Tracking Down The City's Moonshiners

Not to bust them, but to drink with them

The numbers are definitely there, says James, a home distiller who lives in Brooklyn. "There are a lot of people out there with homemade stills—a lot more than you'd think," he says. "I started doing this four years ago out of the desire to learn how to use it. I'm a huge bourbon, whiskey, and brandy fan so I had to have one." He's talking about his five-foot-high copper still, which dominates his apartment's living room. Purchased from a maker in Fort Smith, Arkansas, who is nicknamed "The Colonel," it cost him $900 and came after a six-month wait.

James has a leg up on other moonshiners: His day job is working at a brewery. "It's riding the coattails of the craft-beer movement and the manufacture of local products," he says of the rise of moonshining. "People in general, especially in New York, want to make something. And especially in Brooklyn."

He remains cautious about his distilling activities. "I do my best never to tell anyone where or when I'm doing it," he says. "I would never run this inside. The propane exhaust from the burner is bad, and it's a big flame, and the risk for fire is significant. I do it out where I'm not near anybody. I've been fortunate enough to know people who have large, private spaces."

James voices an age-old complaint of moonshiners, and his view is sharpened by his experience working in a brewery. "Being a brewer," he says, "why couldn't I buy 15 gallons of beer, pay my taxes on it, take it home, and distill it and get an alcoholic product out of it?"

And the law's treatment of small-time home brewers seems absurd. "I'd love to see it turn into and be treated the same way as craft brewing," he says. "You can't make enough alcohol for the government to warrant regulations and the amount of money spent on controlling it. Making a liter of whiskey, who cares?"

In truth, the secretive nature of home distilling makes law enforcement difficult. It's the threat of being busted more than the number of busts themselves that keeps home moonshiners on their toes. Although the Division of Criminal Justice Services does not keep records specific to moonshining, since 2005 there have been only five arrests for activities related to the sale and/or manufacture of illicit alcohol in New York State, two of which occurred in New York City in 2008. On the other hand, it is difficult to determine just how many people are secretly moonshining in their kitchens.

Certainly, most urban dwellers will not have a chance to taste homegrown moonshine. But stuff from elsewhere is slowly making its way onto the shelves of city liquor stores. Both Georgia Moon and Ole Smoky market their product in mason jars, a clear ploy to fetishize Dixie culture.

Yet for some of our local moonshiners, any commercialization of the spirit is directly contrary to its essence. "Moonshine was a liquor that belied mass production, which makes the rise of mass-produced moonshines counterintuitive," says Lance. "You got it from a person who has been doing it a certain way."

Still, the way the basic stuff is produced is sure to make some moonshiners dream of profit. "Moonshine is attractive in that it has the legacy surrounding it, but it's a natural step for a distillery starting up because aged liquor takes time," observes James. "In order to get something on the market as fast as possible, white liquor is ready to go immediately, as soon as it's out of the still. That generates income right away."

And, arguably, the commercialization of moonshine is not unexpected. "When you think of moonshine, you think woods and pastures," says Spoelman. "But if you think back to when America ran sustainably, there were actually tons of distilleries or refineries in New York, and many were in this neighborhood. Distilling spirits where you lived was an obvious thing."

All this talk about the allure of moonshine is enough to make you thirsty. Lance has the last word. "I think it's really very simple," he says. "Don't overthink it. Just drink it."

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