Tracking Down The City's Moonshiners
On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in early July, a yeasty, sour aroma fills Lance's kitchen in the ground-floor apartment of a Carroll Gardens brownstone. It's improv time in Brooklyn. A large aluminum pot, lidded with a Crock-Pot top and sealed shut with a sticky paste made from flour and water, sits on the stove's front burner, a bright blue flame underneath. Coiled copper tubing emerges from a small hole in the lid's rubber gasket and is held in place by a modified water bottle filled with ice to cool the tubing. During the next four hours, clear liquid slowly travels, a little at a time, through the copper coil and plinks into a glass Pyrex measuring cup resting on a stool. Occasionally, steam bursts through the hardened paste, emitting a steady stream of pungent vapor into the air, and more dough is added to cover the leak.
When Lance has a half liter of liquid (after throwing out the first quarter-cup), he decants some into a beaker and inserts a hydrometer. He and his friend Wallace scrutinize the reading and pour the spirit into shot glasses.
And now for the verdict: Glasses are lifted to lips, and we inhale the fresh, grassy aromas.
"Peppery," pronounces Lance, sipping slowly. "It's different from last time, though. But I like it."
I take a swig. Strong but not scorching. A complexity not normally found in clear spirits like vodka. But then again, this isn't vodka.
This is one fine-tasting Brooklyn moonshine.
Yes, it really is the definition of moonshine, which can be either unaged corn whiskey (sometimes called "white whiskey" or "white dog") or any high-proof spirit distilled in an unregistered still. Technically, this hooch qualifies as both.
Though the result may blast your socks off, this isn't rocket science. You combine cracked corn and (if you want to make it more than just corn likker) malted barley, rye, or wheat with boiling water, cooking it into a "mash." You add yeast, which converts the sugars into alcohol. You run the alcohol through a still to purify it into something drinkable. Assuming you're smart enough to have drained off that first little quarter-cup, which may contain toxic methanol, you're good to go.
Moonshine is usually a clandestine activity. The word has been around since at least the 18th century. The reason for producing it is simple. It's always been a good way—unless you get caught—to either not pay for your hooch or, if you sell it, avoid splitting your profits with the government. During Prohibition, moonshine production flourished, becoming a major source of bootleg spirits distilled in remote and mountainous areas and difficult for the government to control. Even after Prohibition, moonshining endured. It still continues in the rural South.
Lance is not a hillbilly. He's a quiet-natured young professor at a local college. Rousseau, Diderot, Hume, and Kant inhabit his bookshelves. Predictably, he's erudite on even the topic of moonshine, explaining that Brooklyn hooch differs from that produced in, say, Tennessee because the mineral content of the water used for distilling alters the spirit's flavor.
Lance isn't the only local expert. New York City moonshiners are giving the spirit a new identity. Today's urban moonshiners are sophisticated. But some of their palaver still has that country flavor. Take Tim. He describes his moonshine as "slightly sweet" with a "vanilla nose" and "a light taste of corn." His final verdict is as country as cornpone: "It's pretty smooth going down, but then you get a sunburn from the inside out."
Some of our local moonshiners are making the classic stuff. Others are even manufacturing their own absinthe, a tricky process. The crop of local moonshiners is growing and diverse.
And some of these moonshiners are not only legal but also ... respectable.
Kings County Distillery, located in a desolate, industrial part of Bushwick, is the city's primary moonshine distillery, not to mention the first legal whiskey distillery in New York City since Prohibition. It also may be the only collection of moonshine stills run by Yale graduates. Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, both 32 and friends since they were students in New Haven, founded the distillery in April 2010. Spoelman isn't really an outsider. A native Kentuckian who says he "grew up around bootleggers," he returned home to work on a film shoot a few years ago, drank moonshine at the wrap party, and was inspired to make a better-tasting version. "Corn whiskey is interesting enough of a drink for there to be a good one," he says.
Yale or not, Spoelman and Haskell are true to their calling, for just the same reasons you'd expect from hillbilly moonshiners. "I firmly believe in doing things yourself, especially when it comes to food and drink," says Spoelman. And Haskell adds, "When you make something yourself, it tastes better, and for the most part, people have only been exposed to corporate whiskey."
Their timing has been fortuitous, because federal laws governing small distilleries were amended in 2009, making it much easier for craft distilleries to set up shop. Kings County Distillery still has the feel of a start-up. The entire operation—cooking, distilling, bottling, and labeling—takes place in a 325-square-foot room in a warehouse. Five stainless-steel pot stills sit on induction burners and filter the moonshine through plastic tubes into an array of large glass jugs sitting on the floor. Huge tubs of organic corn mash dwarf the remaining floor space. And three mismatched chairs and a scuffed coffee table make up the "office," which sits in a corner. But even after hiring four regular distillers (plus two as reserve), two interns, and a science consultant, Haskell and Spoelman only moonlight as moonshiners. They've had to keep their day jobs as features editor at New York magazine and communications director at Bernard Tschumi Architects, respectively.
"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."
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."
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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