Carson Ellis
"Moonshine?"

Why, I do declare! Didn't that go out with Daisy Duke's button-down bloomers? Hell, Naw! Well, yeah, but... Hell Naw! First of all, you don't need to have spare teeth stuck behind your ears with bubblegum, or go barefoot with your toenails removed, or have a stringy Rasputin beard tucked into your jug to make and enjoy moonshine.

Sure, making booze at home may sound like an exploding grandparent waiting to happen, but today's moonshiner could easily pass for the guy next door. In my case, he literally is the guy next door.

Ha! I just said that to throw off the Feds. Someone else actually lives there.

Now, since making moonshine is against the law, DO NOT DO IT. It's an "infernal revenue" issue. Don't look up still-making plans on the internet, don't build a fancy home still, and don't make your own "aqua vitae" on par with the world's finest commercially distilled spirits.

Don't make whiskey and age it in your basement, in oak. Don't make vodka, rum, or gin, even though it's relatively easy and tastes great--because if you get caught, instead of entertaining friends in your personal speakeasy, you'll be making moonshine out of toenail clippings in federal prison.

There's also the chance your still will explode and spew flaming alcohol into your house and onto your body, which could result in much burning of precious, tender things. And then you'll go to prison with boils.

STILL LIFE

Let me tell you about a typically modern bootlegger. He's an average, everyday home-distiller I'll call, "Merry Moonshiner."

Ha! What a hippie name! Moonshiner isn't a hippie, though, and that's not his real name. He lives with his family in an undisclosed well-ventilated location, earning his fun the old-fashioned way. Illegally, and with a good buzz. After all, what could be more American than a hearty slice of Mom's Apple Pie, with a little moonshine on the side?

Moonshiner doesn't consider himself a rebel rabble-rouser. Instead, he's just an average Joe who happens to make low-tech/high-octane intoxicants in the comfort of his own environment--in spite of his government's insistence he shouldn't.

"I do consider myself a normal person," 34-year-old Moonshiner says. "I'm married, have kids...and lead a regular lifestyle."

Contrary to the bootlegger archetype, instead of lying around every day tying one on, Moonshiner says he walks around daily "with a tie on." He is a senior management consultant with a background in business economics.

"I'm a healthy guy, too," he says. "I play a lot of sports, and don't have a beer belly. I used to go out a lot until the kids came along."

Even though the tykes are a part of the mix when he's cooking around the house, Moonshiner says the kids are under the implicit impression that their pappy is simply making beer.

"At this stage, I'd like to avoid them telling their friends at school, 'Dad made moonshine last weekend.' It's not that I don't want them to know I just want to protect them.

"I use different kinds of malted grains, and as I grind the malt manually, the kids like to help me. When they're older, I'll teach them a bit more about the process. I think it's nice to know that beer and whiskies are made from grain, what fermentation is, and that most products we buy are not as technologically advanced as the manufacturers want us to believe."

NOW... ABOUT MY FLAMING BODY...

Okay, so what are the physical gambles?

"Not much risk to be honest," beams Moonshiner, "but there are some basic guidelines you should keep in mind. The main risk is that alcohol and open fire is a dangerous combination."

Moonshiner says most home distillers use electrical heat sources. He prefers to cook his stills with gas because the temperature is easier to control. That is, if you're in control. Two years ago, he almost brought the house down, but got lucky.

"I was distilling a batch during the winter," he recalls. "It just started freezing that day, and after dinner I heated up my still. It normally takes a few hours to complete a batch, including cleaning materials, and other preparations. My wife called me in the house. I got a call from a colleague about a meeting with a client the next day. We had a long conversation, during which I completely forgot what I was doing in the garage.

"After that, I put down the phone I got myself a beer and sat down in front of the TV, thinking about the issues we had to bring to the table the next day."

Moonshiner says he relaxed for about an hour, contemplating his job, before his wife finally inquired about his side project. He dropped his beer and ran to his ruined still.

"In order to condense the alcohol vapor," Moonshiner explains, "the condenser is fed with running tap water. Unfortunately, the hose feeding the condenser split, spilling water all over the garage and driveway and causing the still's boiler to collapse."

Luckily, when the hose burst, the alcohol vapor couldn't reach "condensing temperature" and so an explosion didn't happen. And to cinch matters, the meltdown of the still snuffed the gas flame. Moonshiner says he got away with a little water damage to his garage and a skating-rink driveway, but learned an important lesson.

"Never leave a working still."

BEER: THE GATEWAY BEVERAGE

Not surprisingly, Moonshiner's first shot at making hooch came when he made a shitty tasting batch of homebrewed beer and didn't want to flush it. Checking through one of his homebrew magazines, he came across an article on distilling, and says from that point on, he was seduced by the distillation "virus." Many homebrewers suffer a duplicitous malady. But it wasn't just the fact that he could save that particular batch of brew that caught his attention.

"It really started with a natural curiosity about how things are made," Moonshiner spouts. "It's the excitement of turning up the heat and watching the first drops of alcohol leaving the condenser, tasting it, and trying to determine which ingredient exemplifies the heart of the alcohol--I find it very relaxing to do.

"As a management consultant, most projects I work on are high-risk for me and the company I work for. That gives me a lot of stress. We're one of the top five auditing firms. Given that, I find it very relaxing to do something creative at home. Andone of the fun things I like to do is produce my own liquor."

WHY SO SMALL-TIME?

Most of the booze from Moonshiner's "Office of Homeland Insobriety" is for personal consumption, but he admits giving a few jars away to deserving compatriots and a hushed circle of close friends and relatives.

"It would be possible for me to produce more and start selling it," Moonshiner ponders, calculating the character of his prime elixirs. "Quite often I appreciate my own liquor more than commercial ones, as I can fine-tune the taste myself."

Moonshiner considers his options. "I suppose I could transform this into a commercial operation. The quality is quite good, but since it's not legal, I feel that would bring on certain risks I'd like to avoid."

THE MONSTER MASH

"White Lightning makes you go blind!" "Rotgut kills ya'--eats your very entrails from the inside!" "Gives ya' siphon breath!" These are the sort of rumors that hounded moonshine and its makers for years. Well, not any more!

Back in the days of Prohibition, hotrod bootleggers raced against cops to get hooch out of the woods and into the mouths of decent American citizens like you and I. They, being amateur mechanics of the resourceful kind, stole parts from whatever was handy to manufacture their stills, which often included discarded automobile radiators. Therefore, the rocket fuel they produced did rot guts, blinded folks, and even killed quite a number of people. (After prohibition, the surviving bootleggers started up NASCAR, which usually only rots the guts of those who hate NASCAR.)

These days, still-making components of the highest caliber are sold in brew-shops and over the web with impunity. Moonshiner asserts there are two basic types of home distillers: 1) People who ferment sugar and use a so-called "reflux still to produce 95% clean and odorless alcohol" and 2) people who like to use grain and operate "an old-fashioned pot still," to make bourbon, whiskey, and gin.

"Making alcohol is an extremely simple process," concedes Moonshiner, adding that the most technical aspects consist of a little welding and being able to follow a recipe.

"It's very easy to do. You don't need any training and it's very cheap. If you think about it, during prohibition, thousands and thousands of stills were operating throughout the country. Distilling alcohol is nothing more than heating a fermented liquid, and collecting the vapors. That's all."

Important Links to Home-Distillation Sites:

http://www.stillcooker.servebeer.com/index.html

http://www.dangerouslaboratories.org/moon1.html

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/new_distillers/