Growing up in the foothills of North Carolina, I spent a good deal of time with my maternal grandparents. Like many rural southern families the week revolved around church and the extended family having Sunday dinner together. (For those that don’t know, dinner is lunch, and supper is dinner, and breakfast is any time you damn well feel like it.) My grandparents were, to say the least, colorful characters. They loved basketball, family, and God and I’m not sure in what order you would put that. Known to me as Granny and Pop, I adored them. They spoiled their grandchildren within their means, but mostly it was with food and indulgence. Pop had a horse a friend stabled and he taught me to ride. He, allegedly, was something of a star point guard in high school, but showboating in front of a scout and the outbreak of WWII left him unable to attend college. He was a known by everyone in town and half the people in the county, and when he died 20 years ago, we were at the funeral home nearly 6 hours shaking hands with all the people who came to pay their respects. By the time I knew him he was a mostly respectable pillar of the church. But he had some wild moments in his past and one of those stayed with him.
Behind his house was a large section of undeveloped woodland. Though at the back of their property was a little dirt road not much more than a trail. And the cool, inviting, mysterious woods always beckoned to us youngsters. We were allowed down the road, but there was a path that broke off to the east that we weren’t allowed down. All we knew was that The Camp was down there. And while my Pop was a king of indulgence, he had a stern side, and it was clear that violating that rule would earn us a hidin’. It was important and as the oldest and most adventurous of our passel of kids, I didn’t lead to any peremptory explorations, so the rule stayed inviolate.
On my 16th birthday, however, Pop told me to come take a walk with him in the woods, which weren’t unusual. We often did this. But this walk was different. We veered off toward The Camp. I had gained enough wisdom to realize this was a momentous occasion, so I simply followed his lead. By this time, he had a walking stick that he used for support, though he was grinnin’ his Cheshire cat grin, clearly looking forward to what was to come.
We got to The Camp and one might think it was a bit disappointing. A fire-pit, a bit of a clearing near the fast-flowing creek, and a couple of shed type buildings somewhat rudely constructed. Until I saw the Still. And then much became clear. The Camp was where Pop and all his friends had their rig for making ‘shine. After the war, he’d actually run ‘shine and was part of that whole culture, but by this time in the late 80’s he’d settled down and only made small batches for his friends and a few select others. The other three or four guys I’d seen him around with were there. Overalls and trucker hats were still de rigueur for these gents. I was allowed to wander around a bit before Pop started teaching me a few things.
Now, this is imparted wisdom from my grandfather and is still, sadly, illegal to do. So fortunately the statute of limitations is over and even if they weren’t, it’s a bit hard to put a dead man in prison, though ‘the got damn revenuers’ would likely try anyway. Good luck to them if they do. You may have notice where I get some of my, shall we say lack of respect, for the law from. I am merely carrying on the family tradition in that regard.
Preparing the Wash
He taught me that making delicious white lightning is an exercise in patience, as much art as science, and that it took, like many of the best things, time to do it right. Distilling is in some ways easier than brewing beer, and in other wars more difficult. Making the wash, at least the way Pop did it, was pretty bullet proof. Really, you just wanted to use the yeast to make as much alcohol as possible. Now, cause Pop believed that all moonshine was made from corn, you were also trying to get some of the unique fusels that can bring in the mix, but that happens naturally. Before you can get to fermenting though, you have to prep things. You needed your ingredients; corn, sugar, yeast, and water.
As I said, only corn will do, and Pop was a little cavalier about what kind of corn, as he got it from the feed store. He often went for a medium corn meal. I imagine had it been available he’d have used something like https://www.bobsredmill.com/shop/gluten-free/gluten-free-medium-cornmeal.html instead. I don’t know if this is optimal, I just know that’s what he did, and it worked for him. Anyway, once he had the cornmeal he’d pour in some hot water with the cornmeal and sugar and let that soak for a good day or two. It didn’t have to stay hot, simply needed to be hot to dissolve the sugar. Then let it soak.
Next you’d put the yeast in some warm water. He told me he liked to keep it in that below 90 degree range as that was the right temperature for the type yeast he liked to wake up. Yeast varies, of course, and some like higher or lower temperatures so I reckon that is going to depend. Either way, he’d mix things in and add the yeast-water to the corn/sugar mix. Then add even more warm water that had been heated over an open fire, then wrap things in old horse blankets and let it sit. And since this is here the fermentation was happening, it would bubble and fart up a storm. Like an old lady with a delicate stomach that had a spicy Mexican dish three meals running.
I imagine, had the home brewing craze been on grandpas radar he’d have loved those, fancy buckets with spigots on the bottom and airlocks on the top. But he’d jury-rigged some old trash can with a hole in the lid, a tube through the hole, and the other end of the hose beneath some water in a different, smaller bucket. And he’d let that go on for four or five days until it had stopped bubbling the water.
