October 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years

Rehabbing a Lyon Mountain antique

so2009_pp14_webWhen my great-uncle Wally heard that I wanted to restore his dad’s homemade still, he said, “Why? You want to go blind?”

That was my first clue that making potable liquor wouldn’t be so easy. The second indication came when I saw the actual contraption. “Contraption” is probably not the right word, since it implies a larger piece of equipment. I had envisioned something along the lines of the setup Trapper and Hawkeye had on M*A*S*H; what I found was a 10-gallon copper kettle speckled with green patina. Its joints—and a bullet hole near the bottom—had been brazed with lead. Maybe Uncle Wally was right.

Alexander Kourofsky, Wally’s father and my great- grandfather, emigrated to the tiny hamlet of Lyon Mountain, in the northeastern tip of the Adirondack Park, from Poland in 1907. My knowledge of his life amounts to a few scraps: He left his homeland to escape the Russian draft. He married and had 11 children before his wife, Melvina, died from a stroke. He worked in Lyon Mountain’s accident-riddled iron-ore mines for most of his life. And, not surprisingly, he needed a drink every now and then.

The history of the still is even more mysterious. Everyone with direct knowledge of the kettle—where it was housed, what type of mash was distilled, how that bullet hole came to be—is long dead, though some stories have filtered through the generations. Wally remembers jars of hooch stored behind the stairs of the family’s cabin; my father has heard talk of Great-Grandpa lowering the apparatus into a mine shaft to hide it from authorities. Then there’s the time one of the older boys lay under the drip and got a lesson in alcohol poisoning.

Not much to go on. No record, oral or otherwise, of how to assemble a still or pump out bootleg, no old-timer left to show me the ropes. Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance at hands-on cultural anthropology—or, better yet, an­cestral anthropology. This beat-up boiler was a physical link to my past. Besides, Alexander had managed to hammer together a working system and put by a cubby-full of quart jars—all without at his fingertips, without a Lowe’s megastore, without power tools or a subscription to an alcohol afficionado blog. I had everything: a wealth of modern conveniences.

I also had a problem. After a few awkward phone calls, I discovered that backyard booze is as illegal today as it was during the Roaring ’20s. Sure, it’s unlikely an army of Eliot Ness–wanna­bes are tracking down every home-distilling hobbyist in rural America, but to be safe—and because I was an­nouncing my intentions in a magazine—I had to get right with the Feds.

The receptionist at the Bureau of Al­cohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seemed unimpressed with my scheme. When I ex­plained that no one would actually drink anything I distilled, since the lead-laced output would be un­safe, she replied, “If it’s not safe, why do it?”

Good question, but not what I wanted to hear. Her supervisor was more re­ceptive: Yes, they would consider issuing me a permit. That is, if I filed application 5110.74, in triplicate, along with copies of my driver’s license and the deed to my house, a description of the equipment, how it would be stored and secured, and a map of my property. Also, I would need to alert town officials and the fire department, and dispose of my product in accordance with the Clean Water Act. And, no, pouring it down my throat was not an approved method of disposal.

But, really, bureaucratic excesses were the least of my worries. There are plenty of dangers involved in distilling—risks that have more to do with fires and explosions than with gun-wielding revenuers. My husband once met a one-armed, badly burned moonshiner down South. “Well,” the man told him, “I learned what not to do.”

With flame and alcohol involved, trial and error is never the way to go. So Moonshine! by Mat­thew Rowley, with its simple explanations and de­tailed diagrams, became my new bi­ble. Unfortunately, the more I read, the less confident I felt.

It turns out the process is rather scientific, em­ploying the laws of chemistry and physics—two subjects I’ve spent most of my life avoiding. But Distilling for Dummies goes something like this: The eth­anol in mash (fermented grains, fruits or any kind of sugar) evaporates at a lower temperature than water. So, by regulating heat, steam from the alcohol can be drawn off and corralled into a cooling system (often copper tubing spiraled through cold water) where it condenses back to liquid and flows into waiting whiskey jugs—except for the first three to five ounces, which is pure methanol and should be dumped. Un­less you really do want to go blind.

As I was brushing up on my high-school science lessons, I realized that the project would oblige me to revisit shop class as well. There was metal work in­volved. Hand drills. Knowing the difference between inner- and outer-diameter measurements. It was around this time that I admitted defeat and ran to my father.

He helped me navigate the world of couplings and adapters, taught me to solder and drill. He also pointed out various flaws in my plans. How was I go­ing to regulate the heat source? (Apparently, using the backyard fire pit wasn’t the best idea.) How would I check the temperature of the mash?

It was while we were knee-deep in a discussion of how to attach a temperature gauge that my brother wandered in­to the garage and asked where my mash was fermenting.

Seems converting sugars to ethanol takes more time than I had anticipated. So it was back to town—my third shopping excursion—for fermentation supplies: bucket, yeast, airlock (a valve that keeps outside air from contaminating the ingredients—an item I’m sure Alexander would have scoffed at). And something to decompose.

The last item was the trickiest. I wanted an authentic ingredient, but had no clue what an early-20th-century hill-dweller might have used. Lyon Mountain isn’t exactly corn country and fruit, barring apples, would have been an out-of-reach luxury. Many recipes I found also took more time and effort than I cared to spend on something I couldn’t even drink. In keeping with my eastern-European roots, I finally settled on a potato base. I even found a bona fide recipe (ac­cording to the Internet, which would never lie to me) for samogon, or Russian moonshine. But I didn’t read the in­structions carefully, so I failed to notice that potatoes require an infusion of en­zymes (usually from crushed malted barley) to break down properly.

I was fresh out of crushed malted barley. It was late, I was tired, my potatoes were already grated and waiting to go. I toyed with the idea of skipping the en­zymes altogether, but I knew that strategy would never hold up to the im­mutable laws of science.

Rowley’s bootleg bible explained that the enzyme my potatoes needed, amylase, could be found in fresh ginger, ba­nana peels and saliva. I didn’t have ginger—that left bananas and spit. I’m sure finding me hawking into a pan of potato/oat/banana mush did more to turn my husband off white lightning than any skull-busting hangover ever could.

But I was feeling pretty good. The mash was brewing in its bucket and my system was tight—or so I thought. As we were gearing up for production my fa­ther found pin-size holes in the underbelly of the kettle. Patching the breaks wasn’t an option, since solder wouldn’t hold up to direct heat. What’s more, a closer inspection revealed that the entire bottom of the century-old pot was probably one good simmer away from total disintegration.

That marked the end of my flirtation with firewater. Didn’t matter—my mash was more fizzle than fermentation. So I decided to stick with a more easily crafted mountain-pantry staple: dandelion wine. No methanol, no potential for ex­plosions and virtually spit free.

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