The Still

ALL RIGHT, TOUGH GUY. So you brew your own beer. So you’ve dropped a few hundred dollars on a home brewing kit and you’ve spent the last six months regularly churning out a frothy, bitter tasting mash. Nobody is impressed. After all, in Europe, children drink beer. Far from being a master brewer, you’re a manufacturer of kids’ drinks.

It’s time to step up into adulthood. It’s time to buy a still.

StillWhat are you waiting for? After all, it’s been 1200 years since an Arab alchemist by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan developed a method of distilling alcohol; the word alcohol itself is Arabic. Hayyan discovered that ethyl alcohol boils at a lower temperature that water: 173 degrees Fahrenheit, as compared to water’s boiling point of 212 degrees. Therefore, if you toss a fermented spirit atop a flame and heat it to 173, you’ll produce a steam of relatively pure alcohol. Collect this steam, cool it and let it condense, and there you have it. If you started with wine, you'll have a more potent drink called brandy. If you started with fermented molasses, you now have rum. And if you started with beer, you now have whiskey, or, if you flavor the liquid with juniper berries, you have gin, a favorite of home distillers during the Prohibition.

It’s quite easy to purchase a still online. Type the words “Alembic stills” or “pot still” into any search engine and you’ll come up with a dozen or so companies that sell the item. The stills tend to look something like an old-fashioned potbellied stove made of copper, although some of the newer models have parts fashioned from stainless steel. Stills also have a length of copper wire, or, nowadays, plastic tubing emerging from the top, snaking downward (often through a bucket of cold water, to condense the vaporized alcohol), and then dumping its contents into a container. This length of copper or plastic tubing is called the “worm.”

Our favorite still on the market is this one, which actually markets itself as a water distiller — the very same nudge, nudge, wink, wink technique used to market home stills during Prohibition! For those with a taste for something a little more traditional, we would point you to this site, which offers handcrafted copper stills of the sort traditionally favored by Ozark mountain moonshiners. For hard-core hobbyists, you could even build your own stills: instructions can be found online, some sophisticated, some wildly inventive, and some probably suicidal. There is a long tradition of making stills out of anything at hand — during the Second World War soldiers used to make stills out of salvaged parts and automobile radiators — but caution must be exercised. Firstly, the alcoholic vapor produced during distillation is highly flammable, and more than one eager home distiller has lost limbs or lives to exploding stills. Secondly, a poorly manufactured still runs the risk of producing poison instead potable: a recent study of Virginia moonshine showed potentially toxic levels of lead in the liquor.

Keep in mind, home distilling is still illegal in the United States, although, generally, if you’re distilling spirits for your own use and not for profit the law will turn a blind eye. And the pure lawlessness of the activity is part of its appeal, isn’t it? Think about it: Who will enjoy the maddest props at the next meeting of your local home brewing club? The hobbyist with the tepid, foul tasting lager, or the outlaw who strolls in with a half-dozen clay jugs, all marked XXX, filled with throat-burning pure mash liquor?

So go ahead and buy yourself a still! Sure, there’s a risk of incinerating yourself in an explosion of vaporized liquor, poisoning yourself with adulterated liquor, or spending time in the pokey for manufacturing liquor without a license, but if you’re ready to distill adult drinks, you’re ready to take adult risks.

Otherwise, well, there’s always beer. As we understand it, Europeans sometimes mix it with 7-Up, to make it taste better when their children sip it. (SPARBER)

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