Take Reuben, for instance, who is planning to one day open a commercial distillery. He’s secured an investor and is beginning to source equipment. His recipe development, however, must remain underground. “It’s fun though,” he says. “This is the icing on top of an incredibly difficult cake.”
Reuben assembles a small copper still on the stovetop in his apartment. He pours a mixture of Everclear and distilled water into the base and secures a six-inch column on top. He gathers the zest of three grapefruits, wraps it in cheesecloth, and tucks the bundle in the column. Atop the column, he fastens a little copper bulb fitted with two thermometers and a long gooseneck jutting out to the side. At the end of the gooseneck, condensate drips into a coiled pipe, around which Reuben has rigged a small pump to circulate cold water. It’s not long before the tiny rig is dripping aromatic liquor.
Reuben’s setup isn’t wildly dangerous. Neither is it perfectly safe. His condensing coil sits on an overturned flowerpot. Unlike Jack’s still, with its plastic spacers and fitted clamps, Reuben’s is sealed with Teflon tape. There’s a real threat of fire and explosion if he isn’t careful: explosive ethanol vapor can escape through an improperly sealed still. If the distilling space is poorly ventilated, the concentration could be dangerous—especially if the still is heated with an open flame. Reuben has two fans to disperse any leaking vapor and he keeps a watchful eye while the still is running, fire extinguisher at the ready.
Right now Reuben is working on his gin recipe. He makes pure distillations of single ingredients—juniper, star anise, grains of paradise, a few other top-secret botanicals—and experiments by blending them together. After pouring a few milliliters from a handful of mason jars into a graduated cylinder and adding a touch of the fresh grapefruit spirit, he gives it a swirl and pours the ad hoc gin into a cocktail glass with a big ice cube.
This is the strange hurdle involved in becoming a commercial distiller. It requires a vast amount of time and money to find a building, buy equipment, and set up all the necessary electric, piping, and HVAC—all before you’re technically allowed to distill a single drop of booze. And if a distiller wants to get a head start on learning the ropes, they’re forced to either give up their day job and enroll in a professional program, or go to current distilling operations in town (i.e. their future competition) and ask for advice.
Or they could simply buy a small still and experiment on their own. Obviously, no legal distiller would admit they jumped the gun like Reuben is doing. If we had to guess, though, its likely many have done just that.
There’s a growing realization among regulators that the practice should be treated like homebrewing and winemaking. A promising effort to legalize home distilling was introduced to both the U.S. House and Senate earlier this year. The Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2015 (S.1562 and H.R.2903) contains a provision that would exempt liquor distilled for personal use from bonding and excise taxes. “We’ve got Big Beer and craft beer behind it,” Morris says. “Same thing within distilling: craft distilling and big liquor guys are all pushing for this bill, because they all come out with a positive at the end.”
Those worried about a wave of poisonings and explosions from legalizing home distilling need look no further than New Zealand. Home distilling has been legal there since 1996, and according to research done by the HDA, there have been no deaths or illnesses reported from the homemade liquor being made by some 220,000 individuals. The researchers were also unable to find a single incidence of fire or explosion related to distilling.
“It shows that the people who are distilling understand the inherent dangers and are taking precautions accordingly,” Morris says, adding that the cost of a home distilling setup is significantly more than that of homebrewing, so the distilling hobbyist isn’t likely to engage in the practice without a great deal of care and research.
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The truth is, home distillers largely resemble homebrewers. The ingredients and equipment are mostly the same, and with the right diligence and attention, the process is just as safe. In fact, it’s probably safer than frying chicken on your stovetop. Modern moonshiners are not scofflaws trying to make a quick buck vending dodgy white lightning. They’re hobbyists engaging in a craft for their own enjoyment.
We ask Jack what he would do if he had a huge chunk of money to build out his garage distillery. His wish list? Running water for a bathroom and a sink, and a new floor with a trench drain. What would the outlaw moonshiners of legend think of such boring practicality?
Editor’s Note: Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the home distillers.
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