Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Moonshine in the Modern World

"... If you know how to distill, it makes drinking a much more interesting experience."

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A big part of being an adventurous eater is the experience of DIY--of starting with basic ingredients and utilizing heat, time, a deft hand and a little salt to come up with culinary brilliance. (At least, that's the way it's supposed to work.)

As it goes with food, so it goes with drink. Home brewers got things rolling a few decades back, working with malt syrup and mail-order kits to undercut the hegemony of the big brewers with craft-brewed beers that went on to spark a microbrew revolution. Garagistes and other small-scale winemakers followed soon thereafter, and in the process helped inject creative talent into the American wine industry. But what about the harder stuff? Sure, there are small distilleries around the country, and some are doing great things--but these are still relatively small in number, and it's a big, thirsty world out there. Where's the next round of innovation going to come from in the world of spirits?

In the current issue of Imbibe, I have an article on the current wave of home distillers, New Moon Rising. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, I'd always considered homemade hooch to be the stuff that had been distilled from fermented cattle feed, run through an old radiator and bottled in plastic milk jugs. That side of moonshine still exists, but what I found as I worked on the story and talked to home distillers across the country was that the homemade stuff is absolutely everywhere, and some if it is pretty damn good.

Here in Seattle I tasted some fantastic homemade apple brandy that was made in a kitchen in the residential Queen Anne neighborhood, along with a peculiar spirit based on boiled onions and brown sugar that, as it trickled from the still, had an odor that I initially blamed on the distiller's elderly beagle. And in recent years I've had gins, absinthes, whiskies, and brandies in bottles that have taped-on labels fresh off the inkjet, and that ranged in quality from abysmal to ambrosial.

Helping this current trend along is that many of those now embracing home distilling come from the culinary world. Among the folks I talked to for the article were chefs, bartenders and restaurant workers who are applying the curiosity and experience they bring to their profession to their hobbyist work with a still. As Matthew Rowley, a fan of artisanal liquor and the author of Moonshine! said for the story, "They try to personalize it and create a flavor that suits them [...] There's a great appeal to learning the process--it's like if you know how to cook, you can appreciate going out to dinner more. If you know how to distill, it makes drinking a much more interesting experience."

Needless to say, distilling without the appropriate licenses and permits is illegal, period, virtually everywhere except New Zealand. That said, who's with me? Have you been introduced to an interesting grappa or eau de vie at a dinner party, only to get a sly smile and evasive answer when you've asked about the brand? Or do you have a "friend" who keeps bottles of an extra-special and extremely rare whiskey on hand for when close friends drop by? There's lots of fun stuff flying under the radar right now--let's hear about your best (and worst) experiences.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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