Tracking Down The City's Moonshiners

Not to bust them, but to drink with them

"It's been very difficult," says Haskell, citing bureaucratic and financial hardships. Their eight-gallon stills can produce two and a half gallons of finished moonshine in a day (or approximately 17,500 bottles per year). Their hooch is sold primarily at upscale liquor stores and—so far—in 21 bars and restaurants, mostly in Brooklyn. They can't supply what they say is a demand for their hooch in other states.

Can moonshine's sudden popularity be attributed to a simple case of marketing genius? "Moonshine" sounds sexier than "unaged corn whiskey," and the stuff does have an air of mystery.

"It is a little bit of a calculated marketing thing—or, rather, a calculated marketing thing that we discovered we had," says Spoelman. "When I got started doing it on my porch, there wasn't the plan to become this. ... I was interested in the intellectual challenge of learning how to do something that no one else knew how to do." That intellectual challenge that may set Spoelman apart from traditional moonshiners, but there's nothing highfalutin about the kick of his whiskey.

Others in the city are getting in on the action. Last fall, Adam Perry Lang, chef and owner of Daisy May's BBQ, on Eleventh Avenue, launched a proprietary brand called the Original Moonshine. "I wanted to capture the flavor of freshly snapped corn husks," explains Lang, adding that the clean flavors of moonshine pair particularly well with food. "Whiskey has always been my drink, but you don't always want to taste those wood and oak flavors."

Yeah, well, Lance the moonshiner doesn't agree with that notion. "I'd feel like an asshole telling you to pair moonshine with something," he says. "If you're drinking the 'shine, drink it because you like it and want something strong, or want something that's homemade or fresh and unique."

Of course, a major hurdle in making spirits at home is that it remains against the law. Just in case you get any bright ideas, here's an official warning straight out of the mouth of New York State Liquor Authority spokesman Mike Smith: "Producing alcoholic beverages without a license is illegal in New York State. You are committing a misdemeanor under state law if you're giving or selling alcohol to others. And possession of an unlicensed still is a felony."

To which Lance says, "I actually have a hard time believing it would be illegal to make a bottle of this stuff. I don't comprehend why."

Why else? Money. And here are the particulars, so don't say you weren't warned:

"It's always been a taxation issue," says Tom Hogue, a spokesman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. "Distilled spirits are taxed at a different rate than beer and wine." Indeed, spirits are taxed at $13.50 per gallon (assuming the liquid is 100-proof). Most wine, meanwhile, is taxed at only $1.07 per gallon, and a barrel of beer is taxed at $18, or 58 cents per gallon, given that there are 31 gallons in a barrel. Which, over time, translates to significant returns for the government.

The penalties for illegal distilling are right there in the Internal Revenue Service's tax code. Why do you think moonshiners always complained about "those durn revenooers"?

The penalties are harsh. Simply distilling in "prohibited" premises (that is, a house, shed, yard, or enclosure connected to a home) is a felony that carries a punishment of a fine up to $10,000 and/or five years in prison. Just owning an unregistered still can bring about the same punishment plus forfeiture of all personal property in the building where the distilling took place. Additional fines can be tacked on, too, if the distiller sells his spirits, thereby operating an unlawful business.

The only good news is prosecuting moonshiners is apparently time-consuming. "Moonshine cases tend to take a while to investigate and bring to closure," says Hogue, noting that there have not been many recent cases. "They're just very work-intensive."

Not that Brooklyn is like the hills of Kentucky, where revenooers had to withstand shotgun-wielding hillbillies if they tried to bust up stills. Cracking down on moonshiners might still be tougher than making the stuff.

But not as tough as making bootleg absinthe.

Eve, a performance artist in the Lower East Side, has been making bootleg absinthe since 1998. She finds herself in a catch-22. "I am seeking to make it legally," she says, "but there's this weird thing where on the one hand, you can't get licensed if you don't know what you're doing, but you won't know what you're doing unless you try making it."

That's because you have to really know what you're doing to make absinthe. Once thought to be a highly addictive and crazy-making drug, absinthe was banned from being even imported into the U.S. long ago. Since 2007, however, the rules have loosened, and the stuff is sold on shelves.

But the rules for making a good batch will always be more complicated than the recipe for moonshine.

Unlike making moonshine, producing absinthe requires knowledge of how to infuse grain alcohol with herbs and botanicals. "In my case, it was definitely born out of an intellectual curiosity," explains Eve, who makes the elixir in her small apartment, using a brandy still she purchased online. "The joke is that I'm possessed by the fairies. I just felt called to it. So I found myself making it all the time, and I was throwing these big parties, and the parties became a thing with costumed bartenders and themes."

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