Shine On: Moonshine's Mystique

The Scene of the Crime Was an Upscale Suburb

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

AN HOUR OUTSIDE NEW YORK CITY -- Near here was a grapevine. The vine grew long. Its fruit was plucked. The grapes were crushed. Their seeds and skins were separated. The juice made wine. And later, the seeds and skins were stuffed into garbage bags and dumped in the bed of a pickup truck to travel here to this front yard and, through simple chemistry and patient tending, become something entirely different, something not really legal, something as clear as spring water and flammable as gasoline.

They call this moonshine, but it ain't the stuff made with car radiators in the hillbilly country of the South. It is not for sale, but for personal consumption, and it is carefully handmade in the isolated yard of a home in a well-appointed suburb of New York City. It is part of a mini-renaissance of individual urban and suburban small-batch distillers in back yards, on rooftops, in kitchens and even occasionally here, in a clearing across from a forest.

"There have always been pockets of people who do it in the cities. It was never quashed entirely," says Matthew B. Rowley, author of "Moonshine!" Still, he says, "What you're seeing now is there are more people doing it, and they're also being more open about what they're doing."

It is a trend driven in part by immigrants, such as the Argentine man in Queens who goes to a local market that sells winemaking grapes and heaves home boxes of other people's leftover seeds and skins to ferment for his own grappa in his back yard. And it is driven in part by next-generation foodies forever seeking a more complex and rustic thrill from the homemade, such as a young American-born food blogger who experiments in his Brooklyn kitchen with delicate apple brandy and absinthe from homegrown herbs.

Here in this yard, from noon to nearly midnight on a Sunday last fall, an Armenian immigrant instructs a party of New Yorkers in the art of making a favorite alcohol of his native land and, all the while, drinks it with them.

"It's very strong," says Ashot, the Armenian, who does not give his full name because it against federal law to make liquor without paying taxes and getting permits.

The grape pips and skins have been sitting in a barrel for a month and have become a powerful yellow brew that stinks of ferment. This is the mash, and Ashot dumps a portion of it into a container over a fire.

He works on a homemade still. It is made from a $25 stainless-steel milk can (whose lid is held on with woodworking clamps), a stretch of copper pipe and half-inch copper tubing spiraling through a 55-gallon drum.

The fire burns on hickory wood gathered from the forest. The fire can't burn too hot, Ashot says, or it will put pressure on the mash; that's what causes moonshining disasters, explosions and fires.

As the mash boils, vapor rises into the pipe above. Where the neck of the pipe bends horizontally, the vapor travels through it and cools; where the pipe turns down vertically into a barrel of cold water from a garden hose, inside the pipe the vapor turns liquid. It drips into a waiting cup as spirits.

The first round is bluish in color -- still full of impurities, Ashot says. One woman grimaces as she tastes the first dribs. It must be distilled a second time, perhaps a third.

Ashot calls it vodka, though purists would say that only spirits made from barley, grain or potatoes deserve that name, and elsewhere in the world, people would call Ashot's grape-based brew grappa or aguardiente. It is for Ashot the elixir of alcohols. "This is clear," he demonstrates, holding a cup to the sunshine so the light shines through. "There's no smell. It is pure. You don't get a headache the next day."

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