A hot plate, a wok and some fruit

Times Staff Writer

FRESH fruit is a glorious thing. But what do you do when the markets are overflowing with it and you bring home more fruit than you can possibly eat? Force it on your neighbors? Learn how to can? Turn it into compost?

In Europe, berries, stone fruits and apples are often distilled into elegant fruit brandies called eaux de vie. There's also a tradition of home-distilled spirits in this country, but here we might call them by a more poetic-sounding name: moonshine.

Unfortunately for anybody with too many peaches or plums, you can't legally operate a still in this country without jumping through a lot of regulatory hoops. In fact, if your kid wanted to distill alcohol for a science project, the school would have to get licensed as an Alcohol Fuel Plant. (Remember to submit application 5110.74 to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.)

Nevertheless, Matthew B. Rowley wrote "Moonshine!" just to encourage us to jump through all those hoops and try our hands at distilling.

Making small-batch spirits has the potential to be a connoisseur's pursuit parallel to home brewing. And as we know, the home brew movement of the '80s led directly to the wide variety of microbrews and craft beers available to us today.

Rowley, a food writer and a former board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, points out that home distilling isn't inherently an outlaw thing. At the time of the American Revolution, most families distilled all sorts of things for their own use, and the lady of the house was the one in charge of the stillroom.

Still, the cover of his book is a bit misleading -- it shows a stereotypical hillbilly and his dog and promises "drinking songs, knee-slappers and tall tales." Rowley does include that sort of country corn, but this book isn't the liquid cousin of the white trash cookbooks that had a vogue in the '80s -- it's about the world of home distillation, legal as well as illegal, urban and rural, past, present and possibly future.

Much of the story he tells is familiar: the frontier farmers who took to selling corn whiskey because they couldn't transport their corn crop on the bad roads of the time; the wars with revenue agents; Prohibition; the daredevil moonshine haulers who later became some of the top NASCAR drivers.

It will come as a surprise to some people to learn that moonshine is not dead -- far from it. There's big money in supplying disreputable bars with cheap, headachy 'splo (short for "explosion") distilled from sugar and cattle feed.

Home distillers

WHAT has come close to dying out is the old-time country moonshiner who took pride in the quality of his sippin' whiskey, Rowley says. But he sees a countervailing rise of quality-minded home distillers. Many of them, he says, build their own stills (in some cases, just possibly because the government requires companies that sell stills to report the names of buyers). They cull recipes from rare book collections to re-create old-time whiskeys or they make brandy, rum, cachaca, grappa and other spirits.

It helps his credibility that he has clearly tasted a lot of moonshine, good and bad. This may be the only book you ever read in which you can find, in effect, tasting notes on liquor that came in unlabeled fruit jars.

Rowley has an enthusiastic taste for the good stuff, but he makes no bones about the fact that a lot of commercial moonshine is shoddily made or even poisonous. It may contain lead because the stills have been cheaply put together with lead-based solder, and there's a chilling list of additives some moonshiners resort to for more "kick," including lye and embalming fluid.

In cheering for a revival of home distilling, Rowley is careful to say that he's not advising anybody to bypass any of the convoluted federal and state regulations on distilling -- the Feds alone can hit you with a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. (By the way, he gives some links to the Tax and Trade Bureau's website concerning those regulations, but the links no longer work, so you should just go to its home page, www.ttb.gov, and hunt around for the link you want, such as FAQs.) On the contrary, he expresses the hope that the more people practice home distillation legally, the more the government will be pressured to relax those laws, just as it decriminalized home brewing in 1978.

Having whetted our appetites with his picture of the home-distilling world, Rowley proceeds to give 70 pages' worth of detailed instructions on how to do it yourself. How to build a still out of a three-foot square of copper, a bunch of copper tubing and some reducing couplers. (It certainly looks doable, though the seams do have to be brazed with an acetylene torch, so it might help to have connections at a sheet metal shop.) How to brew a mash from grain or fruit. How to distill it, in 12 steps.

Then he gives 23 recipes for home-distilled booze, ranging in complexity from the elementary white sugar 'splo that commercial moonshiners make to home versions of bourbon, rye, grappa and even East Asian rice brandy. He seems particularly keen on split brandy, which is made from a mixture of corn and peaches.

A simple setup

JUST to make the idea seem more real, Rowley describes a kind of still that you could improvise out of ordinary household utensils: a stockpot, a bowl, an electric hot plate with a temperature control and a wok.

(The wok has to be the old-fashioned type with a round bottom, not the flat-bottomed type designed for using directly on a range burner. And it has to be made of shiny stainless steel, because an iron wok apparently will give a bad flavor.)

First you have to make some home brew out of fruit or grain. When it's fermented, you strain off the liquid part (called the wash or beer) and put that in the stockpot, which sits on the hot plate. Then you float the bowl in the pot, set the wok on top and turn on the hot plate.

When alcohol vapor starts rising, you fill the wok with ice. The fumes condense on the bottom of the wok and drip into the bowl. That crystal-clear liquid is raw whiskey or brandy: moonshine.

Rowley is far from the first to describe this elemental rig. In fact, it's one of the most ancient still designs, widely known to this day in East Asia. It was the sort of still used for making tequila in 19th century Mexico. Not the hot plate or ice-filled wok part, of course, but the idea of condensing inside the heating chamber.

It's actually a pretty lousy design -- you have to reach into the stockpot from time to time and empty the bowl into some sort of jar, or your precious moonshine will start to boil off.

There's a huge amount of waste and very little control over the end product. That's why a serious still draws off all the vapor in a tube called an arm and condenses it outside the heating chamber, so the distiller can carefully separate desirable and undesirable fractions of the still run.

Still, the stockpot-wok still makes it clear what an elemental process distilling is: Vaporized liquid condenses on a cold surface. If you wanted to produce a good-tasting product, or one that wouldn't give you headaches or ethanol poisoning, there are apparently many more details to master. But countless numbers of people have mastered them in the past. And, you have to figure, felt darn proud of themselves.

This idea of home distilling is a seductive fantasy, even though distilling is more complicated than home brewing. (And, because high-proof alcohol is a fire hazard, it's more dangerous, which is a serious consideration.)

Understandably, not many of us are ready to deal with the current regulations imposed by all levels of government. Just for the federal TTB's go-ahead, you have to pay a tax, post a bond, prove all your equipment and drainage are up to code, provide a separate structure for the still (not a dwelling, probably because of the fire danger) and do huge amounts of paperwork on an ongoing basis.

But if enough of us try, maybe Rowley's vision will become reality, and one day it will be easier for us to make our own, just as our ancestors did at the time of the Revolution.

Rowley's book sure makes that sound like fun.

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charles.perry@latimes.com

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