Distilling liquor is a hot hobby for these Mainers, and not just because it’s trendy – it’s also illegal.
- BY: AL DIAMON
Photo credit: ©IStockPhoto.com/ManuelVelasco
Down a long dirt road in western Maine, up an overgrown driveway that’s easy to miss even if you’re looking for it, there’s an aging mobile home where “Moonshiner Mark” lives.
(Obviously, that’s not what it says on his birth certificate. Like a lot of the names in what you’re about to read, it’s been changed to protect the identity of somebody who’s doing something that’s against the law.)
Mark looks like a moonshiner. He wears old denim overalls. He has a Snuffy Smith hat and a shotgun. His long beard is constantly in anarchy mode.
Mark lives like a moonshiner. He grows and cures his own tobacco, which he uses in cigars he hand-rolls himself. He makes his own knives, wickedly stunning pieces with handles of bone or antler. And, of course, he distills his own liquor from a still he constructed out of a five-gallon oil can, a pressure cooker he bought in a junk store in 1972 for twelve bucks, and some copper and plastic tubing from Marden’s.
“At base, I’m really quite cheap,” he says. “I like doing things myself. And I’m not in favor of paying taxes on things I can do myself.”
But that’s about as far as the moonshiner stereotype goes. Mark, in his early seventies, was a chemistry major in college and retired from a career in academia. Nearly every horizontal surface in his home is covered with books, magazines, and partially completed projects. From cluttered cabinets and drawers, he pulls the components of his still, assembling it on the kitchen counter for a demonstration.
The process is simple. It starts with making what distillers call “the wash.” This is the liquid to be distilled, and Mark uses old beer, leftover wine, or makes his own by adding yeast to unpasteurized cider from a neighbor’s orchard or to grains that have been soaked in warm water. The process of fermentation — turning the sugars in the mash or fruit into alcohol — takes a few days to a week. Mark then pours the concoction into the pressure cooker, places it on the stove top with the heat turned on high, and sticks a thermometer through a hole he drilled in the top.
As the temperature rises, the alcohol is the first liquid in the mixture to evaporate, traveling through a copper tube affixed to the pressure cooker by simple plumbing fixtures. The tube leads to the top of the oil can, which is next to the sink and filled with cold water. As the fumes move down through the coils of copper inside the can, they condense and are drained off at the bottom through a plastic line into a measuring cup.
Mark throws away the first few ounces, because they contain impurities. The rest of the alcohol — he says it looks like “shiny water” — is carefully measured into gallon glass jugs. Two or three times a year, he makes four-gallon batches.
Here’s where Mark gets clever. Commercial distilleries might age this product in oak barrels that have been charred inside, but such containers are expensive. Instead, Mark takes a pound of scrap white oak that he’s chopped into pencil-size pieces, wraps it in aluminum foil, puts it on his barbeque grill, and roasts it. He shuts the hot grill down, so there’s lots of smoke, a process that causes the wood to char and the sugars in it to caramelize. He then adds about three-quarters of an ounce of the oak for each quart of liquor, seals the bottle up, and lets it age for as long as he likes, usually a year or two.
“Instead of putting it in a barrel,” he says, “the barrel is in it.”
Within as little as a week or two, the clear liquid stored on the second floor of his barn has darkened, taking on the color and some flavor from the burnt wood. After just a year, the results can be sensational.
Mark’s applejack — that’s what distilled hard cider becomes — is the best I’ve ever tasted. Better than apple brandy that’s been aged twelve years. Better than imported Calvados at forty bucks a bottle. It’s dry, robust, and carries spicy hints of the fruit it was made from as well as the smoky flavors of the autumn harvest. When I first tried it a couple of years ago after a leisurely lunch at a mutual friend’s house, I thought it was paradise in a bottle.
His whiskey is sort of like Scotch — if Scotch was an American beverage made from American grains and smoked with something besides peat. Okay, it’s nothing like Scotch, but I liked it better than a lot of single malts I’ve paid exorbitant prices for.
Sitting in his kitchen sampling his efforts made me want to build a still of my own. As hobbies go, it’s inexpensive, creative, and satisfying. But it does have a downside.
