how to make moonshine
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In our latest Chow-To episode, Senior Video Producer Guillermo Riveros visits Brooklyn’s acclaimed Kings County Distillery for a deep dive into the art of producing its award-winning moonshine. He joins head distiller and co-owner Colin Spoelman who offers a step-by-step demonstration of the time-honored process of transforming grain to whiskey. The two also clear up some of the many misconceptions associated with moonshine, also known as the “illegal spirit,” and discuss the brief, yet storied, history of the oldest active distillery in New York City.

Don’t Try This at Home  

Though moonshine most commonly refers to clear, unaged whiskey the moniker has also been used as a catch-all term for any liquor distilled illegally. It was often produced in the dead of night (hence the name) to avoid detection from the law and the process largely resulted in barely drinkable hooch which could be composed of anything and everything—that is, of course, if the still didn’t explode during distillation.

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Though bootleggers continue to practice their craft illicitly (Spoelman, who grew up in a dry county in Kentucky, is well acquainted with them), there are a number of legal moonshine options available for retail (presuming you purchase your booze from a reputable liquor purveyor). Thanks to the recent bourbon boom, along with the growing trend of prohibition cocktails and “speakeasy” bars, moonshine continues to see a rise in popularity. The good stuff, like the moonshine bottled at Kings County, offers drinkers the opportunity to get a taste of whiskey in its purest form.

Related Reading: Inside the Bourbon Boom: How Old-Fashioned Became Cool

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The Moonshine Mash

Though Kings County’s other offerings such as their flagship Straight Bourbon and Empire Rye Whiskey take years to produce, that’s not the case with moonshine. Since it complete eschews barrel aging, “white whiskey” can be completed in a matter of days, essentially the spirit straight from the still.

It all starts with the mash, which is almost akin to making a stew. Kings County’s recipe calls for 80 percent New York state organic corn and 20 percent malted barley. As the two are blended in hot water, enzymes from the malted barley help transform the starch in the corn to sugar.

The mixture is cooled and a thimble of yeast is added to begin fermentation which will convert the sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

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Everything you could possibly learn about moonshine straight from the experts at Kings County Distillery.
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From Beer to Wine to Whiskey

After the four-day fermentation process, things start to get boozy. The resulting liquid, known as distillers’ beer (despite its name, avoid imbibing), has around a seven to eight percent alcohol content. But the real magic begins during distillation, which uses a still to remove the alcohol from the liquid by boiling, capturing the steam, and letting it cool. It’s a two-step process: The first distillation results in what’s known as “low wines” as the alcohol content clocks in at a wine-like 20 percent (similar to distillers’ beer, this won’t go down easy). The second round, known as the “spirit run,” results in the finished product.

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But first, make sure to dispose of the initial part of the run which contains a high concentration of methanol. To put it simply, the alcohol we drink is ethanol, but if you add an “m” to it, that’s not good. Drinking as little as 30 milliliters of methanol causes blindness and its one of the reasons moonshine gets such a bad rap.

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It’s during the middle of the run when the whiskey peaks with an aroma of silver tequila or grappa and a mellow corn flavor. It’s perfect for cocktails or can be enjoyed on its own.

Just remember to leave the production of moonshine to the professionals. The “illegal spirit” remains illegal if distilled without a proper license.

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David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
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