Ali tends his backyard still.
Ali tends his backyard still. Credit: Clayton Hauck

One arctic Sunday morning last month, the unmistakable aroma of juniper and lemon perfumed the normally musty air behind a heavy steel door in an industrial space on the west side. There “Roger,” a young guy who makes his living with his hands, was committing a time-honored and storied felony.

With a simple 1,500-watt Toastmaster electric hot plate and a stainless-steel column still he’d built for less than $150, he was converting a yeast-fermented sugar-and-water mash into 96 percent pure alcohol, a gin saturated with oils from mere teaspoons of botanicals, including cardamom, coriander, fennel, star anise, and a cinnamon stick.

I met Roger a few summers ago at a party on the Michigan side of the lake, where he was passing around a bottle of his floral, lightly sweet hooch. He bore little resemblance to the lead-footed hillbillies commonly associated with moonshine’s racy origins. And, in fact, Roger doesn’t trade in illegal spirits. He makes gin—and only gin—for himself, his friends, and for the pure DIY pleasure of it.

“I got into this just because I like the science of all that stuff,” he says. “I like process. I like all the ins and outs of making this very specific thing. I like coming up with all of the systems to get to a goal. Distilling can be very much like that.” Roger’s also a history buff, and he likes the lore of the spirit, its medicinal and naval origins. He makes labels for his “Idler” gin, so named for the skilled sailors with specific trades who weren’t required to swab the decks. I had the pleasure of sipping my way through a bottle of the final product as part of the research for this story.

You could say Roger is among the people Matthew Rowley, author of the how-to Moonshine!, calls “technical” distillers—”gearheads striving to make the most efficient distillery setup they can, forever tweaking and adjusting their rigs, never quite satisfied with the results.” In a speech before last year’s annual conference of the American Distilling Institute, Rowley described two other species of “hobbyist nano-distillers,” practicing their craft in secret but contemporarily with the young guns of the nascent legitimate craft-distiller movement. There are the “economical” distillers, he wrote, who make booze because it’s cheaper than buying it in the store. And then there are the “artisans” who strive to make great-tasting spirits.”

The Chicago area is about to see two brand-new licensed craft distilleries open within the coming year, so I knew there had to be more covert home distillers out there—even though a spokesman from Chicago’s ATF office says they can’t remember the last time they busted anyone for making moonshine. (It’s still a big business in cities such as Philadelphia.)

But “ask yourself this question,” Rowley wrote in an e-mail. “With new distilleries popping up across the US, where do you think so many of this new generation of distillers are learning how to make a run of decent whiskey or brandy? There aren’t that many opportunities to learn without breaking laws.”

Even so, he cautioned, in his experience home distillers as a group are a reticent bunch (for obvious reasons). But he and plenty of other people in positions to know told me to ask among home winemakers and brewers—Roger dabbled in home brewing before he got into distilling.

“Ali,” a twentysomething PhD and university professor whom I met more recently, has been making his own beer for almost five years. “It’s a matter of simple science to go from fermented beverage to distilled beverage,” he told me. “A little bit of science, and a little bit of equipment, but home brewers and winemakers know how to do the hard part, which is to get something ready for distillation.”

Two Sundays ago Ali and his friend and business partner “Ben” had their $500 mail-order column still set up in the snow in the backyard of his North Shore ranch house. They were in the middle of making a run of apple brandy distilled from five gallons of unpasteurized Wisconsin cider, fermented with champagne yeast. They’d hoped to have a little something to sip on by the time the Packers and Steelers took the field. Over ten hours, while a propane burner heated the cider to a steady 80 degrees Celsius, 150-proof applejack vapor slowly condensed in the column.

As the booze began dripping into a growler, Ali told me how he got started. It was just under a year ago in south Asia, where he was doing postdoctoral work. Spirits were hard to come by, and when you did, you might not want to drink them: “The hangovers are really bad,” he says. Ali had an Italian friend who wanted to make limoncello, so for $50 he cobbled together a still with a used pressure cooker and some plastic tubing, and “ended up with three liters of jet fuel.”

Since then Ali has made about three runs of apple brandy in his backyard. In lieu of wooden casks, he’s aging the results in seven jars filled with different varieties of wood chips. It’s R&D for an apple-brandy distillery he and Ben hope to open.

The partners are a combination of Rowley’s economic and artisanal distillers. Wisconsonites, Ali says, drink more brandy than anyone else. They have great apples, and they go nuts for local products. He and Ben plan to distill a Calvados-quality brandy and age it in wood using a solera system—at regular intervals a portion of each barrel is transferred to the next oldest, and only the oldest is tapped. As far as he knows, that would be a unique product, but it’ll take many years and much investment to get it on the market, not to mention the morass of legal and trademarking issues they’d have to wade through just to get started. But like most distillers new to the game, they want to get a white, unaged spirit on the shelves to start creating revenue fast. They’re planning to make a German-style apple schnaps and a rice vodka, since to his knowledge there are currently no domestic producers of soju or shochu. In the meantime, much like Roger, they’re enjoying the consumption of their experiments, and so far Johnny Law is none the wiser.

Next week: How to make legit booze.