Forty-some years ago, my father was an auditor for the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, working from HUD’s offices in Lexington and Covington, Kentucky. His duties sometimes took him into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and in those days (we’re talking around 1965 or so), he met some resistance from local townsmen who apparently mistook him for an IRS man–a “revenuer.” The story’s come down to me second-hand, but the way my mother tells it, he was apparently chased out of one town by a man bearing a shotgun.
Who knows whether this is true? Dad ain’t around to tell the story, and he had a reputation as one who’d sometimes embellish a tale to get a bigger laugh. But it kept popping into my head as I read Matthew Rowley’s fine new book, Moonshine! This one’s got a hootenanny of a subtitle: Recipes, Tall Tales, Drinking Songs, Historical Stuff, Knee Slappers, How to Make It, How to Drink It, Pleasin’ the Law, Recoverin’ the Next Day.
Damn, my fingers are tired just typing all that, but I must say it’s a good overview of the book. He starts with a moonshine primer before moving on to a history of licit and illicit distilling. He then discusses modern moonshining, and if you think there is no modern moonshining, well, you got another think coming.
There’s still a lot of noxious hooch out there. I’ve read of illegal bars in parts of my own Brooklyn that serve stuff that’ll blow out the back of your skull. But what Rowley focuses on is the artisan distiller–those men and women who’ve taken a page from the craft-beer cookbook and set up stills to produce quality spirits, often with vintage recipes, techniques, and ingredients. It’s their techniques and recipes that Rowley lays out in the book.
After concluding his initial overview, Rowley moves into procedures and recipes. He starts by describing the process of mashing and fermenting, offering great detail on equipment and ingredients. He discusses the differences between fruit mashes and grain mashes and talks about methods for prepping the fruits and grains for fermentation. He then talks about sugars, yeasts, and other ingredients, such as acids and gypsum that are needed to balance the pH of a ferment, before discussing the actual process of fermentation itself.
And then the fun begins: chapter 9, Stills and How to Build One.
Yep, for all you Popular Mechanics dorks out there, Rowley explains how to build a pot still, out of copper and brazing alloy and all that. He provides a shopping list, Important Safety Tips, and detailed patterns for measuring and cutting the metal and assembling the still. I found this portion of the book to be perhaps the most fun. Y’see, up to this point, I kinda understood what a still does, but it wasn’t until I read this book, with its intricate diagrams and instructions, that I really started to get it. There’s something about seeing the parts, illustrated, and how they work together, that helps me understand it.
The fun continues as Rowley explains the distilling process. He describes how to measure proof, set up and operate a pot still, distill a run, and filter and age the results. He tells you exactly what you’ll need and gives procedures for every step along the way. He explains how to draw off the foreshots (the toxic blend that includes methanol), before collecting the heads, middles, and tails for your hooch. (The heads are high in ethanol and congeners, the middles are lower in each, and the tails have the lowest ethanol content of the bunch.)
The final chapter includes a bunch of recipes for whiskeys, brandies, and rum. This, too, is valuable, because you can compare, say, a bourbon recipe to one for rye and begin to understand the mash blends used in various whiskeys and how a different blend can radically alter a whiskey’s flavor.
Now, I should be clear on this point: all of this–blow-out hooch and artisanal spirits alike–is still illegal in the United States, unless you’ve secured the proper permits from your local, state, and federal governments. Why is this the case? I’ll let Slate answer that question in full, but it comes down to taxes and safety. Mostly taxes.
Some artisans have chased after the proper permits and set themselves up all legal-like. Others are just trying to stay below the radar of Johnny Law. Either way, Rowley’s just putting the information out there, which isn’t itself illegal. In fact, his publisher maintains that this book is informational only, a novelty. But let’s be honest: the instructions here are too detailed for the book to be only a laugh-in. I think Rowley’s trying to point the way for anyone who’s willing to take some risks with the Feds. And who knows? If enough artisans can raise an organized stink, perhaps our local and national governments will change the laws!