Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Other White Liquor

Mr. Quinn sometimes collects left-over alcohol
from bars and restaurants in Los Gatos, Calif.,
where he lives, and turns it into ethanol...

~ Michael Fitzgerald

I’m a little unclear on the concept of “left-over” alcohol, but the rest of a Sunday article in the New York Times left me musing.

The piece was about Floyd Butterfield and Thomas Quinn, two Californians who have joined forces to produce and market their home ethanol production system, the E-Fuel 100 MicroFueler. According to the Times, “It will be about as large as a stackable washer-dryer, sell for $9,995 and ship before year-end.”

There’s certainly an overlap of those ethanol distillers who make spirits to drink and those who make fuel for tractors, farm equipment, or their own vehicles. In my experience, though, while those making for fuel aren’t opposed to taking a nip now and then, they truly are interested in it for the fuel.

Those who distill for drinking, on the other hand, might joke about their stuff being strong enough to run a car, but would be loathe to pour their hand-crafted rye whiskeys, peach brandies, applejacks, and delicate eaux de vie in their gas tanks.

Just different outlooks.

With gasoline over $4 a gallon where I live, Butterfield and Quinn’s claims of being able to produce auto fuel for as little as $1 per gallon makes the MicroFueler an intriguing option. Of course, their figures are disputed (as alternate energy strategies usually are), but the rebuttal is that by using “inedible sugar” from Mexico at under three cents a pound, such numbers are possible.

Ethanol for fuel is not a new topic. Researchers at UMass Amherst have developed a method of rapidly heating cellulose to yield fuel that could eventually cost around $1 per gallon as well (they are at 50% proficiency so far, which sounds like $2 a gallon gasoline, which I haven’t seen in a few years). It's no home fuel plant, but if they can work out the bugs, the price point is attractive.

Hmmmm….with inedible Mexican sugar and turbo yeast from Sweden, American moonshiners could be set to make the cheapest rotgut shine possible since their grandfathers’ days.

Be aware, though, that even for distilling fuel, you’d need a permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. According to the TTB’s website, “Federal law provides for the issuance of Alcohol Fuel Plant (AFP) permits for persons who intend to produce, process, store, use or distribute distilled spirits exclusively for fuel use.” You can download an application packet here for a small alcohol fuel plant (AFP) if you’ve got plans to open an operation for less than 10,000 gallons per year — or if you’re just curious about these things.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Rumor Volat: Friday Starts Early

Oh, it's you! I thought someone was smoking weed...

~ My neighbor Mark

Nope, not weed. A cigar. It's hard to imagine a Californian in his twenties who doesn't know the smell of marijuana, but there you go. We moved here from Philly, home of the blunt, but even I'm taken aback by the ubiquity of west coast grass. When I pass on offered weed, I invariably get the 49er stinkeye, but what can I say? When I want to get my swerve on, booze gets me to where I want to be. Whiskey more often than not. From time to time, a cigar seems just right.

Now, I'm not one of those rude-asses who lights up a stogie out in public (only slightly more acceptable in mixed company than setting light to a pipe, clove cigarettes, or farts) but I do like to kick back after work on occasion, mix an old fashioned, head out by the bamboo grove, and watch the sun set over the palm trees.

Rumor has it that Sanborn's department store in Tijuana just down the road carries genuine Cuban cigars—unlike most places that sell "Cuban" cigars. I wouldn't know about that. Nor do I know anything about the Gigante supermercado (Avenida Revolucion at 2nd) carrying some of the lowest-priced Havana Club rum in town. If that's how you like to get your swerve on.

As Virgil says, rumor flies...


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Yahoo Distillers: Harry Jackson

In a conventional (brushed) DC motor, the brushes make mechanical contact with a set of electrical contacts on the rotor (called the commutator), forming an electrical circuit between the DC electrical source and the armature coil-windings. As the armature rotates on axis, the stationary brushes come into contact with different sections of the rotating commutator. The commutator and brush system form a set of electrical switches, each firing in sequence, such that electrical-power always flows through the armature coil closest to the stationary stator (permanent magnet).