In his book Good Spirits, Gene Logsdon commented wryly on the principal barrier to home distilling: “Remember, all this innocent and simple, home-centered work, leading to pleasurable and economical drinking after long and interesting experience is illegal.
“But,” Logsdon adds, “it is not illegal to read about it.”
Which must be a relief for you.
Making even small qualities of alcohol without all manner of licenses and permits violates both state and federal laws. If Mark were ever arrested and convicted, he could face serious prison time, a fine, and the possible seizure of his property. In other words, the penalties for unlicensed distilling of what would otherwise be a legal product are nearly as severe as those for selling bath salts, operating a meth lab, or growing marijuana.
Mark finds that ridiculous. “I just think it’s some archaic thing,” he says, “a throwback to Prohibition.”
Which is just what it is. While laws against making beer and wine at home have long since been repealed, the rules against kitchen distilleries remain firmly in place. There have been several attempts in Congress, most recently in 2001, to change federal law, but all have failed.
The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Web site calls legal home distilling “impractical” because it requires the same tax payments, bonding, site plans, and detailed reporting on production as commercial operations.
As is so often the case, the legalities involved have almost nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Regardless of what the law books say, home distilling seems to be catching on in Maine and elsewhere in a big way. And unlike Mark, with his old-time bootlegger image, most of the new wave of illegal distillers are younger and more urban.
In 2009, Imbibe magazine estimated there were between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand amateur distillers in the United States. Advertisements for so-called decorative stills have appeared in publications such as Wine Enthusiast. At the Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery in Union (a fully licensed micro-distillery), co-owner Keith Bodine says, “I probably get someone in here an average of once a week who tells me about his home still.”
In Farmington, John Cormier, 50, the owner of Kennebec Home Brew Supplies, estimated he’s sold a hundred stills in the last five years and regularly rents out several more. Although Cormier thinks most of his customers are using those stills to make alcohol, he isn’t concerned about the law coming down on him.
“We always advise folks it’s against the law [to distill alcohol],” he says. “But you can legally own a still.”
That’s because there are several legitimate uses for the device. Anyone can distill water (Cormier uses water distillation to teach buyers how to operate their stills). It’s also within the law to distill herbal essences. It’s even legal to make alcohol, so long as it’s called ethanol and used for fuel (even though there’s no fundamental difference between that product and the drinkable stuff). Keep in mind, though, that dealers in stills are required to keep records of the names and addresses of everyone who buys one and must turn that information over to law enforcement personnel upon request, sometimes even without a warrant. (This may explain why somebody named “John Doe” buys so many stills.)
Cormier sells distilling units for as little as $350, with high-end models imported from places like Portugal, South Africa, and Tennessee going for as much as two thousand dollars. Buying the ingredients for a typical batch costs around forty bucks, which he considers a bargain.
“It’s not a lot of money to create a really special product that could typically cost you $140 a fifth,” he says.
Hyperbole? Maybe, but I’ve had Moonshiner Mark’s applejack, and it’s priceless.
It’s not easy to define the average home distiller, although most of them seem to have begun their paths to bootlegging by engaging in the legal hobbies of home brewing or winemaking. They often consider operating a still a natural extension of those activities, since the base product for many kinds of liquor is essentially beer or wine.
“There’s very little you can do wrong,” says “Booker,” a middle-aged business owner from Franklin County, who bought his still five years ago. “It’s cut-and-dried procedures, really. . . . My first batch of alcohol was pretty good, even though I didn’t have a good understanding of what I was doing. It took me a couple of times, but after two or three runs, I got it. It’s eons-old technology.”
Booker uses a copper pot still he purchased from a dealer. Its bulbous bottom is topped with a short column and a minaret-like crown that tends to leave some of the flavor of the original wash in the alcohol. It’s preferred by makers of whiskeys and brandies. He also occasionally employs a reflux still, a stainless steel device with a tall column on top that eliminates virtually all traces of the source materials. It’s usually the choice for those who want to produce clear liquors, such as vodka.
Both these stills serve essentially the same function as Mark’s battered pressure cooker. They extract alcohol from the wash. They just look better doing it.
