by Paula Marcoux
These days it seems like no culinary process is too arcane to explore ﬁrst-hand. Just at the point in history when a monolithic corporate food culture SHOULD be irrevocably sealing the deal, all kinds of people are learning about and experimenting with every conceivable mode of producing their own edibles and potables. A powerful hunger and thirst for something real, instant access to a world of information, and a smidgin of righteous rebellion: it’s the locavore’s cultural moment.
So with that high-minded rationale, I set out to find people who are—unlawfully!—making their own booze, right here in edible South Shore land. It all started when my friend J. told me a story. During a local wedding reception, a perfect stranger eyed him and inquired, “You like ‘shine?” The generous fellow offered J. a mason jar of the substance that had somehow been stowed in the breast pocket of his jacket. Turned out to be a local product, and quite potent.
A few well-placed inquiries led me to visit a secret still in a secluded spot in Plymouth County on a frigid winter’s day. Its creators had spent many months researching and contemplating the fabrication of this unit, which did not in the least resemble stills from M*A*S*H, Burt Reynolds movies, or other well-known primary sources. But the tall copper column and the steady drip, drip of the spirit emerging from the tube seemed right. Mr. X. and Mr. Y., the two enterprising miscreants behind this operation, showed me how they were drawing off the first part of the batch into a bottle suggestively marked with the international skull-and-crossbones drink-this-and-die emblem. And thus began the chemistry lesson, stirring memories of 11th grade, and, duh, fractional distillation. Remember? That’s when we heated a liquid in a mostly closed flask over a Bunsen burner. The fraction with the lowest boiling point was the first to condense in the tube and drip out; we junior chemists were learning to separate the fractions by… Wait! Mrs. Foley taught us to make a still at Dighton- Rehoboth Regional High School? What was she thinking? Fortunately we were too dumb to run with it.
So back to the present, peopled with responsible adults. My guides had calculated the percentage of distillate they expected to fall into the skull-and-crossbones category, and when they had come close to dripping away that benchmark, sure enough, the reading on the thermometer planted down in the throat of the column began to rise. Goodbye, deadly methyl alcohol and acetone…hello, ethyl alcohol—the sweet spot! They offered me a taste, and I learned a new understanding of the terms “fire water” and “aguardiente.” When my eyes stopped watering, I saw that the hydrometer (measuring specific gravity—thank you, again, Mrs. Foley!) indicated that the stuff was hovering at 170 proof— WAY stronger than anything we’re used to when operating within the realm of the store-bought. (Distillers use a secret ingredient later in the process—water—to bring proof down to standard.) Numbers aside, one sample commanded instant respect.
More surprising though, were the aroma and flavor. The earliest vapor issuing from this still betrayed an orchard origin. I was told that this brew was made from apples that had endured a long journey of crushing and fermenting, only to be deemed second-rate cider and condemned to a few years of half-forgotten basement-limbo. But distillation transfigured them into clear, crisp, almost pure alcohol, any earthly taint shed away. The latemedieval intertwining of alchemy and religion, which previously seemed so crazy and perverse, began to make sense. So I tried another taste.
Other visits to other stills brought further revelations. Did you know that distilled mead actually carries the aromas of flowers and beeswax and even that wonderful funk you get when you first lift the lid off a hive? Amazing! (And kick-ass strong!) What about grappa? That grappa taste really IS what happens when you distill wicked rough wine! Who knew?
So, how many of our neighbors are up to these tricks? I have no answer for you, but local home-brew suppliers I spoke to acknowledged that it’s definitely out there. (While there may be other reasons to buy the proof and traille hydrometers and turbo yeast sold in their shops, supporting a distillation habit is the most rational.) Dave Donnelly of Tamarack Wine & Spirits in Lakeville says that he brews beer at home to keep his knowledge on par with his customers’. For the same reason, he has learned about distilling (he has never done any, but he is quite positive that some of his customers do). He found himself drawn into the study of history, as well as chemistry, as the process has led him to ponder the strange evolution of 20th-century Americans’ attitudes toward alcohol.
They offered me a taste, and I learned a new understanding of the terms “fire water” and “aguardiente.”
And what about the history of small-scale distilling in these parts—I mean, why are all our white-lightin’ stereotypes from the South, anyway? From the late 17th until the early 19th century, farmers around here distilled a brandy from their homemade hard cider, if they had a mind, and the equipment, to. But that was legal, as long as it wasn’t for sale. Turns out that rum distillation was so huge in this area from 1720 to 1915 that small-scale operations never really held much market share. Statistics from 1840 reveal that 37 Massachusetts distilleries manufactured five times as much liquor as 2,802 of their North Carolina counterparts, and that the output of four rum distilleries in Rhode Island equaled the output of 1,454 whiskey distilleries in Virginia. These were BIG businesses with import-export capacity, barreling up a good share of New England’s balance of trade with the rest of the world. And the raw material—molasses—was part of the shipping business, not homegrown like rye, barley, or corn down south, so this business was squarely in the hands of merchants, not farmers. Even when Prohibition came around, it wasn’t moonshinin’, but commercial ties—to the Caribbean and Canada—that kept the hard stuff flowing around here.
To learn more:
• The resource available online with the search “home distilling” are simply mind-boggling. (Hint: Websites originating in New Zealand are especially comprehensive because it’s not illegal there.)
• Fun read: Chasing the White Dog; An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, by Max Watman (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
• Ridiculous directory of moonshine-themed movies: http://duke-farm.co.uk/moonshine.htm.
Vision and most brain cells somehow intact, Paula Marcoux expresses gratitude to the South Shore’s illicit hooch-makers—for their enthusiasm, patience, and willingness to share. Contact her through www.themagnificentleaven.com.