The secret life of the moonshiners among us
With some cheap equipment and simple ingredients, they brew their homemade elixirs in private, risking heat from the feds and the state.
Seattle Times staff reporter
To meet a moonshiner, you have to abide by certain conditions.
No names, he told us. No addresses. No identifying details.
If we disagree? No dice.
Nearly 80 years after the end of Prohibition, making your own spirits is still a state and federal crime. Yet anecdotal evidence abounds that these laws increasingly are being broken from Seattle to Spokane and beyond. Aspiring Gatsbys, it turns out, are cooking up mischief right beneath our noses. Is it cheaper than the legal stuff? Tastier? We wanted to find out.
So on a recent rainy Tuesday, we took a trip to see a man who calls himself Zymurgy Bob, a godfather, of sorts, to modern-day moonshiners. He had just finished seven weeks of touring to promote his book, "Making Fine Spirits."
To meet Bob, we traveled by car, by boat, and then by car again, until we finally made our way down a dead-end lane to a ramshackle house. OK, it wasn't exactly ramshackle. In fact, he had just installed a new deck. But it was definitely a house. Out front sat a still, cleverly hidden underneath a tarp.
Suddenly, a dog burst out from nowhere, with Bob hot on his heels. Could be trouble.
The dog sniffed, wagged, and went away. Bob stretched out his hand, with a big smile, looking less like a bearded hillbilly and more like, well, a retired engineer. Which is what he is. Brainy. Gray hair. A little soft around the middle. With a lovely wife who set out a platter of fancy cheese before retiring to a back room.
As hummingbirds sipped sweet water from a backyard feeder, Bob began cooking up his own nectar. On the electric range.
And so began our journey into the world of homemade hooch.
If you want to make your own still on the cheap, Bob explained, you can get just about everything you need at Home Depot. It won't look pretty, but it will work.
Or, you can saunter into a local store and buy a real one. At least two home-brew shops in Seattle sell them.
It used to be that Bob's Homebrew Supply — no relation to Zymurgy Bob — dealt mostly in beer-making gear. In the past few years, sales of small-scale stills at the shop have spiked.
"But we try not to discuss it," proprietor Bob Beattie said.
In fact, he prefers to call them "home water-purification systems."
One of liquor-enforcement's many quirks is that selling a still is legal in Washington. That's because stills can be used to make all sorts of things. Essential oils, for instance. And distilled water.
"You can buy very cheap units for your water-purification needs," he said. The rig he recommends goes for $525.
Wait — $525 to turn water into ... water?
"Basically," Beattie sighed, "it's a legal route to an illegal activity."
There's no shortage of online suppliers, vibrant chat rooms and books by Zymurgy Bob and others who take some of the mystery out of it. A website for home distillers, artisanresources.com, has grown to 3 million hits a month, up from 200,000 four years ago, its webmaster says.
In Washington, part of the popularity has to do with the 2008 law that made it easier (but by no means easy) to open a small distillery here.
Some people believe — mistakenly — that home-distillation is now legal, Beattie said.
The growing popularity of cocktail culture is also a factor.
"People come in all the time and say, 'I want to operate a still,' " explained Andrew Friedman, owner of the Capitol Hill cocktail hot spot Liberty and president of the Washington State Bartenders Guild. Some of the buyers are reportedly high-end bartenders themselves.
But they'll never tell. It might attract unwanted attention.
Around these parts, however, the feds don't seem all that interested. And neither does the state.
It makes you wonder why it's still illegal. After all, the government lets you brew your own beer. Wine, too.
Some say it's all about the liquor taxes.
Spirits have always been treated ... differently, said Washington Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith.
Even Liquor Control was hard-pressed to come up with a recent case of prosecuting someone for bootlegging. The closest they came was in 2009, when they issued a news release announcing they'd caught a Skagit County woman selling an apple-flavored concoction she called Darrington Moonshine on Craigslist.
The case quickly soured. According to Liquor Control enforcement Capt. Thomas Dixon, the woman confessed that she had bought plain alcohol at the liquor store, then added apple cider and cinnamon.
Miss Darrington Moonshine hadn't distilled anything. "She was just making a recipe," Dixon said.
Liquor Control likes to say getting a state distillery permit is now a relatively simple matter.
That may be true. But first you have to get a permit from the feds. You'll likely need a lawyer.
Since it's forbidden to distill in your home, you have to find someplace else and sign a lease. City code enforcement and the fire marshal have to sign off. Your bottles have to be government approved. So does your label design and your equipment and just about everything else you can think of.
In Washington, 50 craft distilleries have emerged from the process.
Steven Stone, who opened Sound Spirits, the first craft distillery in Seattle, said it took him more than a year to get his permits. "Think about a year's worth of commercial rent," he said. Before selling a single bottle.
Erik Chapman, head distiller at Sun Liquor, said it took them two years. Now, you can buy Sun Liquor's vodka and gins at its Pike Street distillery or in some stores. Chapman is a real student of the craft. He waxes poetic about his gin's aromatics — the juniper, the cardamom, the lavender — about its delicacy, its balance.
A recent article in Wired magazine estimated it costs $1 million to open a place like Sun Liquor or Sound Spirits, though that estimate could be on the high side. Still, it raises a question: You have to spend a cool million — or convince investors to foot the bill — and only THEN can you start in with your juniper and your cardamom and actually make the stuff? Really?
"Well, that is a bit of a touchy subject," said Stone, before changing the subject.
"This is where the wink wink, nudge nudge comes in," explained Mike McCaw, who owns the Seattle-based Amphora Society, which sells distilling books and equipment online. Basically, he says, a balance has been achieved: The feds don't ask legal distillers how they got their start, and the distillers don't tell.
Back at Zymurgy Bob's, a batch of brandy was coming off the still — though we're using the term "still" loosely. For our visit, Bob used a homemade rig featuring a coffee pot, some tubing, and a plastic bucket of water. He calls it his teaching still.
Basically, you put beer or wine in the pot (he used raspberry port), put it on the stove, and slowly bring up the temperature. Expect to spend the next few hours hovering.
Heads, hearts and tails
Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the alcohol in the wine will turn into vapor and rise through the tubing, while the water stays in the pot. The tube travels through a water bath, which cools the vapor and turns it back into a liquid. Voilà! Booze.
Except you can't actually drink a good portion of it. Distillers talk about three stages: the "heads," the "hearts" and the "tails."
"It's a continuum of nasty stuff to unpleasant stuff, with the sweet spot in between," Zymurgy Bob explained. The trick is knowing which is which.
Several hours after first turning on the electric range, he had a batch of brandy. All told, it took 1.5 liters of raspberry port to make about 6 ounces of brandy. That's right, less than a cup. And by the way, Zymurgy Bob had made the port beforehand. Oh, and he had grown the raspberries, too.
"If anybody really thinks we're getting away with something ... " he says, his voice trailing off.
So why does anyone do this?
"There's a lot of romance surrounding the operation of a still," Dixon, the enforcement officer, acknowledged. Folklore, too.
"It's just kind of a cool thing," he said. "I don't know how else to put it."
He hastened to add, however, that it is still a crime.
News researcher Justin Mayo contributed to this report.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published July 7, 2012, was corrected July 8, 2012. A previous version of this story made reference to six ounces being less than half a cup. It should have said six ounces is less than a cup.