Booker says the booze he makes is superior to commercial brands because he has more control over proof (the amount of alcohol in the finished product) and flavoring. His favorite recipe calls for elderberry wine and, after dilution, results in a cognac that registers 140 proof, far higher than anything similar you can buy over the counter.
He’s also burnished his outlawdistiller credentials by making high-octane absinthe, adding dried wormwood in a porous sack to the alcohol as he aged it. Possession of absinthe, a licorice-flavored aperitif, was only recently made legal in the United States, a development that Booker admitted “kinda disappoints me.”
He concedes that his 140 proof whiskey is “a little rough around the edges,” but says that at three months old, it hasn’t been properly conditioned yet. “This is an experience,” he says, offering me a sample.
He’s right. It has a huge whiskey taste and an eye-opening alcohol burn. I can only imagine what a year or two of oak-aging (Booker uses a process similar to Mark’s) will do for it, and I’ve made a mental note to return and find out.
“This is on the extreme of what you can make,” Booker says. “There are no impurities in this to be scrubbed out with charcoal or covered up with sugar. This isn’t a commercial venture.”
And from a legal standpoint, it’s a good thing it isn’t. Records from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) show that nearly all enforcement against kitchen distillers is the result of somebody trying to sell bootlegged products. Nationally, ATF records show fewer than ten such cases annually, while the TTB, which smashed up hundreds of stills as recently as 1980, also reported single-digits for raids in recent decades.
Jeffrey Austin, Maine’s supervisor of liquor licensing and inspections, said the last time government agents broke up a still in Maine was in 1940. Since then, “We haven’t come across any of them,” he says. “We haven’t had any reported.”
Nevertheless, Austin says state law enforcers remain “extremely concerned” about illegal home distilling, because inept bootleggers could make products that constitute a “health hazard,” sickening or even killing people, and stills can cause fires (although there don’t appear to have been any cases of either in Maine in recent years).
Austin says the state is open to licensing small distilleries (which requires little more than paying a thousand dollar fee and undergoing a site inspection), so, “There’s no reason to be a bootlegger.”
But it’s not the state licensing process that keeps home distillers on the wrong side of the law. It’s the federal permits. It took the makers of Twenty 2 Micro Distilled Vodka in Houlton more than three years to get all the required approvals from the feds to open its operation, according to a 2010 story in the Bangor Daily News.
That could be changing. Ned Wight of New England Distilling in Portland hopes to be operating within six months of applying for his federal permits. Wight says the city of Portland’s fire inspection was more difficult than getting clearance from Washington. Nevertheless, Wight has an appreciation for the bureaucracy-free world of home distillers.
“Distilling is a nice mix of art and science,” he says. “Home producers are really pushing the limits of both.”
He says commercial distillers, even tiny ones like his operation, are limited in how much they can experiment, because they have to produce a marketable product. Bootleggers, unhampered by having to please customers, are free to try all sorts of unusual recipes and approaches.
“They’re pushing the whole segment,” Wight says, “as homebrewers did for microbrewing. They’re doing things that haven’t been done before or haven’t been done for a long time. They’re inspiring the micro-distilling market.”
He says he’d consider it “a plus” in hiring staff to know they’ve made alcohol on their own.
Which is good news for “Ezra,” a thirty-nine-year-old resident of a coastal town near Portland. He’s been distilling for eight years in hopes of gaining enough experience to start a small distillery. Ezra, after working at a Maine brewery, got his initial training for liquor production by traveling to another state to take a distilling course — in how to make ethanol for fuel. While helpful, that experience was no substitute for actually making alcohol for drinking. In experimenting with that, using an inexpensive copper still he bought online, he learned that the most important part of the process is getting the original fermented product to display the correct flavor characteristics. “That’s where the real trick is,” Ezra says. “Once you go to distilling, you’re just concentrating flavors. Distillation takes all the flavors and makes them stronger.”
“George” is another home distiller thinking of starting a commercial operation. He’s in his forties and lives in a suburb west of Portland. In 2009, he experienced a serious illness and saw his job in a retail craft slipping away in the recession. He looked around for ways to use his skills and after doing a lot of reading, bought a still online for three hundred dollars. He’s experimenting with brandies and an unusual business plan.
