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47493My essay on home distilling

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  • Ricksaunders
    Dec 13, 2010
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      Thanks to everybody that answered my questions on distilling. I appreciate the help. I have no idea what grade I got on this thing but either way it was a fun project. Thanks again everyone!
      -Rick



      “Whiskey and freedom gang thegither.” â€"Robert Burns

      In America’s current political and cultural climate, a ripe blend of beer and wine brewers (legal since 1978), do-it-your-selfers, crafters, and foodists, back to basics, live off the land nouveau hippies, and end-timesers, the time is right to legalize, for personal consumption, the home distilling of alcohol.
      Moonshine. The word itself defines illegal alcohol. (Merriam-Webster). For America’s first 241 years there was no such thing as moonshine. Home distilling was not only legal and untaxed; it was considered “an inalienable right of all citizens, an occupation free of federal restriction” (Dabney). For rural and frontier farmers, distilling corn, rye and other grain was as much a part of farming as was planting. “Farmers didn’t register their stills anymore than they registered their plows” (Watman). Distilling was “simply good farming” (Watman) for three reasons: It was easier to transport five gallons of whiskey than it was the fifty-six pounds of the rye grain it took to make it. Grain spoils, whiskey does not, and “whiskey is always worth more than the grain that went into making it” (Watman).
      Distilling was free until 1791 when it was taxed to pay for the national debt brought on by the American revolutionary war. This taxation led to the Whiskey Rebellion, a nine-year protest against the unfair manner in which the tax was administered, as it taxed small frontier farm distillers more heavily than it did large scale urban operations. The new country had just ended a war to escape taxation without representation and what is the first thing the young government does? Slap a tax on liquor to pay for the war (Hillbilly). Newly elected President Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax in 1802. Jefferson was a distiller himself, known for his fine corn whiskey. Whiskey remained untaxed and legal (with the exception of three years following the War of 1812) until 1862 (Dabney). In 1810 there were 14,000 stills in the nation. There were 2,000 stills in Kentucky and almost 3,600 in Pennsylvania alone, together producing over 8.6 million gallons of whiskey. By 1860 Americans produced about, “90 million gallons of spirits” a year (Watman). Whiskey was cheap, too. Between 14 and 24 cents a gallon. But with the onset of the civil war many states, in an effort to conserve food, attempted to stop distilling. Home distilling again became illegal in 1862 because the U.S. Government required tax funds to pay for its Civil War. Enter the new Office of Internal Revenue and it’s tax collector/government boogieman The Revenuer Man.
      Taxed at the start of the war at 20 cents per proof gallon, by the end of the war “the tax increased to $2.00 per proof gallon (Watman). Enter the moonshiner who,
      burst forth into the world fully formed, mid-wifed by the stroke of [President Abraham] Lincoln’s pen. Just like the Whiskey Rebels, who were his literal and figurative ancestors, it was not he who had changed, but the law. He became a criminal out of his own unwillingness, or inability, adopt new laws as his own (Watman).
      By 1864, whiskey sold for as much as $60.00 per gallon (Watman). This is the point at which moonshining in America really begins.
      Georgia had it’s own post-bellum Georgia Moonshine Wars in which 80% of federal court cases were estimated to be alcohol related (Watman). It is also the point where myth of The Moonshine Man, aka the Hillbilly, begins as well. While the hillbilly/moonshiner was portrayed as a, ”backwoods buffoon”, moonshine to those who made it, symbolized tradition, independence, and survival. It was part currency, part medicine. It’s what people did to support themselves (Hillbilly). Thus the hillbilly moonshiner myth was born.
      Picture in your mind a moonshiner. Chances are you envision a lazy slack-jawed , barefoot, uneducated, family fuedin’ hillbilly cartoon character with a southern drawl and a beard that flows to his belt. You might think of a gangster, someone low-class with a reputation and penchant for violence. White trash.
      The first written use of the word Hillbilly appears in the year 1900 in the New York Journal, which defined a "hillbilly" as "a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." In the film Thunder Road, written and directed by Robert Mitchum. In it his character monologues:
      “You know I remember when I was a little kid, trailing my daddy up to the still through those mountain winters. I suppose I knew then that what he was doing was contrary to somebody’s law, but my granddaddy and his daddy before him and so on clear back to Ireland, they held that what a man did on his own land was his business. They didn’t have any noble notions of course. Still don’t.
