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
I've always felt a kinship between brewing and distilling. In the
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
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
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.
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