Archive for December, 2012


Whiskey Rebellion

Posted on Dec 18 2012 | By

   Moon shining brightly on legal & illegal distilling 

In 2005, there were some 50 craft distilleries in the US. Today, 250 are in operation and ten years hence it’s projected there will be over 1,000 nationwide.

Craft distilleries generally produce less than 100,000 gallons a year; often much less. By comparison, the handful of major distilleries can distill 100,000 gallons a day. The $63 billion distilled spirits industry is dominated by the major producers. Small distilleries generate less than 1 percent of sales.

Home pot still

On the amateur side, some industry observers believe there are over 50,000 home nano-distillers who are operating without a license; not a risk-free endeavor for scoring a few bottles of liquor considering the severe penalties for firing up an unregistered still.

Here in Virginia, there are seventeen holders of distilling licenses, eleven of which are operating craft distilleries with more on the way. In 2012 alone, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control issued 12 new distillery licenses; eleven of them for manufacturers seeking to produce less than 5,000 gallons.

So what’s driving the resurgence in booze?

The demand for hand-crafted, artisanal beverages and the creative urge to produce such libations, coupled with the reduction of licensing fees to operate smaller distilleries. The cost of obtaining a legal license in Virginia is modest; $450 for producing less than 5,000 gallons annually.

The days of moonshining in mountain hideaways may be fading just as urban hobbyists and professional distillers are gaining traction in the world of upscale liquid refreshments.

In the beginning
The distillation of beer and wine dates to the 8th century when a Muslim alchemist named Geber developed the alembic still and observed that heated wine from the vessel released a flammable vapor that he described as “of little use, but of great importance to science.”  Little did he know of its future employment as a libation.

Then again, his religion would ultimately forbid the consumption of alcohol even if he had been aware of its “medicinal” qualities. But mankind soon learned of alcohol’s use as an inebriate. Less than a century later, the poet Abu Nuwas observed a wine that “has the color of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand.”

Moonshine had arrived. And with it a host of descriptive monikers such as white lighting, ruckus juice, hillbilly pop, panther’s breath, jump steady, mule kick and more.

The process of distillation migrated to America when the Scotch-Irish began arriving around 1717, driven by their thirst for freedom, land ownership, and the making and drinking of whiskey.

Distilling also was an economic necessity, enabling a farmer to convert any surplus corn crop into a lighter weight liquid easily deliverable to market via mule trains. Twenty-four bushels of corn could be converted into two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey. Whiskey farming enabled the backwoods men to buy nails, sugar, coffee and other much needed necessities.

These hardy pioneers peacefully distilled until 1791 when the Federal government implemented an excise tax on whiskey. The frontiersmen wrath erupted in the form of the Whiskey Rebellion as 5,000 hot-tempered home distillers descended on Pittsburgh to torch the town. The city fathers dissuaded the violence with wagon loads of whiskey, dried venison, bear meat, hams and poultry. In 1794, George Washington in command of 13,000 troops persuaded the rebels to forgo their cause without any loss of life.


With implementation of the excise tax, thousands of men and their families began migrating deeper into the mountainous regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Georgia to escape the prying eyes of the revenue men. The stereotypical legend of the mountain moonshiner was born.

On the homefront
The growth of professional distilling can be understood in the context of creating a business and lifestyle centered on the production of an artisanal product. But why would home distillers risk the penalties of the law to make hard alcohol?

It’s useful to consider the background of making alcoholic drinks hearthside. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the law permitted the making of up to 200 gallons of wine per household. Home winemaking has a long and peaceful track record.

Home brewing was not legalized until 1979. Since the law’s passage, the hobby has exploded. Today, there’s an estimated one million beer lovers who brew at least once a year. The essence of beer making is the mashing of grain, brewing the wort and fermenting the liquid into beer. Forty years ago, there were only a small number of craft breweries. As home brewers learned the art, it was inevitable some of them would consider doing it professionally.

As a result, there are currently 2,200 craft breweries in the US. The legalization of the hobby gave birth to a new industry. A similar situation is unfolding as home and craft brewers pursue both illegal and legal distilling; the important difference is individually the former is typically producing five gallons or less and the latter 3,000 gallons or more.

Malting grain prior to mashing

An integral part of brewing is mashing—steeping crushed grain in hot water to release fermentable sugars. It’s also a necessary process in distilling. To a degree, the home—and more importantly the craft brewery phenomenon—is driving an increase in hard alcohol production.

Nano-distillers are able to fly under the radar because selling their product is not in their “business plan”. Home distillers often eschew the moonshiner tag, largely considering it an insult. Their only goal is to enjoy crafting a beverage in extremely limited qualities, often as few as 3 or 4 bottles at a time.

As one home distiller of wine explained, “I purchased a small stove top distiller in Portugal 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve distilled wine into brandy more than fifty times and aged it in a 5 liter oak cask. As it’s consumed, I distill a new batch. And truthfully, while my brandy is good I can buy higher quality stuff. The fun is in the doing.”

The fun may also be in the romance of breaking the law, if only on a modest scale.

Constabulary viewpoint
While home distillation of a bottle of alcohol seems innocent enough, both federal law and the Virginia ABC takes a decidedly different view. In response to an inquiry to the ABC, their response read:

Producing ANY amount of a distilled spirit (even a single bottle for one’s own consumption) is a Class 6 felony with a penalty of 1-5 years imprisonment or jail up to 12 months and up to a $2500 fine, either or both. Simply possessing a still or distilling apparatus without a license from the ABC is a Class 1 misdemeanor, if convicted.