      When they came here, fought for this country, scratched up the hills with their plows and skinny mules, they did it to guarantee the basics rights of free men. They just figured that whiskey makin’ was one of ‘em” (Thunder Road).
      Moonshine, white lightning, brown mule, painter’s piss, Who shot Sally, corn, bootleg, popskull, panther’s breath, bush whiskey, ruckus juice, hillbilly pop, hooch. Call it what you want, home distilling has a pop culture image problem. That stems from three things: The hillbilly myth, prohibition, and government taxation. All inter-connected via a vicious convoluted circle. Taxation begets moonshining which begets prohibition, greed, and gangsterism. Mix in the Hatfield and McCoy clan family hostilities, hot rod cars to haul moonshine which eventually begets NASCAR, Hollywood/pop culture hillbilly mythologizing in the form of Ma and Pa Kettle movies, Lil’ Abner and Snuffy Smith comics, Hillbilly music, country music, Robert Mitchum as the Elvisianly handsome hillbilly dreamboat ‘shine hauler in the movie Thunder Road, the hillbilly pulp novels of Erskine Caldwell, John Faulkner (William’s brother), and others, the Hee Haw variety show, Mountain Dew soda pop, The Beverly Hillbillies, Deliverance, The Squidbillies, and on and on.
      Our cultural distrust of and amusement with hillbillies stem from a single article in an 1877 Harper’s Weekly magazine called The Moonshine Man: A Peep Into His Habit and Hiding Places. In it the author “rides into the backwoods mountain country of Kentucky with some officers” (Watman). They brandish their guns, mock the “dimwitted locals”, and bust up some stills. The people they harass are “ignorant and menacing” but quickly outwitted by the clever city lawmen (Watman). The author goes on to describe a scene in which a hill country yokel comes to the big city, wild-eyed and primitive in his homespun clothes, in awe of and made meek by the horse-less carriages and the sights he sees with, “most certainly astonishment of the deepest dye” (Watman). This tale of hill country bumpkins and untaxed liquor was soon followed by the story of “Major” Lewis Redmond. In 1876, the 21-year-old North Carolina bootlegger shot and killed a revenuer that had come to arrest him, sparking a five-year manhunt, which inspired a popular dime-store novel. Redmond was captured three times and escaped twice. Finally captured and shot eighteen times, he somehow survived to spend two years in prison. Redmond claimed he was fighting injustice and for a free way of life. As a result he became an Appalachian folk hero with the title of King of The Moonshiners (a documentary on his life was released in 2008) (Hillbilly). Word of the “Devil Anse” Hatfield and “Ranel” McCoy clan battles (1878-1891) in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky came next. These stories enraptured the nation.
      “Between 1877 and 1881 revenuers destroyed some 5000 stills and made 8000 ‘shine related arrests” (Hillbilly). But on January 16th 1920 the Volstead Act went into effect and “Prohibition fueled the fire under the moonshine stills” (Hillbilly) . In his book on America’s absurd experiment with alcohol prohibition, Herbert Asbury wrote,
      “It must be remembered that the fourteen years from 1920 to 1934 were not only the era of unparalleled crime and corruption; they were also the era of the Big Lie. The drys lied to make prohibition look good, the wets lied to make it look bad; the government officials lied to make themselves look good and to frighten congress into giving them more money to spend; and the politicians lied through sheer force of habit” (Asbury).
      Prohibition was a sham that probably did more to undermine American’s trust in government and their basic freedoms than Vietnam and Watergate combined. It was prohibition combined with the greed and gangsters that followed which all but destroyed moonshining as an folk art form. Dramatic shortcuts were made in order to increase production. Instead of getting sugar from sprouted corn, moonshine was being made from white sugar. It’s the difference between whisky made from corn and whiskey made from Mountain Dew soda pop. The cost of liquor rose tenfold during prohibition and following its end in 1913 moonshining began a long decline. In the 1960s many bootleggers switched careers to become Marijuana farmers and switched again in the 1990s to brewing methamphetamine. To equate the large-scale prohibition moonshiner to the artisan distiller of today is to compare paint thinner to champagne. Similar process and equipment involved but that’s where similarities end.
