Distilling Thoughts

Whiskey… It is a drink that is steeped in history. It has been with us in a similar form since around 1100CE and it continues to hang with us. Sure, it is just booze, but it is a historically important booze. We could wax on about kings and monks (and Whisky) but to me, the aspect that has the most significance is American whiskey. There is something about the frontier immigrant farmer that gets me. The Whiskey Rebellion occurred right after the Revolutionary War, which related to excise being placed on the whiskey that was used as a common currency at the time. You can read all about that somewhere else but what I will say is that the image of the hillbilly moonshiner goes back about that far. Anyway, there are myths and realities that go along with the clandestine whiskey maker, but regardless of the truth, the DIY ethos of the whole thing and the mystique of the involved risk gets me right there, you know?

The craft distillation movement going on currently got me thinking. I have had whiskey from a lot of places but I haven’t had it from my garage. I have been homebrewing forever and I minored in chemistry, how hard could it be? I went to work doing the research and read a ton of recipes and the related methods and scoured forums to get ideas about the practicality of the whole thing. Long story short, I picked up a still head that attaches to the top of an old beer keg which acts as a boiler. There are all sorts of random tubes, fittings and a pump all relating to cooling.

Off I went… I brewed up a batch of beer (unhopped and all malt) and called up a friend to come over and see if I could figure this device out. Seemed easy at the time. I set up the still on my trusty propane burner and cobbled together the cooling setup and turned on the fire. I was pretty nervous and frankly I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. I was keeping an eye on the thermometer and made my first and probably most important error in judgement. I thought, “hmm… this is going awfully slow… I am just going to turn up this flame a bit.”

Well, things started happening much quicker and I should point out that things are supposed to go slow – real slow. Think about it,  bluegrass and mountain music are influenced by music that was played to pass the time that it takes to distill whiskey. Well, call it beginner’s impatience. My still started producing, though. Clear liquid started to drip out. As expected the first little bit tasted like Hell. Not “tasted like hell” mind you, but like eternal fire and damnation.

I had a bunch of jars to collect small fractions throughout the process so I could get an idea of what needed to be separated. These are technical steps that allow the distiller to get the characteristics they are after. For me, I was just following the rules. Things started to move uncomfortably fast at this point and I had fluid coming out of the still at a faster rate than was prudent – I was grabbing jars, glasses, cans, cat dishes and anything else that I could collect my hooch in. Everything became a bit of a blur and I realized that there was also clouds of vapor coming out of the still as well. Extraordinarily flammable ethanol vapor. This became a bit of concern. My handy fire extinguisher wasn’t going to do much if there was a flash fire that neatly burned off all of my hair and ignited the leaky fuel from my neighbor’s vintage Volkswagen. This prompted me to check the cooling system and I realized that the cooling water was no longer cooling anything and I essentially had a potential flamethrower on my hands.

Compounding my consternation was the fact that when you breathe pure ethanol vapor, you get a buzz. (Not to mention the fact that we had done a lot of tasting.) So my friend and I are rebuilding the cooling system on the fly, getting loaded off of the air, and with watery eyes and sweaty brows, just generally trying not to blow ourselves up. We were happily distilling!

Needless to say, I am still here and we made it through. We got things under enough control to complete the process. I ran it for a while and collected the final fraction. Some cuts tasted like things out of nightmares, some just pretty rough, but there were a few that really did taste sweet, smooth and well, good. We cleaned up and my friend split. As I was sitting outside of my garage having a smoke, congratulating myself on surviving, (I was having that smoke pretty far outside of the garage for fear that an errant vapor cloud might ignite) my wife came home from a night out. I regaled her with my harrowing tale and she looked at me. “You are pretty proud of yourself aren’t you?” Well, yeah, I was. I made some mistakes and still have a lot to learn but I made my own whiskey. I had a hard time wiping the smile off of my face. As I thought about it, I was reminded of all of that history and the people who have done it for years. Admittedly, I have had my issues with this country, but at that point, I had never felt more American.

[Assume this story occurred in a place or time that allows distilling]

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