley’s book   Making Corn Whiskey and Homedistiller.org are also good places to start, but even with all those diagrams the process can seem as complex as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations and statutes – which you just might want to brush up on as well.   

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