      Unlike the cartoon image of the ignorant, primitive hillbilly, today’s modern artisan home distiller (the preferred moniker to moonshiner) is often college educated. Many are engineers, chemists, Chefs, foodies, or involved in some other kind of detail-oriented profession or hobby. In a personal interview with one of the members of the Yahoo Distillers Group (a gentleman we’ll call “Bob” for the sake of anonymity) that “There are lots of engineers here, and tinkerers, and a few scientists, some bakers, but especially gourmets, chefs, and just "foodies", people who care immensely about what they eat and drink. If there is anything that characterizes our group, it is the confluence of the side that strives to produce the cleanest vodka in the most efficient way, and the side that is driven to reproduce and/or create the finest liquor flavors. (Bob)”. Distillers Group member “John” shared that opinion; “I've been in the IT industry for 12 years now with 10 years of home brewing and 4 years of commercial distilling. Most of the distillers I've met have been chemists or physics majors, and all extremely smart.” The fact is, if you can closely and properly follow directions you can distill whiskey, vodka, rum, brandy, applejack or even alcohol to run your car. But by doing so you’d be breaking federal and state tax laws.
      Currently the federal government taxes distilled alcohol at $13.50 per proof gallon versus twenty-one cents for a standard .750 milliliter size bottle of wine and five cents per bottle or can of beer (White). One gallon containing 50% alcohol is a proof gallon. (White). To comply with the federal government anyone wishing to distill alcohol “must be permitted and registered as a distilled spirits plant. A distillery may not be in a residence or on property connected to a residence. Anyone who has in their possession a still “intended for distillation must register their still” (White) with the federal government’s Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (a branch of the Treasury Department) as well as with the state. If found guilty of distilling without a permit the federal penalty is $13.50 per proof gallon possessed plus fines of up to $10,000 and five years in prison per charge (White). State penalties vary but are at least as strong as at the federal level. Still manufacturers are required to not only register with the federal and state government but also keep record of each sale and to whom the sale was made.
      Colonel Vaughan Wilson of Mulberry, Arkansas, handcrafts stills from 99.9% pure copper. His products are considered by many to be the Cadillac of stills. Selling for between $300.00 and $11,000.00 Wilson says he can’t keep up with orders and at present has about a thirty-week backlog. Wilson, who has sold his stills to distillers in all fifty states, chooses not to keep sales records because the,
      “United States is a corporation and not the government of 1789. They rule us by deceptive contracts. Mainly the Uniform Commercial Code. Once ya claim the hidden remedy they can no longer hold you to contract and you are once again free. Once you have your [diplomatic] immunity, you do not have to pay taxes, you will not get tickets and you are perfectly free not to be arrested for anything except for causing injury” (Wilson)
      There are stills in every size and configuration imaginable for sale on eBay and elsewhere and no shortage of instructions and recipes, either written or via YouTube, and numerous home distilling support groups.
      Moonshine is illegal, or at least frowned upon by governments, in every country on Earth, except for New Zealand, which legalized distilling in 1996. In 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing of beer and wine for personal consumption. Legalization of home brewing began what would become a renaissance in beer production. The emphasis on craft and quality brewing in small batches over mass-quantity set the groundwork for the micro-brew beer industry.
      Much is made of the supposed danger inherent in home distilling. If speaking in reference to large scale prohibition-era moonshining you would have rational concerns. “It is rumored that some people set batteries down in the mash boxes to make it work more quickly; but another we talked to hinted that might just have been a rumor put out by federal agents to hurt the sale of whiskey” (Foxfire). Another concern would have been car radiators used as condensers, which are “extremely dangerous. They can never be cleaned out completely and that can cause lead poisoning” (Foxfire). Asked about the alleged danger involved with distilling alcohol, Yahoo Distillers Group member “Peter” stated in an email interview,
      “Ethanol vapour is heavier than air. Allow it to escape and fall to burner level (gas or wood fired) and yes, an explosion will result”. However if you “understand the nature of the process that occurs during distilling, you will then know the reason why the first fraction, generally about 100ml from a 25 ltr boil, must be discarded. This part of the take is methanol and considered in quantity to be more poisonous than ethanol which itself can be considered a poison in too high a concentration or too much in quantity. If using an electrically heated boiler, the possibility of explosion is greatly decreased - however, as Yul Brynner once said for very different reasons - Do not smoke! For me personally, I find the art of distilling challenging. There is no guarantee that something won't go awry, and that one is then faced with the task of discovering -what-!” (Peter).
