For hobbyists & pros, lure of moonshine remains strong

Blackboards set above whiskey barrels that keep track of content mixes at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Blackboards set above whiskey barrels that keep track of content mixes at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Posted: September 30, 2010

White lightning, mountain dew, firewater - you know it as the illicit substance made in secret by tax-dodging mountain men and drunk by people looking to alter their reality in a serious way.

But hooch is being infused with a whole new spirit thanks to a new generation of home and professional distillers.

"Moonshine is multifaceted these days," said Max Watman, who researched the underground liquor industry for his book, "Chasing the White Dog."

The idea of bootleg liquor conjures up a vision of lazy creekside afternoons. And there is a small population of moonshiners still carrying out the mountain tradition. But modern moonshine mostly falls into two different categories, according to Watman. Sure, there are criminal organizations that essentially prey on the poor. But there also is a burgeoning hobbyist scene made up of the same type of people who drove the microbrewed beer movement.

"The hobbyists are much more adventurous and a lot of fun," he said. "It's very much a product of our time. We are obsessed with authenticity and we are obsessed with craft, or at least a certain segment of our population is. It's part of the farmers-market world. We all want to make our own cheese. We all want to cure our own bacon. It's the same group that wants to make their own booze."

Unlike curing your own bacon, or even brewing your own beer, however, distilling spirits is illegal without a government license, and they aren't easy to get.

Illicit distilling isn't a significant problem, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Though the economy in particular has prompted more people to explore making moonshine, a bureau spokeswoman said there hasn't been a big bust since the '90s, and overall it's a much smaller problem than in the past.

To meet the burgeoning interest, a number of companies have started selling stills, ingredients and directions online. But it's advisable to check local laws before you fire up the still. Pennsylvania allows personal-use production of beer and wine but requires a license to make even a small amount of distilled liquor, an LCB spokesperson said.

Too bad, because making moonshine is as easy as mixing a grain such as corn meal (though you can make moonshine with just about anything) with sugar, water and yeast. Once it ferments, heat is used to draw the vapors into coiled tubing that drips the distilled liquid into a container.

While it may be easy, it is not without risks. Made from improper ingredients (such as wood) or in a still made from dangerous plumbing (such as a car radiator, which contains lead), moonshine can be riddled with toxic chemicals, causing blindness, kidney failure, even death, said Dr. Robert Geller, director of the Georgia Poison Center. "And in the U.S. we've had outbreaks of both during the last 10 years."

The traditional definition of moonshine is an illegal distillate from an unregistered still on which taxes have not been paid. But modern practitioners, such as Colin Spoelman of Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y., use the term to cover legal but unaged (as in no time in the barrel) whiskey, also known as "white whiskey."

Kings, which is licensed, is selling white whiskey in medicine-style bottles labeled simply "moonshine."

"What we're doing is a very smooth and very refined and very high quality moonshine," said Spoelman, who became interested in the spirit after trying a jug of it in his native Kentucky.

Frank Coleman, spokesman for the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, thinks illicit liquor is best avoided. But the unaged whiskeys being made by legal craft distillers are a different matter.

Though their sales are just a fraction of the market, there are scores of legal microdistillers springing up around the country.

"There's been a boom in spirits consumption over the last decade, and the marketplace is just drifting in that direction," he said. "It's really about recapturing America's lost heritage that was crushed by Prohibition."

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