DIY Moonshine Whiskey by the Book

The DIY crowd turns to moonshining
Illustration by Dorothy Gambrell

Your first reaction to Colin Spoelman and David Haskell’s Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey will inevitably be an eye roll. Two odious trends twisted around each other: homespun hipsterism and fetishized cocktail culture. But Spoelman and Haskell’s book is actually great. It’s informative and well-written, and you don’t have to make a drop of moonshine to enjoy it. Four takeaways:

The name on a whiskey’s label may have nothing to do with where it came from.
In the good old days of Detroit, carmakers practiced the dark art of “badge engineering,” which meant taking one car and, with the cunning use of chrome and vinyl, turning it into another. Oldsmobiles became Buicks, Fords became Mercurys. That practice has died out among the Big Three, but it’s alive and well in Big Whiskey. Take Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery: It produces whiskeys that go by the names Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, George Stagg, Ancient Age, Weller, and Pappy Van Winkle. This isn’t terribly scandalous. Just know that when the label talks about how Old Man So-and-So started his distillery back in 1847, that story may have little to do with what you’re pouring into your glass. Aficionados such as Spoelman and Haskell have a resigned attitude toward these marketing sleights of hand. “Who cares?” they write. “It’s not as if anyone visits the Red Bull factory and insists on inspecting the tanks to make sure it’s not producing Monster in the same facility.” If you like what you’re drinking, that’s pretty much the end of it.

Distilling your own is highly illegal.
Haskell and Spoelman explain, in easy-to-understand steps, how to build your own still. And they’re quick to point out that doing so could land you in jail. It doesn’t matter if you’re making whiskey only for your own consumption, or that you can legally brew your own beer and make your own wine. Distilling spirits is tightly controlled by the government, so either go through the arduous task of getting permits or keep your whiskey-making quiet.

Demand is exceeding supply.
According to the book, the rate of growth of whiskey sales rose 48 percent in 2012. Distillers can try to manage that demand by either raising prices or diluting their product. Neither of these options is beloved. Earlier this year, Maker’s Mark announced it was reducing the alcohol content of its bourbon from 45 percent to 42 percent. Customers went berserk, and the company reversed course a week later.

There’s no need to get fancy.
The book contains plenty of cocktail recipes, but, perhaps against type, most remain mercifully unfussy. Spoelman has a recipe for a mighty fine mint julep, which calls for nothing more than bourbon, mint, crushed ice, and seltzer. Thinking of subbing in rye for bourbon, you whiskeyphile? Don’t. That makes your julep a Yankee cooler, Spoelman points out, and proves “you’re trying too hard.”