Free Spirits in America

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Currently I am writing a book entitled "Don't Tell, Don't Sell - The Story of Free Spirits in America." The following is my summary of the topic in essay format.

Free Spirits in America

He stands in a little twelve by twelve barrel and pipe filled room, leaning against his shiny 60 gallon pot still, with numerous appendages making their way to the ceiling like a giant copper arachnid. Six foot tall with a graying red beard and glasses, he is relaxed as he explains the art of making his lucent product. Strong and transparent, the gleaming output of his still would put any Franklin County moonshiner to shame.

But Dennis doesn't live in the hills of Appalachia, his still room is no barn, and his neatly trimmed beard states he is no hillbilly. Sporting black tennis shoes, pressed Khaki slacks, and a maroon dress shirt, he is standing in a newly remodeled part of the building. The lettering on the doors of the glass encased room in which he stands state "Artisan Spirits." Dennis is part of a growing number of Artisan Distillers in West Michigan. Artisan distillers, also known as craft distillers, are growing in popularity. According to the American Distilling Institute, the state of Michigan alone boasts at least nine craft distilleries.  Dennis Downing in Front of the New Holland Brewpub Still

I am touring New Holland Brewing Company in Holland Michigan. My arrival here was no accident. I am a home brewer with over a decade's experience. I would like to see home distillation legalized the same way home beer making was in the late 1970's.  Currently, this benign hobby carries with it a fine of $10,000.00 and five years in prison ("§ 5601", "§ 5602"). Distillation is illegal in all countries with the exception of New Zealand (New  Zealand). According to the United States Dept. of Treasury, prior to 1978 the same penalties applied to home brewing as well. I wanted to learn a little bit more about distillation and the challenges that legalization presented. It's for this reason that I called Dennis Downing. He is the only distiller at New Holland Brewing Company. Working as a chemist for years, Dennis is now pursuing his dream of making his own whiskey. He explains the process of making whiskey, starting with the pub brewer boiling up a grain mash in his ten barrel brew pot, and then fermenting it in the basement. This unfiltered fermented liquid is referred to as 'wash'. Dennis can distill 270 gallons of wash in three days.

Dennis is no stranger to distillation, having performed many distillations in a lab working for chemical companies. I asked if he had tried distilling at home. He remarked that he would have needed a still, and that he was too chicken to order one, afraid that "the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] might be the ones delivering it to my door." The only other alternative was to build his own. He quickly went on to explain more aspects of the still sitting before me, leaving the answer to the rest of my question relegated to the imagination.

Dennis' eyes illuminate as he explains the details of the flavor profile and how it works, his hands moving to and fro as he explains how the sulfur compounds in the wash react with the copper. Dennis though, is not the only person that gets excited about the possibilities of small batch distillation. No longer relegated to the hills of Kentucky or Virginia, home distilling is a hobby that is gaining in popularity. A quick visit to, a website popular with do it yourself distillers, reveals that the modern moonshiner can be found among lawyers, engineers, and computer programmers. Camper English, a freelance cocktail and spirits writer from San Francisco, states regarding home distillers "It's more about culinary experimentation than it is about cheap hooch" (qtd. in Price). So while it's true that in a few out of the way places time has stood still, the modern home distiller is far from being a toothless gun toting hillbilly. Home distillers are culinary artists - expanding on possibilities of an ancient art - something not found in the mono-types of monopoly distillers.cellar24web.JPG

Going down into the basement of the New Holland Brewpub I am immediately hit with a cool, crisp, almost sweet, cidery smell. The basement, a concrete floored room with a low ceiling and red painted brick pillars, holds the grain mill, an elevator, and the hot liqueur tank, which holds hot water for brewing.  At the end of the long room, fermentation tanks line the wall. To our right, lays an area sequestered off by a locked grey metal fence; this is the spirits area. Inside a small stainless bottling unit sits perched atop a small table. Each bottle is hand filled on this small, two foot long shelf.  We dip our head down through a brick doorway into a small cavern. Long and skinny it's filled with white American oak barrels, some standard size, some small five gallon barrels. As Dennis explains the process of barrel aging, he fails to hide his excitement and fascination with this process of extraction. He tells me that 70% of the flavor in whiskey comes from aging in oak barrels, and then further explains the science behind it.cellar4web.JPG

As we make our way back up stairs I ask him the question I have been waiting all day to ask. "How do you feel about legalizing the home distillation of spirits?" I ask.  I want to know, what are the risks, the benefits, the dangers?  It's about "Freedom" he states. We both agree that when something can affect other people then it needs to be regulated to some degree. He goes on to talk about the seatbelt laws, and speed limit laws. If someone wants to speed and kill themselves so be it. If they hit you, well then this is a different story. He explains this is the one reason he is not a fan of the seatbelt law, despite the fact that he believes in their effectiveness and always wears one. He doesn't think it's the government's job to regulate it. He explains that the line comes in where you affect others. "Where is that line with spirits?" he asks. We talk about reasonable alternatives to the current laws in place.

