Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting in touch with my inner hillbilly

I suppose it was inevitable that we would be making whiskey. It couldn't possibly be coincidence that our property includes a large natural peat bog. Those of you who are partial to Scotch whisky will know what that means. The unique flavor of Scotch comes from two sources: the malted grain is dried over a peat fire, imbuing it with a slightly smoky aroma. Also, the peaty water from the bog is believed to add another layer of complexity to the flavor profile.

(If you've noticed two different spellings of "whiskey", give yourself a gold star! For reasons that remain unclear, this tipple is spelled "whiskey" when it comes from Ireland or the United States, and "whisky" when it's made in Scotland and Canada. So please resist the urge to e-mail me with your proofreading tips.)

So what, you may well ask, have we been waiting for? If we had started making whiskey the first year we were here, our first batch would be almost 7 years along by now. Actually, we talked about it from time to time, but for various reasons it didn't seem feasible. For instance, a few years back, the only license available in Washington State for distillers cost $2,000 per year. Now there are several options, depending on the size of the operation, whether the product would be sold wholesale or retail, etc. I recently applied for a Washington State "craft distillery" license, for which I paid $100. This license permits me to produce up to 60,000 GALLONS of liquor per year. As far as sales, I am allowed to sell only retail, the customer must purchase from the place of manufacture, and I can't sell more than 2 liters per customer per day. Oh, and I have to report sales monthly and collect and pay applicable taxes.

In case you weren't aware, there are actually two licenses required to legally distill liquor: The aforementioned State license, and the Federal Basic Permit. (Incidentally, if you think there is a lot of paperwork involved in organic certification, you'll be impressed by the Federal Basic Permit process.)

So far, so good. Actually at this point I have no serious thoughts about selling whatever booze we make. It's not as if I have full-time hours to put into this operation, and the still I'm building probably wouldn't produce 60,000 gallons a year if it was running 24/7. At the moment I'm fascinated by the actual distillation process (which involves a lot of science I never learned in high school), and certainly I'm motivated by the challenge of learning this craft.

Please note that I have no intention of producing moonshine. No self-respecting moonshiner would be caught with a license, for one thing. Also, my still is a high-separation fractionating type capable of producing vodka and gin; from all I hear, moonshiners traditionally prefer to take their chances with pot stills. These don't separate the components (some of which are poisonous) as well as fractionating stills. And frankly, I have not the least inclination to age my booze in Mason jars, tradition notwithstanding.

As my husband David says, when it all hits the fan, what everyone is going to want to know is, what are we drinking? (Those of you watching the Mayan calendar, keep in mind that there are only 26 shopping days until the end of the world on December 21.) Distilled liquor is high enough in alcohol to ensure that it will never go "bad." Homegrown food is all very well, but we're on the brink of raising the bar in our quest for greater self-sufficiency.

OK, now that you've read this far, I'll admit this was a little tongue in cheek. However, it is true that we will soon be running a licensed craft distillery. And since I recently started making my own tonic water, I figure if I can grow Key limes in my greenhouse, I'll be able to serve a truly homemade gin and tonic one of these days. So stay tuned for updates as we progress, plus photos and even a recipe or two. Cheers!


  1. I LOVED this post. Please document the whole process, from bog to highball glass... I can't wait!

  2. Oh don't worry, I'm making notes on everything as I go along. I have to admit it's as fascinating to write about as to do. I cut pieces of copper pipe yesterday, and am hoping to have time to start assembling the still today. If all goes well I should have my first batch of vodka (made from our own organic potatoes and locally-grown barley) done in a couple of weeks!