~ wikipedia

Holy frijoles. Did you catch that? My eyes just glazed over like a pair of miniature Christmas hams. But I forced myself to go back and read it over until I got it.

Now, I'm no Luddite (observe these blog postings, a Skype account, my Xbox, and a mobile phone that rarely leaves my side), but I do appreciate low-tech gear from cast-iron Dutch ovens and hefty cleavers to...well, pot stills. And so, because I want to understand as much as I can about contempory distilling, I keep tabs on a few trusted sources, one of whom is the Australian Scotch aficionado Harry Jackson.

Jackson is moderator of both Yahoo's distillers and new distillers groups. The postings have become so numerous that he's got some help from three long-standing members of the groups, but you can count on him to have those crucial bits of technical information ready at hand when members have questions.

When Robert "Zymurgy Bob" Hubble (a man of keen insight) recently asked about a gear motor (explosion-safe, mind you) that would allow him to distill on the grain or fruit pulp, Harry was there with the answer that led right to the quote above. When another distiller had a question about odd vapor behavior, who was there with insight about ambient temperature?

If a few voices (Jeff Berry, Dale DeGroff, Ted Haigh, Robert Hess, Gary Regan, and David Wondrich, for instance) rise noticeably above the banter of cocktail enthusiasts, they have their counterparts in the world of very small batch distilling where advanced still designs are commonplace and the experts are considerably more expert than they used to be.

Slainte, Harry.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stabbed in the Back

We were drinking and what doesn't happen when you're drunk?

~ Yuri Lyalin
Feisty yet pragmatic electrician

Every time I think one of my friends might have issues with drinking, I think back to my encounters with Russians. There was the Russian bookseller who mixed martinis by the pitcher, drank the contents before they lost their chill, and could still stand after three pitchers. Then there was the pair of former Soviet tank drivers in Kirksville, Missouri; these hard-drinking comrades commandeered the liquor at a party while trying to outdo each other by determining (a) how many Afghans each had killed and (b) how many illegitimate children each had. One claimed seventeen. The other said he lost track at thirty. Deaths or births didn't matter. Numbers did—including the vodka, Bärenjäger, and beer empties they accumulated. As a precaution, I sat on my case of beer, doling it out to friends as needed. I'd rather have it warm than see those goons claim it from the fridge.

I'd almost forgotten the sheer volume Russians can pack away until I read a BBC article today about Yuri Lyalin, a 53-year-old electrician in Vologda who came home from a night of drinking, made breakfast, and went to sleep. After a few hours, his wife noticed the handle of kitchen knife sticking out of his back. Went to the hospital, turned out the knife had missed vital organs, and was sent away with a pragmatic attitude.

Makes my bellyaching about cutting off parts of my hand seem particularly whiny. I suppose it's time to start writing again.

Goes well with:


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Book Review: Water of Life

It was while preparing a conference paper on the history of alcoholic spirits in Britain, in the 1970’s, that I first encountered the medieval Latin aqua vitae treatises, and was puzzled by their insistence on the power of distilled wine to improve the memory, and to restore youth to the elderly—properties that seemed contrary to real-life experience.

~ C. Anne Wilson

If your family’s closets harbor skeletons, pray that C. Anne Wilson’s attention lies elsewhere. Otherwise she will haul them into the light of day, noting along the way the manufacturer of the doorknob, the origin of light bulbs, the nature of light, and quite possibly the history of hangers, closets, wardrobes, and—in passing—steamer trunks.

Wilson, former Keeper of Special Collections at Leeds University Library has penned in-depth studies on British foodways including The Book of Marmalade and Food and Drink in Britain. This time she has turned her considerable intellect and scholarly prowess to bear on the origins and progress of spirituous distillation in Water of Life: A History of Wine-Distilling And Spirits; 500 BC - AD 2000 (ISBN 1903018463, 300pp, £30/$60).

