In one of the opening scenes of a documentary on moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, the scrawny old fella in overalls is scoping out creeks to set up what he claimed would be his last run of shine. He dips his hand in a fast running stream and says, “That water’s as pure as it can be. Ain’t nothin’ in it but pure bear shit.”
And for the duration of the 90-minute film, he shows exactly all the work and country science it takes him to make a big batch of potent corn whiskey.
Making beer is a piece of cake. Making whiskey looks to be a monster. But a few things are conspiring to make me want to try it, including my growing appetite for the sweet caramel of bourbon, and this film, called “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.”
Nothing’s fueled my fire of late, though, more than a new book by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell called “The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining.”
Did I mention making it at home is illegal? Popcorn does, bitterly, many times in the documentary. And it would prove to end his life, after he was caught and convicted, he killed himself before they could take him to the pen.
And Spoelman reminds us of the fact, too, when he begins chapter 4, “How to Make Whiskey” by saying, “So you want to break the law, or you would be skipping this chapter.”
That’s just one hint of the wit that fills the book’s 200 pages. I can’t tell you how marvelous this book is, and I wish it were twice as long. But it may not need to be, because if it’s goal is to inform and inspire you to consider creating your own craft batch, then cheers, gentlemen. Mission accomplished.
“Drink it only on special occasions,” Spoelman writes, “though this is not meant to limit your consumption so much as force you to evaluate your blessings at any given time and consecrate them with whiskey. Whiskey is designed for company, and it is best shared.”
True to the allusions of its textured, textbook-like cover, the second half of the book is filled with instructions — including diagrams of stills, a discussion of aging liquor, and even a potential layout for a small-batch craft distillery capable of producing about 53 gallons of shine a day. The first half of the book is filled with pages I thought I’d skim, like a history of whiskey and a survey of what’s commercially available. But while the second half’s more pragmatic instructions will be indispensable
if when I try to make my own, it’s the first half that was a true joy to read.
I pored over a whiskey family tree that shows how closely related Old Crow is to Knob Creek.
And I don’t think Jenn’s picked up the book since I got it, but she’s heard most of these first chapters, as I couldn’t resist reading them out loud to her.
The appendixes are full of great stuff, too:
- Sample whiskey bars as whiskey experts would stock them, with writers every bit as clever as the author. (Former whiskey shop owner Jonathan Wingo writes, “The Balvenie 21-Year Port Wood is a masterpiece whiskey that, if you share, proves you’re generous — and if you don’t, proves you’re sane.”)
- Recipes, not just for great cocktails, but for making “hillbilly bread” from the corn mash, making tobacco bitters, and for how to use
my future stilla completely theoretical still to infuse whiskey with herbs and create something akin to absinthe.
Spoelman was a former under-the-radar moonshiner from Kentucky before partnering with co-author Haskell to legitimize their passion by founding New York’s Kings County Distillery. I don’t know how many jugs of shine they’ve now made in their years, but they’re probably edging in on ol’ Popcorn.
“How many jars of liquor do you think you’ve made in your life?” asked filmmaker Neal Hutcheson.
“The hell fire!” the old-timer responded. “I don’t even guess they make numbers that damn long.”
You can see the full film, which is wonderful if maybe a bit too leisurely paced, on the YouTubes:
About the book:
‘The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey,” by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell
$30; 224 pages