Still Life

By Todd Parker Photography by Rylan Perry

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Still Life:

Can you toss me that blowtorch?” Copper sheets have been bent and riveted into a perfect cylinder, and Michael is making a series of cuts with a pair of clippers. After the cut segments have been bent around the base of the cylinder, they’ll be soldered down, and the foundation of a genuine moonshine pot still will be in place. “This thing is fucking busted,” Michael says after repeated attempts to fire it up with a Bic lighter. “Can you run to the hardware store up the road and see if they have another one?”

{"pbembedwidget":"gallery","id":"14077","size":"small","alignment":"right"} If sliding along a mud road in my SUV, blaring Creedence, isn’t enough to remind me I’m in the deep, dirty South, the hardware store certainly is. The lady at the register greets me in true Southern fashion with a heartfelt “What you need, babe?” and takes my gaze away from the case of large fuck-off knives for sale. The store also sells stockpots big enough to hold 20 chickens, dog food by the pound and crickets by the dozen. “What you need this for?” she asks. “Just lighting a fire,” I reply, knowing I’m heading back to chronicle activities that could land a man in prison for up to five years.

The word moonshine evokes images of backwoods rednecks spitting tobacco off a rickety front porch, producing their own booze either because they can’t afford to buy it or because the “local” liquor store is a two-hour drive on a two-lane highway. But as I roll up a muddy road to a tranquil farm in eastern Louisiana, those antiquated clichés disappear. No, there is no menacing Confederate flag, no major appliances strewn across the lawn, no banjo-strumming kid with a chromosomal disorder. Instead, two Renaissance men balancing a tattooed-and-bearded edge with a softer, creative side (one is an artist, the other a writer) emerge, waving me into their world—a world where simple supplies such as copper and corn combine with fire and air to produce one of the smoothest, most powerful liquors anywhere.

Homemade hooch has been produced for hundreds of years in America, but a new breed of experts is taking it to another level. Just as menus at popular restaurants boast farm-to-table food, moonshine, or white whiskey, is bellying up to bars both rustic and refined. And we’re not talking about the recent arrival of the many fully legal, federally approved brands sold in liquor stores. This is the real renegade deal. Any watering hole worth a damn has a bottle stashed somewhere. Getting access to that bottle is a different story. Not only is it hard to find, but bartenders treat it like a secret treasure. You can’t just order it from your local liquor distributor. Like rare strains of weed or a vintage French burgundy, modern moonshine is held onto by a secret society of enthusiasts who share it only with their most trusted confidants. When I revealed my mission to three of the most renowned cocktail experts in the country, each offered to pay for a taste. The best offer was a vintage motorcycle if I could deliver three gallons.

If Michael is the MacGyver of the two, torching and riveting his way through the still’s construction, Dave is the Thomas Keller, cooking the moonshine. (Names have been changed to protect their identities.) Eyeing a mix of cornmeal, corn sugar, yeast and water, Dave has clearly done this before. His brother Jimmy, visiting from Chicago, looks on, chain-smoking Winstons and adding his two cents on the recipe. Together they resemble a Southern rock band that’s been on the road a few weeks too long. After seven hours the still is complete. Three days of fermenting in a 55-gallon food-grade drum has created enough mash to begin cooking. The brothers pour 20 gallons of mash into the boiler. “You give that leftover mash to the pigs and they get fucking wasted,” Dave claims. In 10 hours we’ll have a gallon of 160-proof moonshine.

Gathered in a woodshed that Dave built with his bare hands and decorated with his artwork, they start a fire directly beneath the still. The combination of highly flammable alcohol and dry wood makes me more nervous than does Dave’s “music box” fashioned out of an old Ouija board and a crucifix (it plays the theme to Love Story when you turn Jesus a few times). Three cases of beer later, we have enough to sample. “Get in there,” Michael says, handing me a mason jar. The vapors burn my nose. Bracing for impact, I knock back a full shot. A rush smacks me upside my head even before it hits my stomach. It’s good. Very good. Strong, yes, but rich and rounded and slightly sweet from the corn. Everyone takes a turn, exchanging handshakes and backslaps as if we had just won the Super Bowl of booze.

After a solid three hours of drinking, a .22-caliber rifle makes an appearance. Michael and Jimmy take turns shooting at two empty beer cans that have been placed about 50 yards down a trail leading into the woods. Michael rocks back and forth, trying to regain his composure after an afternoon of sampling his wares. He misses on two attempts. “I’ve seen him take the head off a squirrel from twice as far as this,” Dave claims. “But he’s way too fucked-up now to hit those.” Michael turns around and stares at him, channeling his inner Cool Hand Luke. Somehow he pulls his shit together, takes out both cans with two shots, then hands Dave the rifle and grabs the mason jar.