Later I would think about what Dennis stated about freedom. Freedom, was, after all, what our country was founded on. Early Americans such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln often made their own homebrew and applejack, a spirit derived from apples (Prial). Making your own cider, beer and spirits was central to life in Colonial America. Freedom is an American tradition, and making your own spirits is part of that tradition.

I asked Dennis about the dangers associated with distillation. He explained that alcohol produces flammable fumes. The greatest danger posed by making spirits is a fire or explosion resulting from a poorly built still. This of course explains why we can drive cars that burn ethanol. Yet most of us operate gasoline powered lawn mowers without the government regulating us due to the inherent danger of using a lawn tool that burns a dangerous liquid which also produces flammable gasses. Chain saws, acetylene torches, fire arms, even horses can be dangerous, if not used safely. Even so, it's still legal to use them. Granted some things like owning a firearm, driving a motor vehicle, or piloting an airplane, are regulated by some branch of the U.S. government. They are however, not illegal. 

"What about the health dangers?" I asked. He cited the example of someone making moonshine in old lead soldered car radiators and people dying as a result. It seemed to me that a smidgen of common sense could put the modern day moonshiner out of harms way. So I asked "How about if one is not stupid? Is there any danger that using a well built still and a little common sense that a person will make something that gets them sick?" "No more so than what I make here" he states. So with a little knowledge, a well built still, and some common sense, just about anyone could make spirits safely. After all people in New Zealand do it every day.

 So what is the real issue? What is the giant mountain standing between home distillation and the law? I asked Brett VanderKamp, founder of New Holland Brewing, and the creator of its still. Currently running for state representative, he is also no stranger to politics surrounding the matter of home distillation. "Taxes" he states, "half of the price of every bottle we sell goes to taxes." Although a libertarian and an advocate of legalizing home distilling himself, he doesn't paint a rosy picture for the prospects of home distillation. He talks about how simple it would be for people to make their own spirits at home, with no revenue for the government or big distillers. He explains that one could simply brew up some moonshine and invite the neighbors over for a few sips, leaving no room for the revenuers.  But I insist that I can grow fresh ingredients in my backyard, cook them up, and invite all my neighbors over for dinner, but I seldom do. Despite the complete lack of restrictions on home cooking almost half of America doesn't even bother with it (United States Dept. of Agriculture). So really, what is the likelihood that anyone is going to loose money over legalizing home distillation? He counters that restaurant food is not taxed at fifty percent. I have to concede, this is a valid point. I shake hands with Dennis and Brett and head over to the bar.

It seems to me that home distilling does pose a real threat, not to tax money, but to overgrown monopolies. Granted a few home distillers will hardly affect the market for Jack Daniels whiskey or Bacardi rum. However, just like the craft beer world, where home brewers grew up to be craft brewers, so too, home distillers are bound to grow up to be Artisan distillers. The craft brewing industry shared 5.9% of the market by volume and 10.1% of the market by dollars in 2008. By 2009 these numbers had grown to 7.2% and 10.3% respectively (Brewers Association). If craft brewing has cut in on the profits of the big guys, it's very likely that craft distillers will do the same. The real threat to Americans is experienced when we allow big business to lobby away our freedoms.  

Sitting down at the bar, a concrete half oval with a wooden bar rail, I ask the bartender for shot of Zeppelin, the sweet smelling dark caramel whiskey aged in the basement. Absorbing the sweet oaky aromas and flavor I was, for the moment, sampling what freedom would taste like. 








Works Cited

" § 5601. Criminal penalties." Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School.     n.d. Web. 8 April. 2010.

" § 5602. Criminal penalties." Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School.     n.d. Web. 8 April. 2010.

Ackland, Tony. n.p. n.d. Web. 21 April. 2010.

American Distilling Institute. "Directory of Craft Distillers." American Distilling Institute.        n.d. Web. 6 April. 2010.

Brewers Association. "Craft Brewing Statistics - Facts." Brewers Association. 8 March.       2010. Web. 6 April. 2010.

Downing, Dennis. Personal Interview. 28 March. 2010.

New Zealand. Alcohol Advisory Council. Sale of Liquor Act FAQs. ALAC, n.d. Web.             19 April. 2010.

Prial, Frank. "One Family's Story: Apples to Applejack." New York Times. New York            Times, 4 May. 2005. Web. 15 April. 2010.

Price, Catherine. "Moonshine Returns." Salon Magazine. 7 September 2009. Web. 13 April. 2010.

United States. Dept. of Agriculture. Food CPI and Expenditures. USDA Economic Research Service.    25 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 April. 2010

---. Dept. of Treasury. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. n.d. Web. 9 April. 2010.

VanderKamp, Brett. Personal Interview. 28 March. 2010.


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This page contains a single entry by Brewmaster published on May 21, 2010 3:28 PM.

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