Understand that Ms. Wilson’s forte is historic British foodways—how, why, what, and with what Britons have eaten and imbibed in the past. If she missteps in her discussion of cocktails in more recent times, she should be forgiven for the study of the history of cocktails is a new field and we have others who take on the task admirably. While I trust authors such as Ted Haigh and David Wondrich for revealing the material culture of mixology, we are fortunate in the third degree that Wilson grew intrigued in modern alcohol’s precedents. In so doing, she’s changed at least my understanding of where my nightly cocktails come from—and the very meaning of alcohol.

Perhaps taking a cue from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Water of Life is divided into three parts—(1) The Ancient and Early Medieval World: The Eastern Mediterranean Region, (2) The Later Middle Ages: Western Europe, and (3) From Early Modern Times to AD 2000: The British Isles.

To say that the first is dry misses the point. It is also brilliant. Wilson traces the origins of wine distilling not to medieval Europe or even Arab alchemists as nearly every author has ever done (including yours truly), but to the philosopher-chemists of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, arguing that alcoholic distillation began around 500 BC with the cult of Dionysius. This is about 1,400 years before the introduction of Arab rosewater distillation methods to Europe, and therefore presents alcoholic distillation much earlier in the timeline we’ve come to accept.

Early distilling had nothing to do with beverages or even medicine, she writes. It was instead an ultra-secret practice of religious cults. Unlike the Gideons, however, whose messages grace hotel rooms around the world, the texts of these cultists either never existed or have been destroyed. To get at what they might have held, Wilson examines philosophical treatises, histories, court records against heretics, household account books, paintings, song, and literature.

Because the historical record is so spotty and because, even to this day, distillers remain prone to speaking in circumlocution and code, Wilson makes well-reasoned suppositions and jumps of logic, all the while explaining the symbolism employed by early distillers and the religious language of recipes, even when copied by scribes who didn’t understand that the recipes might in fact have been pre-Christian initiation rites considered by Rome heretical. She is especially adept at tracing the language of secret distilling texts and the vocabulary of still parts through the ages and across languages. In fact, she lays down such a well-structured argument in the first section that by the time she brings up Parzival and the Holy Grail in part two, you realize she’s going to claim it before she does: The Holy Grail was a still.

Oh yeah, she throws down like that.

Yet she’s led us so carefully down the path of Gnostic and Cathar initiation rites and baptism—by still-born fire, of course—that she’s damn convincing. Makes you wonder what the whole water-into-wine deal was about at the Canaan wedding. Holy Spirit? Don’t get me started.

Wilson makes Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code look like Dick & Jane for the short bus set.

More meaty and familiar for modern distillers and cocktail enthusiasts is the entire second section and much of the third which trace distilling from the later middle ages in western Europe to the year 2000.

Armed with an understanding of Gnostics, Cathars, Jabirians, Nestorians, and Knights Templar as well as the philosophical underpinnings of transformation, transmutation, and the nature of nature, we move beyond the symbolism of primordial distilling and get into liquor distilling as we understand it today. The monastic liquors take on new meaning; brandies, whiskies, and various “waters” enter the picture on a wide scale; and the role of woman in distilling comes into focus. With a duty to manage household expenses, Tudor, Elizabethan, and later generations of women kept stillrooms and household stills for producing various waters and spirituous medicines.

Household manuscripts and early printed works start appearing fast and furious—as Wilson concentrates on home distilling and the business of distilling and the rise of spirits in England, Scotland, and Ireland with occasional forays into North America.

After such an exhaustive examination of the topic, Wilson injects a discordant note at the end as she despairs over ever-increasing alcohol consumption in Great Britain. Anyone who has witnessed packs of drunken British youths descend on Amsterdam during weekend benders will understand her concern, but the last section with its awkward “water of death” line would have stood better as a separate essay.

Don't let that dissuade you. In an era of unprecedented access to information, moonshiners, home distillers, and professional spirits-wranglers would do well to learn as much as they can about the history and practice of their craft. Here is one book not to miss.

PS: Hats off to the indexer. Putting together a comprehensive, useful, and accurate index is a thankless task. This one is a gem.