      A gentleman remarks in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book “Our Southern Highlanders”,
      The law wunt let us have liquor shipped to us from anywhars in the state. If we git it sent to us from outside the state it has to come by express- and reg’lar old pop-skull it is, too. So to be good law abiding citizens, we-uns must travel back and forth at a great expensense, or pay express rates on pisined liquor-and we are too durned poor to do ary one or t’other. “Now, yan’s my field of corn. I gather the corn, and shuck hit and grind it, and the woman she bakes us a pone o’bread to eat-and I don’t pay no tax do I? Ten why can’t I make some of my corn into pure whiskey to drink without paying tax’? I tell you. Taint fair, this the way the Government does! (Kephart).
      On March 16th, 2009 Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton committed suicide to keep from going to prison for moonshining. He was sixty-three years old. A moonshiner since the nineteen-seventies, Sutton had been sentenced in January of that year to eighteen months in the federal penitentiary. Sutton was a folk hero and legend among distillers, legal and otherwise, and a star of books (one his own) as well as documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, Popcorn Sutton could have been mistaken for the hillbilly caricature on the side of the old green glass Mountain Dew pop bottles with his well-worn hat forever stuck to his head and full Rip Van Winkle/ZZ Top beard. "You might say he embodied a kind of Appalachian archetype, a character trait of fearlessness and fierce loyalty to regional identity even in the face of personal persecution and stereotyping," said Ted Olson, of East Tennessee State University's Department of Appalachian Studies (Duncan). But Sutton was no rube. He knew how to make moonshine and, by all reports, make it well and make it right. In an interview with writer Henry Mitchell, Sutton remarked in reference to other moonshiners distilling strictly for quantity “These fellows can go into business for three hundred dollars. The way I do it costs ten thousand” (Mitchell). It could be that Popcorn Sutton, the world’s most famous moonshiner, in his death and the publicity it that came with it, opened up a dialog towards at least a larger understanding of the home distiller. According to Peter Cooper of The Tennessean, the news of the death of Sutton attracted Hank Williams Jr. to his funeral. Williams stated that while he never knew Sutton personally he knew him from “his talent” (Cooper). Soon after, Williams partnered with Sutton’s widow and, “Northern Californian Jamey Grosser, a former professional Super cross motorcycle racer” (Cooper) to go legal with Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey. Mr. Williams, a staunch supporter of conservative causes remarked about Sutton, “The government couldn’t leave him alone, so he killed himself,” Williams went on to say “It was all about something like $5,000 in taxes, which is about five minutes of my panty and T-shirt sales” (Cooper). Grossner learned the art of distilling by working alongside Sutton, in whom he saw “a figurehead and a storyline. Here was a modern-day Jack Daniels, only there are no YouTube clips of Mr. Daniels being interviewed by Johnny Knoxville” (Cooper).
      There are approximately twelve small independent distilleries across the country making a legal white whiskey. Certainly each of them got their start in a less than legal fashion. Colin Spoelman, one of the owners of New York’s King’s County Distillery admits via email, “Yes, it would be fair to say the recipe was tested before becoming licensed. Actually, the recipe and equipment haven't changed much. We're the only distillery operating at a hobbyist's scale, which accounts for the quality of our product, I like to think” (Spoelman).
      Artisanal distilling of liquor is at the same point, culturally, that beer and wine was at the time of its legalization in 1978 with people all around the country trying to make the best quality product they can. “I think our status at present (in the US, at least) is analogous to where home brewing was before President Carter legalized it, a group of creative craftsperson’s carrying the social and political baggage from America's Prohibition. This blighted status is kept alive by a steady stream of fear-mongering half-truths that are not so much the product of malice, but of ignorance, perpetuated by an incurious news media. Certainly, the proof-gallon tax is jealously guarded by our federal government, and governments have a hard time granting freedoms. There is also, in most states in the US, a costly annual license, which represents income and control, both strong government attractors. Take a look at Washington State's ~2-year-old distilling license law, which allows distillers to operate for a fee of $100 per year, so long as 50% of their materials are grown in the state. Oregon must be doing something similar, because microdistillers are cropping up there like fall mushrooms” (Bob).