“I’m considering founding the company as a cooperative,” George says. “Farmers would bring me their products, and I’d distill them. It would be adding value to Maine produce.”
Not all the new bootleggers are male or hoping to go legit. “Nancy” is forty, lives in Portland, and caught the distilling bug while working for a brewery. About five years ago, her boss gave her some surplus equipment, and after some slight alterations, she had herself “the funkiest little pot still” in Maine. It looks like a milk can gone high-tech.
“I like the science of making things,” she says. “I grew up in the South, so I had tasted lots of moonshine.”
For her first batch, Nancy just poured in some old beer she had. That produced an unexpected — but not unpleasant — result. What should have been almost tasteless “white lightning” came out replete with floral accents from the hops. It was more complex than any shine I’d ever tried — even at 132 proof. She appropriately named it “Popskull.”
“The biggest issue is beer has hops in it,” she says. “Moonshine doesn’t. My stuff had a hoppiness that was kind of weird. I used it mostly as a mixer.”
After that, she did some research online and bought an old book on backwoods skills. “It told me how to make cheese, how to make moonshine,” she says. “I know the folklore.”
Nancy also learned temperature control, the key to keeping the wrong kind of impurities out of the finished product, while allowing the right kind that provides the distinctive flavors of the original ingredients. Mistaking one for the other is an invitation to ferocious hangovers, she says.
When I spoke with her, Nancy was busy fermenting molasses to make her first batch of rum.
Ask any of the home distillers I met why their hobby/vocational training project remains illegal and they usually focus on two issues: morality and money. There are still a lot of people who think imbibing alcohol is wrong no matter who makes it, while the government earns a lot of income taxing every ounce of that aforementioned immoral liquid.
“America’s got a love-hate relationship with alcohol at all levels,” says George. “There’s a sort of squirreliness around it for the middle class.”
As for the lost tax revenue, that argument carries little weight with Mark. “I don’t sell it,” he says. “I use it at home and with friends.
“If you added up all the taxes I didn’t pay on all the alcohol I’ve distilled over the years, I seriously doubt it would pay the salary of one ATF agent for one hour,” he adds.
There’s another issue that could be standing in the way of legalization. It takes time, energy, and devotion to make decent liquor. Booker doubts there are enough people out there with those qualities to reach the critical mass needed to sway a majority in Congress.
“As lazy as we are as Americans, it’s never going to be a big thing,” Booker says. “Most people have no patience to make these beverages.”
Too bad. Even though I’m part of the indolent majority, I’d like to do a lot more sampling.
Bootlegging is largely a hobby in Maine, but the state is also seeing a surge in legal distilleries. After nearly a decade spent building small breweries across the country, Chris Dowe turned his alchemic talents to the creation of Cold River Vodka. He is a partner with potato farmer Donnie Thibodeau, Donnie’s brother Lee Thibodeau, a Portland neurosurgeon, and former U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Harkins in the Freeport-based Maine Distilleries, the first commercial distillery to be built in Maine since 1947. Today six micro-distilleries produce spirits in the state.
What was the impetus for the founding of Maine Distilleries?
Donnie, who owns Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, was seeing a tick down in sales of cull potatoes — potatoes that are too small, too big, or misshapen to be sold fresh or processed into fries. He and Lee came up with the idea of making vodka, which at the time — around 2001, 2002 — was taking off as the nation’s number one spirit.
What was the micro-distillery landscape in 2005, when you released your first classic vodka?
There were about sixty small distilleries in North America, and most were making brandies and eau de vies. Now there are 248. We were one of the first to come out with an artisanal vodka and the first with a potato vodka. More and more grain vodkas have since popped up, but only a few potato vodkas — one in Pennsylvania, the other in Long Island, and a couple out West. We’re considered one of the old guys.
Does the Maine brand help sales nationally?
It does. I just got a call from a distributor in South Carolina saying, “Hey, I’ve heard about your vodka. I want to sell it down here.” We’ve had that happen in every state between here and Florida and out West. When you go to Massachusetts, the Maine cachet is there. They love Maine. We get the same response from the Washington D.C. and Maryland area. They love Maine, and our story is connected with Maine agriculture. Virginia M. Wright