Goes well with:


In North America order from
The David Brown Book Co.
PO Box 511
Oakville, CT 06779

In the UK, order from
Prospect Books
Allaleigh House
Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL, UK
Telephone [+44] (0)1803 712269 • Fax [+44] (0)1803 712311


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Moonshine a Bygone Chapter? Not so much.

Illicit distilling mostly is a bygone chapter of the Prohibition era, especially for deputies more versed on meth labs than whiskey stills.

~ Ryan Harris
Chattanooga Times Free Press

I got an email recently from Tom Montague who's the Slow Food governor for the US southern regions. He had sent a link to a Chattanooga Times Free Press article about moonshine bust last week in LaFayette, Georgia. At the bottom of the article page, there's a video featuring Sheriff Steve Wilson of Walker County explaining what happened: do check it out.

The gist of the piece—which detailed a moonshining operation found, partially dismantled, and hauled off by the Walker County Special Operations Group (see the slideshow here)—is that the officers regarded moonshining as so rare that some felt this bust might be a once-in-a-lifetime operation. While I laud the notion to donate the remains of the still to a museum, two things occur to me:

  1. I wish they'd worked out that donation idea before taking pickaxes to the thing. Broke-down donations, while not worthless, don't even come close to having intact artifacts with the back stories of the people involved. Because something is old and/unusual doesn't make it valuable in and of itself. Just look at me.
  2. As someone who's interviewed dozens of clandestine distillers, I can assure you that if running across a still is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I've racked up dozens of lives.

Here's a rundown of what's going on with
that "bygone chapter of the Prohibition era" recently — in fact, just for fun, only in the South where moonshine is supposed to have died out:

Inside the residence officers found approximately 2 grams of methamphetamine, a sawed-off shotgun, a suspicious container, and an active moonshine still. Because of its small size, police believe the moonshine was being produced for personal use.
I added the italics. In my experience, it's those small stills that newcomers to artisan distilling will come to know. Families that might have one day passed generations of distilling traditions down the line have in many places turned to meth. It wasn't until I moved to California that I saw my first case of "Meth Mouth"—a 20-something year old guy whose dentition was so rotted that he had more fingers than teeth. I've got an obvious soft spot for home-made whiskey and the people who make it at home. Meth, though, ain't nothing but a cancer that's been eating away the heart of centuries of tradition in the mountain south.

Whoops. Off-topic. Moonshine is alive and well, but it's not so recognizable anymore to law enforcement, historians, and aficionados looking for the old-style mountain dew. Today's stills are smaller, more discreet—in fact, might not look anything like the old-school copper pots—and far more likely to be used for personal production than for making spirits for the marketplace.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Moonshine School

This is the most at ease I've been in a still house.
If it were the old days, 

we'd have someone at the hill 
watching for all this law.

~ former moonshiner Randall Deal

Randall Leece Deal has had some agreeable roles. In 1972, he was a cast member of Deliverance, a movie that,
even these thirty-six years on, makes a lot of men squeal (he's not in that scene. No, his one line concerned the size of the biggest river in the state). In 2006, George Bush issued him an official presidential pardon for his decades-old moonshining convictions. Seems ol' Randall had made some liquor in his day.

But it's is current gig that's caught my fancy. See, for the last eighteen years or so, Deal has been helping Georgia law enforcement agents learn about moonshine. As older agents retire, there's a concern that younger generations, perhaps more properly focused on meth labs, won't have the skills to track down and recognize moonshine operations. That's where Deal comes in.

The retired moonshiner recently took part in a four-day course for law enforcement agents around the country to learn whiskey ways in Raban County, Georgia. Despite all kinds of noise that moonshine is a dead or dying craft, an awful lot of moonshiners keep getting busted.

ead the story here. Watch the video here. Oh, and for you Popcorn Sutton fans, the video includes footage of Sutton free on bail and a few shots of some big-ass stills (his?) about to be hauled away.

Goes well with:

  • US Department of Justice's petitions of pardon
  • George Atkinson's 1881 memoir After the Moonshiners. The engraving above is entitled Deputy Returning Fire on Moonshiners and it's from the book by Atkinson who was a revenue agent at the time.