      In an email interview with Matthew Rowley, food historian and author of the book Moonshine! I asked Rowley about any danger involved with home distilling. The hype is that distilling is highly dangerous and if you dare make some corn you run a good chance of blowing up or poisoning yourself and half of your town. What's the real story?
      “The real story is that it’s actually hard to make toxic liquor (aside from the fact that ethanol is, after all, a toxin in the first place. Drink too much of â€"any- liquor â€" even the most pure unflavored vodka â€" in one bout and you’ll experience its poisonous effects). That doesn’t mean that all homemade liquor is good or palatable, but in general, it’s no more likely to harm a drinker than tax-paid spirits. Toxic moonshine does exist and is a real danger. Its toxicity is often tied to one of two things: (1) It’s not ethanol at all. In the US and Canada, most of what passes for moonshine these days â€" regardless of quality and the skill of the maker â€" is actually ethyl alcohol. That’s not necessarily the case when you hear of poisonings in places such as Sri Lanka, India, and parts of Russia and Africa where fuels and other alcohols get pressed into service. If a seller never plans to see the buyer again, there’s no need to make or sell wholesome spirits. If a seller wants repeat customers, however or, especially, the distiller is making for herself or friends and family, the spirits are more likely wholesome. (2) The liquor is fine when made, but is adulterated by bootleggers. Bootleggers are those who sell illicit liquor (they may also be moonshiners making it, but distilling and selling are separate activities often done by different people). A common practice is to add water to a volume of illicit liquor, but to then also add other substances to give it a kick and add the impression of strong alcohol. 100 gallons magically becomes 125. Such adulterants could include various acids, bleach, rubbing or otherwise denatured alcohols, methanol (an optic nerve poison that induces blindness), etc.”
      From what I’ve read I have the impression that if you are able to follow directions and are conscientious about what you are doing the danger involved is minimal at best. No?
      “There’s skill in making the cuts of heads and tails, of course, and in blending, but if you can follow a cookie recipe, you can follow a brandy recipe just as easily. Now, people have been known to burn cookies, forget to add baking soda, using salt by mistake rather than sugar, etc. The point is, it’s easy for anyone not paying attention to bugger the process and it takes some experience to get it down right (one of the reasons that many of the very best moonshines I’ve had come from distillers older than 30: it takes time and practice to get down the art of making liquor). This also assumes that the equipment is sound (e.g., no lead, no leaks, etc).”
      What can happen? Does the element of danger depend strictly on the size of operation one runs, or?
      “What can happen is that a distiller can get arrested and sent to jail if he/she is not operating out of a legitimate distillery. Other than that? Well, keep in mind that making liquor has been compared to boiling a pot of gasoline on the stove. Explosions and fires happen from carelessness or faulty gear. I don’t know anyone who has died from making whiskey, but know several who’ve been burned â€" sometimes badly. There’s no inherent threat of making any less wholesome spirits with a bigger operation but bigger operations naturally entail bigger opportunities for disastrous accidents” (Rowley)


      Some wonder why, when you can go to the local liquor store and buy a large jug of aged whiskey for about thirty-dollars, around the same price as a gallon of moonshine, would anyone go to the bother of setting up their own illegal still and have to worry about getting caught. If you have ever grown your own tomatoes or baked your own bread you know the answer. The quality of the product that you make yourself cannot be beat. You could burn down your home baking bread just as easily as you could by making moonshine. The real reason home distilling is illegal is not the danger involved to the distiller or to the public, but rather a combination of over one hundred years of misunderstanding and cultural /socio-economical bigotry against the often poor people who have a long folkloric history of making and consuming moonshine. This has cast a negative light on those attempting to make a quality product as opposed to trying to get rich. True, too is the fact that the United States Government makes billions annually off the sale of “legitimate” liquor. If America is truly the free country it claims to be, home distilling should be legalized.
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