You may have wondered these things, just like us, so we interviewed RJ, StillCooker to get the answers. His first response was, “Why go to the liquor store for a bottle of booze? Making shine at home is an option as well.”
After the rise of small-scale local breweries, there is a new phenomenon… artisan small batch distilleries and a new breed of moonshiners, the home distillers.
I am standing in a garage in suburbia. He offers me a shot glass with a transparent liquid that vaguely smells like corn. “It is OK”, he says. I take a small sip and feel the potency of the alcohol in my mouth, a crisp fresh taste followed by a burning sensation, which is actually quite pleasant I must admit. It is corn shine, made by one of the many kitchen and garage home distillers of our country. Technically illegal, but a new breed of moonshiners is making illicit spirits trendy.
“I did some research on the web on how not to go blind when making booze,” StillCooker reassures me as he pours me a sample of his homemade whiskey. He began distilling at his home garage in 1998 with apple brandy. While StillCooker’s research reinforced the importance of considering the technical aspects and legal ramifications of home distilling, it also revealed that the process of distilling whiskey was very simple and the mystic about good booze is only marketing noise made by the major distillers. “It’s something that you can get into realistically for about $200 to $400 and the time to read a couple of books or browse a few websites,” StillCooker says. “This made me realize it’s way easier than most people think.”
Moonshine and illicit whiskey
Illegal distilling and moonshiners brings back pictures of the past dating back to the days of prohibition, backwoods stills, rumrunners and clay jugs with corn shine. Unlicensed distilling—sometimes tactfully called artisan or home distilling, and commonly known as moonshining—is still a common phenomenon, and its practitioners are an entrenched part of American folklore. But there is a new angle to it, which is becoming more and more visible during the last few years.
Today’s unlicensed distillers are practicing their craft in urban high-rises and suburban garages across the country. Many home distillers are producing delicately honed whiskies, rums, absinthes and brandies that can surpass the quality of many commercial brands. Moonshine is entering the modern era. In almost every state, the self-made home distillers are starting up small artisan local distilleries producing and selling small batch whiskeys, Gin’s, vodkas and all kind of fruit infused liquors.
Distillation has been practiced illegally ever since the first laws were created to regulate it. Home distillation was once widespread in parts of Europe and the United States, but lawmakers realized long ago that spirits were a convenient product to tax. In 1643 the British Parliament passed an excise tax on distilled spirits, an act that proved as unpopular as a similar tax passed by Congress in 1791; in both situations, some distillers paid the tax and went legit, while others chose a different course. Those seeking to avoid the tax hid their stills and made spirits in secret; the term “moonshine” dates to at least 1785, and is possibly a reference to the illegal distiller’s practice of running the still in secret, at night, illuminated only by moonlight. As with legal spirits, moonshine is typically made from whatever raw material is in greatest abundance in a particular area; in the United States, this was classically corn, and “moonshine” and “corn whiskey” are typically-and erroneously-considered synonymous.
A bourbon and gin lover, StillCooker works almost exclusively with wheat, corn and rye. He purchases the malted grains from a local homebrew store or through one of the many websites on the internet. He mills the grains and cooks it in a turkey fryer to convert the starch into fermentable sugars before fermenting the mash and distilling his whiskey. “The flavor we were getting off the whiskey immediately had an interesting, sweet and very robust corn flavor,” he says, a finding that prompted his imagination to buy some small wooden barrels to age the new spirit, as the fresh distillate is called.
Home distilling made easy
Many people with an interest in distilling came to the craft with a background in home brewing, another popular hobby these days. Out of curiosity many of the home brewers start their journey into moonshining by searching the web out of curiosity for new challenges and quite often end up on websites set up by other home distilling enthusiasts like StillCooker. There are estimates that there are currently between 50,000 and 100,000 home distillers in the U.S.
Making a nice small batch bourbon is not complicated, once you master “the art” of brewing beer from malted grains. After milling the malted grains to a fine grist, you need to slowly cook the grist to allow the enzymes convert the starch into fermentable sugars. Once done, it takes less than 2 hours, you can add regular baking yeast, brewing yeast or distillers yeast from one of the many brew shops. The Mash, as we now call it will ferment during 5-7 days leaving you with a 5% ABV alcohol content, not even close to strength you would expect from a nice bourbon. Now comes the distilling. The alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water so you need to slowly heat the fermented wash to 172F (or 78C). The alcohol evaporates so you need to collect it in a helm and cool it down in a condenser to become liquid again. This will give a 40-95% ABV alcohol. In order to do this, you need some hardware called a potstill, a condenser and some hoses. A basic version can be made from regular kitchen equipment or more fancy hardware can be bought direct from the Internet. That’s all–how easy can it be.
Making gain alcohol is easy–transforming it to bourbon or whiskey only requires patience and good old American oak. Aging the alcohol is a natural process where the alcohol loses its sharpness and gets is nice brown color and tones of vanilla. The industry likes to make a great story out of it by referring to old techniques and specials stills of the distillery master, but even the home distiller can buy oak chips, roasted if you like, or small wooden barrels. Simply add the woodchips to your shine in a glass jar and see the moonshine change to nice golden brown color, which tastes great and is not better or worse than the major bourbon brands out there.
Going into business
In the meantime, StillCooker continues to make small batch fine whiskeys and gins at home. These days fully licensed but only distributing his creations among friends and families. “Giving bottles of homemade liquor is one of the best presents I’ve ever found,” StillCooker says. “You’re giving someone a story to tell when they have it. I have friends I’ve given a bottle to, and they break it out on special occasions. It’s certainly not better than the top-shelf stuff you can get in a store, but there’s so much attached to it that makes it something they break out to celebrate an occasion. It feels good to be a part of that.”
Disclaimer: Two federal bodies-the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the Department of Treasury; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), part of the Department of Justice-are tasked with enforcing laws related to illegal distilling. Federal laws regarding distilling are primarily related to the evasion of taxes, but state and local laws may cover additional aspects of distilling such as the risk of fire, the toxicity of materials produced or the lack of appropriate facilities and permits. Regardless of which law enforcement agency would take primary interest in a particular case, one thing is absolutely certain: Distilling spirits without the necessary permits is illegal.