The penalties are clear so caution is advised. But in reality, budgetary constraints and the priority on more serious offenses likely keeps the ABC focused on more pressing concerns. It reports it has not received complaints involving nano-distilling but if made aware of such a violation it would investigate and determine if prosecution was necessary.

Revenuers at a bust

The ABC also posits that illegal alcohol manufacturing is a public safety issue. One can’t quibble with that view given the tales of rotgut whiskey poisoning consumers. On the production side, exploding stills can have lethal consequences.

However, New Zealand legalized home distilling in 1996 and research indicates minimal negative impact from the law’s passage. On the positive side, sales of legal liquor actually rose, apparently due in part to the hobbyists taking a greater interest in commercial distilling versus their amateur endeavors.

As for the traditional moonshine trade in Virginia, in 1941, the ABC Division of Enforcement seized an all-time high of 1,771 illegal stills. In 2011, a collaborative four-day air and ground operation between the ABC and Virginia State Police resulted in the discovery and destruction of just 25 inactive but operational stills in Franklin, Pittsylvania and Carroll counties. Clearly things have settled down since the heyday of the moonshiners.

Franklin County is legendary for its moonshining industry. The 2012 movie Lawless was based on a book called The Wettest County in the World and takes place in Franklin. The Discovery Channel reality show Moonshiners is also filmed somewhere in the region. The ABC states no booze is actually being made during the show’s filming and if it was attempted, they would take action to shut it down.

Surfing the internet is a quick way to get the pulse on any endeavor. Google “moonshine” and you’ll get over 16 million results. Sites will include equipment sales, recipes, books, videos and yes, even sources for purchasing legal shine. Anyone tempted to engage in the pursuit will have no trouble finding out how to do so.

What you won’t find are sites selling illegal liquor. Commercial moonshining may be fading but the elusive practioners are not resorting to marketing to boost sales. They don’t have to.

Since Prohibition, moonshine has declined in quality in pursuit of the fast buck. Grain is seldom used to create the potions. Sugar and water are often the majority ingredients employed and result in an inferior drink frequently sold to suppliers of “nip houses”. These establishments are located in poorer neighborhoods where patrons can buy a nip for a dollar or two.

Old Dominion shines
Virginia is home to eleven distilleries; six of which are located in the Virginia Piedmont.

Critics’ reviews of the libations have generally been positive. One assessment of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey reads: Very complex fruit, smoke and barley notes. Imagine a young Islay whisky with apple, cherry and hardwood smoke. Finish is warm and bracing.

Or, a review of the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company enthused: The result is a collection of high quality, handcrafted, small-batch spirits, including the poplar Rye, a four-month aged 100 percent rye whiskey.

Mark Twain

Acclaim will accelerate as more Virginia distilleries open their doors and its distillers’ craftsmanship grows. For as Mark Twain said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”




For additional information on the state’s distilleries, visit these establishments online:

1. A Smith Bowman Distillery
2. Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
3. Chesapeake Bay Distillery
Virginia Beach, VA
4. Cirrus Vodka
5. Copper Fox Distillery
George Washington’s Distillery
Mt. Vernon
7. Great Dismal Distillery
8. Laird & Company
North Garden
9. Reservior Distillery
10. Stillhouse
11. The Virginia Distillery
Eads Holllow


Wasmund’s Pot Still


Categories : HAGARTY TALES

An evolving view

Posted on Dec 06 2012 | By

As time moves on so does one’s outlook

Three years ago, I was asked by the editor of my local paper to pen a monthly article on wine. She knew of my involvement in the Virginia wine industry and thought a lifestyle column on the subject would be of interest to her readers. I had never written commercially and embraced the offer; today, I have written for numerous state newspapers and magazines.

Almost simultaneous to my first columns, a friend suggested I create a website—which he offered to build—to archive my work and share with a larger audience. To date, I have posted 151 stories, short and long, focused mostly on wine.

But a feeling began emerging as I approached my thirty-six month of blogging. I began to run out of steam. I found it difficult to plow ground I had covered before. Yes, new Virginia wineries were opening almost every week and interesting owners and winemakers still made for fertile editorial ground.

Subject matter was not the issue. Ebbing passion was.

As I would hover over my keyboard, my mind would increasingly drift to other subject matter. Here and there I began to contribute articles for publication unrelated to wine. I knew it was time to evolve. This post launches that shift.

One subject I found intriguing was homebrewing. In 1979, it became legal to brew beer at home (legal home winemaking dates to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.) Craft beer shares many of the same components of boutique wines. The variety is endless; and the aromas, tastes and food pairing possibilities offer enjoyment similar to wine.

In the wine industry, a common refrain heard at harvest time is, “It takes a lot of beer to make great wine,”referring to the beverage of choice for many hard working cellar employees. It is estimated there are one million homebrewers in the US today. I’ve written on the evolution of craft brewing.

But beer is just one of many interests. I am not shifting from wine to a beer centric theme. I will explore the people, places and events of the Old Dominion and most subject matter—except politics—will be fair game. And yes, I will continue to write on wine whenever an interesting story attracts me.

For those who have followed my writing, I thank you and ask that you continue to drop by from time to time to see what’s on my mind. To all readers, I suggest if there is a story that you believe has merit, let me know.

A blank Word document now sits before me. I can’t wait to get started.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES