By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Eve eventually stopped throwing the parties—she says they became "too fratboy-ish." Now she wants to go legit—not surprising, since she estimates the market price of a 375-milliliter bottle of her absinthe is $40 (currently she will trade the bottles for gifts in kind rather than sell them).
"I've been playing around with the recipe for so long, and I'm looking to distill it legally, so hopefully, by the end of the year, I'll have my own label," she says. "I might do it through another distiller, which will save me a lot of time with the labeling process."
But as it turns out, absinthe's mystery and allure may not be as strong as just the thrill of buying hooch from a bootlegger. "A lot of the people who come to me definitely want to come to a bootlegger," Eve says. "But I'm willing to take that chance that they might lose interest, just as I lost people when absinthe became legal on the shelves."
However, she's become attached to her craft and says she wants to share it. "To me, it's really about making something beautiful," she explains, likening the process to a culinary art project that spurs an emotional and artistic feeling in imbibers. "Making people happy, that's the best part. I feel like I've done something good in the world."
Others feel the spiritual pull of making spirits also. For many moonshiners, it's a solitary undertaking with a greater emphasis on craft and process than end result. Tim, who is soft-spoken and somewhat older than Eve, says he became seriously interested in making moonshine four years ago. His roots may have caught up with him. "Where I grew up in north Alabama," he says, "it was always around, but it wasn't like anyone taught me anything. So I got my first still from a mail order, and it came marked as a 'decorative lawn ornament.' " Using the advice extolled on the website homedistiller.org, he began tinkering in his home kitchen and now concentrates on developing corn-based products like regular ol' moonshine. "It's cheap and easy," he says. "But there are some logistical issues with the space, like getting rid of 50 pounds of grain in an apartment."
Tim's passions now also include still-making. "My interest is that I experiment with the building and the engineering side," he explains. "It's the culmination of chemistry and mechanical interests—not just making the spirits but making the stills."
He says he has no interest in selling his moonshine. Not that he doesn't enjoy it himself, particularly as a reward for his labor.
"It's the hardest work you'll do in your life—I'm not kidding," he says. "I was totally unprepared for how much physical work it was going to be. But some of the best stuff I've ever had, I've made."
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to replicate your best batch. Commercial distilleries obviously aim for consistency, and they've got the monitors and equipment to do that. But for home moonshiners, that's damn difficult, if not impossible.
"The first thing I tried to create was from smell memory as a kid, because I had never tasted it. I didn't know. From there, I started refining it by taste," he explains. Unlike spirits that are highly regulated and monitored at commercial distilleries, his moonshine varies in both taste and proof. But Tim generally produces a spirit that is 115 to 180 proof.
Tim makes it on top of the stove in the kitchen of an apartment he shares with his wife. Which isn't without risk. "I have an industrial fire extinguisher," he says, and then explains the science behind the danger. "If the still were to bust open or pressurize, you wouldn't see the flames—you'd just see your skin peeling off. You can't leave it unattended. You have to be there all the time while it's running."
This is not like making your own beer or wine, a process during which, as Eve points out, "the worst that will happen is that you'll have bad beer."
Tim remains particularly vigilant, not only in terms of making spirits safely but also keeping his moonshining a secret. "I basically set everything up and tear it down," he says. "If you went into my apartment, there would be some equipment for beer-making that you'd recognize. I don't keep spirits around. I usually make very little, and it's usually gone quickly." Tim says that most of the people he knows who were busted for moonshining got caught when cops "came there for something else and just saw it."
Tim's wife, of course, knows what he's doing. "But she said if they ever come knocking on the door," he says, "she's just going to point to the back room and say, 'He's back there.' "
There's a "huge worldwide community" of moonshiners, Tim says, but he knows few others in New York City. "On a local level, that's where you don't talk about it so much," he says. "It's a little more anonymous on the Web, so it's easier to communicate."