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."

Homemade vodka, he says, is a cure for just about any ill. Pour it on children's hands to keep them from getting sick. Rub it on a sick person's body to bring down a fever. And then, of course, some might take a swig to dull emotional or physical pain.

Back in rural Armenia, he would help his parents and grandparents make vodka by carrying wood or fetching a bucket of water from the river. Now he has other reasons to labor for a day to produce a year's supply of liquor. When you make vodka by your own hand, you can have confidence in its ingredients and know it was created with care, says Ashot, who comes from a part of the world where death by alcohol made with perfume, after-shave or cleaning fluids is not uncommon. His homemade brew, he insists, is cheap but good, as good as the premium Russian stuff that costs $70 a bottle.

Bulk grape sellers in Brooklyn and the Bronx will tell you that some of their best customers -- Italians and Argentines, Croatians and Portuguese -- have always supplemented their winemaking -- which is legal -- with a batch of illegal grappa, and they cite the same reasons Ashot does.

Most every place in the world has its homemade hard liquor: Chilean aguardiente, made with almonds and walnuts; Cambodian lao khao, sometimes infused with scorpions; Lebanese arak, with aniseed. And in recent decades, as people from all over have immigrated to American cities, you can bet that in every urban center, some thirsty soul has tried to re-create the alcohol of home.

Another factor has contributed to the rise of the urban and suburban home distillery, and that is the Internet, says Allen Katz, the chairman of the board of Slow Food USA and a mixologist himself. The Internet has been a boon to all kinds of semi-licit activities, enabling people to read and learn in the privacy of their homes and order the materials they need with the click of a mouse, he says.

"We're not talking about building a bomb here," Katz says. "We're talking about a practice that has been done for centuries."

It has spawned a spate of "I'm going to make my own damn hooch" moonshiners, he says, who use a crude sugar wash to get the maximum proof with the minimum work and learn how to do it on Web sites such as Homedistiller.org, based in New Zealand, where home distilleries are legal.

The Internet has also fueled the resurgence of interest in artisanal liquor traditions, an offshoot of the general renaissance in handcrafted food production. The trend attracts a Harvard-educated lawyer here, a Manhattan chef there, people who have lofty ambitions for their product and a notion of the science behind making spirits: the ease or difficulty of distilling a particular grain, the pH and sugar levels in one kind of apple vs. another.

Enter the Brooklyn food blogger, who refuses to give his name for fear of legal repercussions, who mounts his still on top of his kitchen stove to take advantage of its steady gas flame.

He makes apple brandy from apple cider he fermented, distilling it to ramp up the alcohol content to 140 proof. He distills mead he first made from local buckwheat honey.

Hoping to pay back his college loans, he toyed last summer with the idea of making and selling absinthe, the "green fairy" long illegal in the United States, but his plans were stymied when he found out absinthe is now being imported legally.

He wants to make whiskey, but not just average whiskey. He will use heirloom floor-malted Scottish barley: grain that was spread over the floor of a building in Scotland, hosed down, raked periodically until it sprouted, then put in a kiln to dry. The food blogger bought an old cast-iron grain mill to crack the grain himself.

He plans this summer to make slivovitz, from plums, and would also like to try to distill maple syrup.

"I'm a tinkerer," he says. "I want to see how to capture the flavor and the essence of a perfectly ripe apple, or whatever it is I'm using."

And then there is Ashot, who swigs coffee and sucks on cigarettes as he contemplates the fire of his still amid a crowd of New York City artist and media types. By moonrise, the smell of ferment and smoke fills the air. A swallow of fresh vodka burns straight down to the gut. "This is good," Ashot says, smiling.

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