My head is spinning from the combination of gunfire and too many pulls on the jar. I see a sedan pull up the road but stop because of a muddy pond that has formed. Two old ladies emerge. They heard roosters crowing and want to know if we have any eggs to sell. Michael and Jimmy quickly defuse the situation by sweet-talking the women and giving them a tour of the garden. Dave walks double-time to the woodshed to guard the still. After a tense half hour, the women drive off. While Dave wipes the sweat from his forehead, Jimmy walks in and grabs the jar, taking a long drink and lighting another smoke. “They’re gone, man,” Jimmy says. “You can peel off that paranoia for now.”

There are several ways to construct a still, but the pot-still method has been used for hundreds of years and will deliver smooth, clean moonshine for as long as you have the stones to drink it. Like real barbecue, this is no rush job. Here’s how the shiners do it. (Needless to say, don’t try this at home.) Copper is key Copper conducts heat rapidly and evenly, is bacteria resistant, lasts forever, is easy to manipulate and looks gorgeous. Soldering, blowtorching and riveting skills are essential. To build the boiler tube, start with a three-by-five-foot copper sheet. Bend it around to form a tube, overlapping the ends by two inches. Drill rivet holes through the overlapping section one inch apart. Rivet and solder the edges together to make it airtight. Build the bottom Leak-proofing is crucial. Cut a copper circle an inch and a half larger in diameter than your riveted tube. Clip a series of three-quarter-inch cuts one to two inches apart around the edge of the circle. Bend the segments up and around the bottom edge of the boiler tube. Solder each segment to the bottom of the tube to form an airtight base. Test the tube by filling it with water. If there are leaks, go back and solder until there are none. Cone head Make the top of the boiler by cutting copper into a cone shape. The top of the cone should be small enough to fit an elbow joint tightly. Use cardboard templates to size the cone so it hangs over the top of your boiler tube by about an inch. Use the same riveting method you used on the boiler tube, overlapping the edges, riveting and then soldering. Turn the entire tube upside down and solder the top of the tube to the bottom of the cone. Elbow grease Insert a copper elbow joint into the top of the cone. If it doesn’t fit perfectly, don’t panic; simply cut a copper ring to cover gaps and solder it to the elbow and cone. (Patch leaks later with a trick using oatmeal; see “Shine On.”) Solder an 18- to 24-inch copper tube to the elbow. In this tube, insert the end of a thin spiral copper tube, or worm, and solder together. Place the free end of the worm in a large barrel or metal trash can (this will be the cooling barrel). Cool down Drill a hole in the cooling barrel one foot up from the bottom and feed the end of the worm through it to form a spout. Either solder or use cork to seal around the spout.

A tried-and-true recipe for real-deal moonshineStart with 15 pounds of sugar, five pounds of cornmeal, one pound of corn sugar, five to six gallons of distilled water and four to six ounces of distiller’s yeast. Purchase a 15- to 20-gallon food-grade plastic container online or at an industrial-­supply feed store and clean it thoroughly. Then clean it again. It can’t be too clean. Combine sugar, cornmeal, corn sugar and distilled water in the plastic container. The water should be at or just below 104 degrees. Anything above that will kill the yeast. Stir for one minute and sprinkle in the package of distiller’s yeast, which can be found online or at any home-brewing store. Test alcohol content: When you start the mash it should register anywhere from 14 to 20 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) on a hydrometer. Cover the container and let the mash ferment for three to seven days, depending on air or room temperature. It’s done when it stops foaming. Check the mash with your hydrometer again. It should read between zero and four percent ABV. Strain the mash to remove clumps of corn and pour it into your still, leaving at least six inches from the top. Heat the bottom of the still until the mash reaches about 172 degrees. Alcohol evaporates at 172 degrees and water at 212. It’s crucial the mash not approach 212 degrees, or your moonshine will become watered down. Alcohol vapors will gather in the cone, elbow and worm. Add cold water to the cooling barrel so it cools the moonshine as it flows through the worm. Prepare an entire package of oatmeal as directed. Let it cool and add one to two cups of rye flour to make a paste. If leaks appear on the still, cover with the paste. It will harden as it heats, forming an airtight seal. Place a clean container under the spout coming out of your cooling barrel to collect the moonshine. Continue collecting until it no longer pours out, about 15 hours. Transfer the moonshine to clean mason jars. But you already knew that.

Finding moonshine—real moonshine—is like picking up a woman: You need to be cool, convincing and confident. Start at a cocktail-centric bar. Take a seat and chat up the bartender. Talk about liquor, bitters, wines, beer—anything that shows you’re in the know about booze. When you’ve established a rapport, slip in a story—true or not—about how you were in Alabama, Texas, New Orleans or Nashville and came across some moonshine. Compare it to grappa on steroids. Odds are the bartender will ­reciprocate with a story of his or her own. No one likes to talk about booze more than a knowledgeable bartender. Once you’re at this point, it’s only a matter of time before they’re pulling out a jar or pointing you to another bar that has the real shit.


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