Homemade Hooch

The hills of Portland are crawling with moonshiners.

If there's any such thing as a commercial version of pawpaw brandy, neither I nor my buddies in Mountain View have ever heard of it.

You can't buy commercial pawpaw wine, let alone pawpaw brandy—not even at the Paw Paw Wine Festival in Paw Paw, Mich., and not at the Pawpaw Cafe in Woolloongabba, Australia. And yet there I was, sipping a high-proof liquid that tasted like the sweet fruit, which resembles the love child of a banana and a mango and grows semi-wild in Portland's urban jungle.

A friend we'll call Jack—no last name—poured me a glass. It really warms the innards on nights like these; Baloo the Bear would go apeshit over it.

You could make your own pawpaw wine or beer—home vintners and brewers have been legal since 1978—but the spirit I sipped was made in defiance of federal law and punishable by up to five years in the clink and fines of 10,000 smackaroos. None of that will stop Jack.

"I'm a tinkerer," he says. "I make shit. It's just fun."

In Portland, Jack isn't alone. Distilling hard liquor at home may be against the law, but it's not exactly rare in this city, which is home to more than a dozen licensed craft distilleries and perhaps a few dozen other stills kept in basements by people like Jack who enjoy the thrill of pursuing the nation's last banned booze. We won't name names, but if you look at our first annual Distillery Guide, which is inserted into today's paper, you'll find a lot of wonderful products made by people who probably learned their trade illegally and in secret.

It's not especially hard to become a moonshiner—several stores in town sell stills suitable for making essential oils, distilled water or, hypothetically, 151-proof homemade Everclear. That list includes F.H. Steinbart Co. in the Buckman neighborhood. As America's oldest homebrew supply store, Steinbart was in operation for 60 years before homebrewing became legal. Today, you can walk out the door with an alembic pot still, a domed top and a turbo boiler—the key equipment for building your own still—for around $600.

Steinbart's system sits high on a shelf, above a sign that reads: "Distilling alcohol or spirits without a license is federally illegal. F.H. Steinbart does not endorse the use of these essential oil extractors/water distillers for the purpose of alcohol distillation."

The sign is a lot like those warnings in head, er, smoke shops, warning that until next July, any bongs, er, water pipes, are intended for tobacco use only.

As such, you might want to pay cash for your "water distiller" that just so happens to effectively turn mash into white dog whiskey or wine into brandy.

Ask any of the paranoid guys on the HomeDistiller.org forum and they'll tell you about raids in Florida of hobbyists' houses, Eliot Ness-style, which are easy for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau since it can demand sales records (including addresses) from anyone who sold you the equipment. Having a still at your house isn't illegal, but if the feds knock on your door, you'd better have a gallon of lavender oil around.

One reason home distilling remains illegal and will forever be frowned upon is because Big Booze fears competition, especially from anyone who seeks to avoid paying excise taxes. Liquor is a $9 billion industry for a reason.

At Portland U-Brew, Kelli (not her real name) knows what's up when customers come in for turbo yeast and six-row barley malt. Brewers use higher-quality two-row cereal, but when it comes to spirits, as Kelli points out, cattle feed will get the job done, too.

Rather than a cheap buzz—the cost of a home-distilled spirit isn't actually cheap compared to a $12 handle of rotgut vodka—she believes most local home distillers partake in the hobby "for fun and innovation."

It's also a good way to avoid waste. A bad batch of homebrewed beer can be turned into a good batch of white whiskey, and good wine or cider can become great brandy or apple brandy. Jack's grappa, for example, is made from grape skins left over from crush.

Though you won't find any home spirits clubs in Portland, or home-distilling competitions, the quality of the stuff I've had here is impressive. I'd happily purchase a fifth of "cranapeño," a vodka-based cranberry and jalapeño spirit. But when you dig a little deeper, the prohibition of home distilling, unlike most such laws, does make at least some sense given that distilling is far more dangerous than making beer or wine.

First, there's the fact that the final product is highly flammable and the process often includes an open flame. Second, the final product can be a lot more dangerous than skunky homebrew or infected wine. The old adage about moonshine making people go blind isn't apocryphal—an untrained distiller can bottle poison if he or she makes a lousy cut, serving up the toxic methanol that trickles out of a still before the ingestible ethanol flows. 

Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey, cautions of the dangers of distilling—at home or even at a bonded distillery. If home distilling picks up steam, he wouldn't be surprised to hear about more explosions like the one that occurred at the East Bexar County vodka distillery in San Antonio in late October.

"A good insurance company will inspect it before they're bonded," says Bryson, but home distilleries don't exactly undergo such inspections.

Between the threat of blowing yourself up and the fact that it's "really, stupidly illegal," Bryson pulls a reverse Nike and cautions, "Just don't do it."

Jack isn't swayed. He works on an all-electric still, meaning there are no open flames to blow him up.

"Running a still is super-easy," Jack says. "You sit there, you drink, you bullshit and play cards or what have you. Every now and then you make an adjustment as you go through the run to keep it at the right temperature. A big part of the skill is where you cut it."

The cut—the moment the distiller starts collecting condensation coming off of the still, which begins as poisonous methyl alcohol before the flow turns into sweet ethanol—is a key part of the process. I ask Jack how he knows he got that part right with his pawpaw liquor. 

"For me, right now, it's guessing."

I squint a bit. I'm fine, I think. 

Brian Yaeger is author of Oregon Breweries, to be published Dec. 1 by Stackpole Books. He will sign at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Dec. 5. A pub crawl through the Pearl District follows.