The distiller's manifesto

By Alan Moen

When I handed him the glass, I wasn't sure at first if I wasn't being a bit presumptuous. The scene was the 1993 AHA convention in Portland, Oregon, a swirl of hundreds of beer enthusiasts sampling brews from throughout the United States. But the glass I gave Michael Jackson to taste was neither a homebrew nor a craft beer but something altogether different: a dram of my own whisky.

Jackson took an analytical sniff, then tasted it without the slightest hesitation. He pronounced it good, and asked me a question or two about how it had been aged, noting its oak-derived aroma. I was as happy to provide the details as if he had praised an IPA I had made. And why not? This was my own "single malt" stuff, just as carefully crafted as my beer would have been.

I've always felt a kinship between brewing and distilling. In the case of malt whisky, the ingredients (minus the hops) are virtually the same. Distilling simply adds one more step to the post-fermentation process.

In fact, the making of whisky from barley malt is a more modern twist on the centuries-old art of brewing and an equally inseparable element of civilization. The enjoyment of distilled spirits, long celebrated romantically in verse and song, is an important human tradition. From countries as diverse as Poland to Mexico, the making of spirits has been considered as much a part of the agricultural household as growing the grain or vegetables that they are derived from. It follows, then, that in many agricultural countries such as France (where wine itself is considered an agricultural product) non-commercial distilling is perfectly legal. With one very large exception, of course: the United States.

When emigrants arrived here from Europe, they brought with them a desire to duplicate their culture and its cuisine in a new land. Italian families immediately began growing grapes to make wine. The Pilgrims, who, as is well documented, were forced to choose Plymouth as a landing site because they were running out of beer, likewise sought a way to make their own ale. It was not long before the brandywijn - "burnt wine" introduced to the English market by the Dutch, became an interest of the colonists as well. Americans, in typical fashion, found new ways of doing things, and so invented applejack and sour-mash corn whiskey. The latter, also known as moonshine, became a significant cottage industry, especially in the South, considerably aided by the folly of prohibition. The romance of the "still in the hills" , hidden from the prying eyes of the "revenuers", is a permanent part of American folklore.

But the legacy of illegal distilling, like its homebrewing counterpart, has a dark side as well. A lack of proper equipment, supplies and information about the process created the fog of ignorance that persists today. Just as much of the "bathtub beer" created during the era was of poor quality, the same was true of the whiskey. Add to this the typical stories of stills blowing up and people going blind from drinking their creations, and you've got something close to the current conception about home distilling. No wonder there has been so little appreciation in this country for the great single malt whiskies of Scotland until relatively recently; the stigma of a moonshine mentality persists.

I'd like to suggest that it's time for a change: household distilling should be legalized. There is no compelling reason why citizens of the United States should be denied the right to make their own whisky, or brandy, grappa, or eau-de-vie for their own consumption. I've done it for years, and haven't gone blind yet. The trial and error I experienced at distilling would have been minimized by bringing the process out of its clandestine closet and allowing the free exchange of information. Far from turning every brewer into a slave of "demon rum." the legal right to distill would allow the production of better sprits and probably increase the demand for the finer commercial ones as well.

So here's to home distilling and the end of pot-still prohibition. Write your congressman or President Clinton, who enjoyed a tiny barrel of specialty brandy produced in California for his inauguration. Learn to extract the "juice of the barley." Distill free or die!

© 1996 Alan Moen