Forget the image of the hillbilly in the woods: home distillers in the Twin Cities are serious about their craft—and their underground practice might soon see the light of day
Jack’s garage smells like a brewery. And that’s mostly what it is. There’s a plastic drum full of malted barley in the corner. Three large brewing kettles are connected by a web of pipes and gauges. There are yeast starters bubbling in jars, a steel fermenter on a wheeled tripod, pony kegs—the works.
But a closer look around the garage reveals some stranger items. Packets of juniper berries. Glass carboys holding various shades of burnished liquid. A steel canister shaped like an old-timey milk carton. And then the dead giveaway: the dissembled links of a column fitted with perforated copper plates.
Jack has been distilling spirits in his Twin Cities home for six years. He welded his first still—a finicky rig held together by C-clamps—in the basement of his former workplace. Now, his commercially made still pumps out precise distillate and he intends to build up a library of homemade hooch.
“I do it just to know that I can do it, as a skill, I suppose,” Jack smiles, proffering a pint of his homebrewed black IPA. “I like whiskey. I like making things. I always have special projects around the house. My primary projects are woodworking and whiskey.”
What Jack is doing is illegal under both federal and Minnesota state law. After alcohol manufacturing was made illegal during Prohibition, it took a decided effort to re-legalize the practice for the private citizen. Home winemaking was allowed right away, but it took nearly 50 years to make homebrewing legal again.
Home distilling, on the other hand, couldn’t shake its nasty reputation. Unscrupulous Prohibition-era distillers were increasing their yields with the addition of poisonous wood alcohol. Poorly made stills were exploding in the back woods. Distributors of illegal alcohol became the most violent, infamous criminals in the country’s history.
Thus, home distilling remains a clandestine practice. Private spirit-makers are understandably reluctant to advertise their hobby. Even homebrewing shops are weary of discussing the practice. But there’s a growing movement hoping to bring moonshining into the light of day. The Hobby Distiller’s Association (HDA) estimates between 50,000 and 200,000 individuals across the U.S. are privately crafting liquor, and they’re hardly the moonshining scofflaws of old.
“People do it purely for the enjoyment,” says HDA founder Rick Morris. “People are homebrewers or home winemakers, and they make a bad batch, and think, ‘I could turn this into a brandy or a whiskey.’ It’s simply the next step in that hobby.” Morris says the average home distiller in America is educated, affluent, and keenly interested in researching and perfecting the craft.
Back in Jack’s garage, he stirs up a mash of barley, rye, and wheat that will eventually become gin. We sip his homemade whiskey, which has been aging since February in a glass jar over charred oak chips. It could be easily mistaken for any mid-priced Irish whiskey.
“Everyone says, ‘So which eye am I going to lose?’ But people who did that, they would add stupid shit to their whiskey,” Jack says. “You distill it and save it. Look at it, smell it, poke it, question it, and you’ll know what you’re working with.”
Distillation is the process of vaporizing and condensing a solution to isolate certain compounds. In the moonshiner’s case, the goal is ethanol. But distilling also isolates methanol and other toxic fusel alcohols, and drinking methanol in high enough concentrations can indeed make a person go blind. As the still warms up, it’s among the first alcohols to drip out of the condenser.
Jack collects his distillate 50 milliliters at a time, checking the color, smell, and viscosity. Since he’s the primary consumer of his whiskey, he’s vigilant to make sure none of those toxic compounds reach his final product, adding that he keeps the extracted methanol to use as a solvent in his woodshop.
It’s likely that a majority of modern moonshiners are like Jack, simply taking pride in their own private label. Attempting to distribute their hooch for profit wouldn’t make sense, not at a time when access to craft spirits is easier and cheaper than ever. It’s also not worth the risk: it’s when moonshiners start distributing that the authorities are most likely to sniff them out.
That said, a few home distillers are indeed chasing profits—legal ones, years down the road.
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