So that lesson done, it was the next week after dinner that we went out to learn to actually cook a batch of shine. Now, a modern moonshiner would probably enjoy one of those fancy bags to put the corn in at the beginning, the ones with the fine mesh that lets water through just fine. I suppose one would be able to simply lift the spent grains up and out and only really have to filter the dead yeast. But Pop and his friends were dealing with a different eras techniques. He had multiple filters set up and would use gravity to drain it through. We spent quite a bit of time pouring wash through cheesecloth of different grades until Pop was satisfied it was filtered well enough.
Once that was done, we poured it into the copper pot still he had that sat on top of an out door propane burner. He claimed they use to use wood-fueled fires, but I can’t imagine that shit. Anyway, here’s a picture of a copper pot still for making distilled water that’s similar in design if not size to the one my Pop used.
It’s actual distillation stage where the patience and artistry comes in. That liquid sitting in that pot is a mix of water, various alcohols and fusels. Now, all those things have different boiling points. Methanol burns off first. You do not want to drink methanol. It’ll give you headaches and tastes like shit in low doses. In higher doses it can cause blindness or even death. Bad stuff that Methanol. Interesting thing is though, the treatment for methanol poisoning? Ethyl alcohol. Apparently the receptors that grab methanol prefer our good friend ethyl and will let those molecules go in exchange. Anyway, methanol starts evaporating around 150 degrees. So now is the time where you get busier than a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
Once the pot was up to that temp, based on the gauge we had, Pop would start diverting water from the crick into the tun. This cools the copper down and encourages the evaporated liquid to condense and run down the coils and out of the tun. Pop would turn the heat back what he reckoned was a good piece; wanting it hot enough to continue heating the wash, but at a slower rate. As about the time the pot hits 165 degrees, the methanol would have condensed and starts flowing out. Some math comes in and there’s a formula for calculating exactly how much methanol will be produced per gallon of wash. And it’s somewhere between .6 and .8 ounces per gallon. Anyway, Pop was the type who tended to free-hand things and didn’t want to poison no one. So he just figured for every gallon in the pot, he’d take 2x as many ounces from the beginning and dispose of it. Usually it got just tossed in the ground.
So once he was done with the Methanol, there’d be a tapering off and the temp would climb to the 175-180 degree mark. That’s where the Ethanol is being produced and begins to flow. The heat would be turned down to the minimum at this point and the water should be flowing strong and cold over the condenser coils. Again, if Pop were running a formal operation here, he might have gotten this down to a more detailed amount, but he’d collect a quarter of the expected run or so and set that aside, usually based on testing with his finger in the drip and getting a taste. Those were the heads and they were higher proof, and didn’t taste as good.
But now..now we’re into the Heart of the run and it should be the good stuff. Sweet and cool right out of the tap and small little taste of heaven. The pot would be sitting in that 176-178 degree range and the ethyl produced is about 10% of the total amount of the wash. (So a 5 gallon wash would make about a gallon run, with a quart of heads, two quarts of heart, and a quart of tails.) This is what you want to keep. And while a half a gallon doesn’t sound like much, that’s 130 proof sweet corn liquor and will go a ways. Especially as grandpa ran much larger batches and he’d do several runs from spring into the summer. More on what can be done with this later.
As the temp hit 180 or so, the proof fell off, and again more fusels are included and he was into the tails of the run. Usually this’d be about the same amount as the heads and would be combined with it. If you ever had turpentine tasting moonshine, it’s usually some cheap asshole mixing his heads and tails into his heart run, or simply selling that outright. As you might imagine, Pop, being a man who took pride in his law breaking, had no truck with such foolishness.
The heads and tails would be poured into the next batch of wash to up the alcohol content and extend out the hearts. Of course, with his experience at it, he could tell by dabbing his finger where things needed to change, as I mentioned. And he showed me how that would work. Again, it’s part of the art of it doing it this way. He’d also take the heart run and divide it up. Some of it he’d mix with apple cider and put cinnamon sticks in. Others spring or summer fruit and a bit of juice or water and put up to let it age.
Once the pot had cooled, often he’d simply dump the leftover wash in there. The heads and tails would get mixed into the next batch as I mentioned. And the spent grains would be used by Granny to make some outstanding cornbread. Fresh blackberry preserves on some moonshine spent grain cornbread that had just come out of the oven in a iron skillet was a consistent treat growing up. And while both of them are gone now and have been for sometime, any time I find some moonshine and some cornbread, it is a chance to connect with them, and that wonderful spring twenty odd years ago.