Out of the backwoods

Modern moonshiners share their thoughts on the craft

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If one were asked to describe what they think of as a moonshiner, the image that comes to mind is typically of a toothless, overall-wearing hillbilly, with a hard, southern drawl often accompanied with subtitles on the Discovery Channel and a middle-finger attitude when it comes to the law. A different picture emerges when looking at the modern community of moonshiners in Colorado.

The ’shiners here are more indicative of the Coloradolandscape, made up of engineers, hobby homebrewers and amateur craftsmen. None of the people I spoke to recently sell their wares, and those who do are lambasted in online forums. They all asked that their identities remain anonymous due to the illegal nature of distilling one’s own spirits, and so names have been changed. It is, however, legal to own a still, as most homebrew stores have parts and manuals available for purchase, and the penalty for distilling in Colorado is considered a misdemeanor.

The binding threads among those who were willing to answer my questions were that they aren’t against regulation of the hobby, and that the media has blown the dangers out of proportion and even led to the exacerbation of some of those dangers.

Greg Lawrie, a veteran home distiller, says his father lived in Tennessee where moonshining was and is still very much a part of the culture. It was a novelty to him as a kid, and when he got older he started making it himself in the ’90s and “had to rely on second-hand information from some of my extended family in the south.”

“In those days I would make a few gallons a year and honestly, it wasn’t that good. I would mostly keep it around as a novelty,” Lawrie says. “I have to say that in the last five to seven years the Internet has made it possible to gather a great deal of information and my quality has improved dramatically.”

Others started out as homebrewers, or began because of friends who distilled, or just out of plain curiosity. What they all have in common is the pursuit of a well-crafted, artisanal product, akin to that of a home cheese maker or home-brewer. A few have honed their spirits enough that they are considering opening their own legal distillery in the future.

A point driven home by each was, how is one to get experience distilling and know if they want to turn their hobby into a business without trying it out first?

“If you were to open a bakery, and you’d never baked before, why would you spend money on a license and equipment if you don’t even know it’s for you? Obviously it’s a farce,” says Jeff Hughes, an intermediate hobbyist who has been distilling for several years. Other proponents of the legalization of home distilling cite countries such as New Zealand where you’re free to hobby distill, as well as the innovative benefits of having a large group of amateurs enter the craft scene.

Craig Engelhorn, co-founder and head distiller at Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons, draws comparisons with a seemingly unrelated, yet analogous hobby: astronomy.

“There are so many people with telescopes in their backyards that there’s a certain amount of research that can’t be done on that kind of scale by regular academic institutions. So, the amateur astronomer has discovered comets; they do all kinds of stuff that contributes to the science in their backyards. It’s a similar kind of thing. The amateurs come up with innovations,” says Engelhorn (whose name was not changed for this piece).

Engelhorn merges the philosophical with the practical in his ideals about the industry and relates innovations to the artisan nature of craft distilling, and how amateurs in New Zealand drive the vicissitude of the industry.

“When you throw in a bunch of amateurs, they ask ‘What do I have? How can I do this?’ They come up with solutions to problems that the old boys don’t even realize are problems, or other ways to do things because they’re not even thinking that way. So, I think the New Zealanders kind of advanced not just home distilling, but they advanced the art of distilling because a whole bunch of people got to use their brains on a problem,” Engelhorn says.

Hughes, the intermediate distiller, additionally points out that as an amateur making very small batches for yourself and a handful of friends, you can afford to experiment and take greater risks in recipes.

“You’re not bound by any financial constraint,” he says. “Ingredients are fairly cheap. The problem you have with craft distilleries is that they have such overhead they need to make as much as they can. When you’re not under pressure of production you can make stingy cuts,” he adds, referring to the amount of impurities removed from the beginning and ends of a distilling run.

Despite the barriers of the law, the distillers I spoke with don’t seem to have any real qualms about continuing to make spirits at home. Bill Teller, an engineer on the Front Range, says he got into home distilling because he was “interested in knowing the process.” He has only made a handful of batches, but from the get-go hasn’t made it a large point to hide his new hobby, but also has no intention of advertising it.

“From an anonymous perspective, I don’t see it as a big deal in Colorado,” Teller says. “It’s certainly not illegal to own a still, or to buy materials. I’ve gone as far as using my still in my garage, which is facing a cul-de-sac, and all my neighbors can see me do it. They think it’s cool too. I don’t think that there’s a stigma attached to it, at least locally with the people I live around.”

Other distillers echoed this sentiment.

“To be honest, I don’t fear Colorado when it comes to distilling, as they classify it as a petty offense,” Lawrie, the veteran distiller, says. “However, I don’t much trust the federal government, and have made it a point to limit how much information I share online in regards to this over the last few years. I also can’t say that I know of anyone who has had problems with the authorities.”

Opponents and legal officials will cite the dangers of distilling, from explosions to poisonous methanol, which is produced in the first runnings of liquor. But what the home distillers name as the real dangers are keeping it an underground hobby and its portrayal in popular media.

“It’s not building a potato gun. Hobby distilling is serious,” Hughes says. “The danger with YouTube, as long as [distilling] stays illegal, [is that] people might not get correct information about it and that’s what opens it up to being a dangerous hobby.”

Hughes went on to describe the amount of videos he’s seen online that depict unsafe practices, and said that if the hobby were legalized, more information would be out there for use by the public on how to home distill safely and correctly.

Home distillers are willing to work within the confines of the law as well, citing the restrictions on the amount of beer that can be brewed by a household per year.

“My view is that it should be legal to distill a limited quantity for personal consumption, no different than preparing food,” Lawrie says. “You can cook for yourself and your friends at your house and that is no problem, but you are not allowed to prepare and sell your food in the public market without meeting safety, [guidelines].”

With the availability of new information and safer equipment, home distilling may just have its day in the near future. Home distillers say they fear its portrayal in such shows as Moonshiners on the Discovery Channel aren’t an accurate depiction of most of the people enjoying the hobby and encourage others to get better information from published books and online forums, many of which are filled with advice from legal distillers and hobbyists who preach safety. Others cite the great marijuana experiment being conducted in Colorado and Washington as a possible blueprint for legalization, especially if it roots out myths about the hobby, and makes it a more acceptable practice.

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