Just as the grassroots brewpub concept began almost 30 years ago, the past few yearshave seen the microdistilling movement starting to gather steam. At the forefront of both was Bill Owens, founder of the pioneering Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, CA, in 1983. Buffalo Bill’s was one of the first two brewpubs in the United States, an innovation that has catapulted American brewing into high respectability in the brewing world. Owens’ interest in distilling is no less fervent and visionary, and his approach is just as populist. In his book, Modern Moonshine Techniques, Owens tackles the most basic aspects of distilling while concentrating on the spirit legendarily ingrained in American folklore.
Owens, as president of the American Distilling Institute and spokesman for the distillers’ cause, presents his case for making legal moonshine by basing the craft on traditional American recipes. Moonshine is unfortunately often associated with illicit activity and at times, sketchy product, but as Owens points out, it is worthy of production by legal craft distillers.
The book contains a brief history of moonshining, including its roots as a backlash to taxation after the American Revolution, and later as a means to fill the tipple vacuum during Prohibition. Owens offers his definition of moonshine as “untaxed liquor from an unregistered still.” He goes on to describe the difference between liquor made cheaply to turn a quick buck, and those “moonshine-inspired” whiskeys that require a bit more skill and careful attention, and in the end, are far more interesting to explore. Subsequently, several chapters are devoted to recipes and techniques for fermenting and distilling sugar moonshine, corn whiskey and more complex whiskey containing corn, barely, rye and wheat. The latter requires mashing, and Owens describes in detail the planning, assemblage and workings of mash tuns and basic mashing techniques. He also has a chapter dedicated to building a corn cooker, a necessary element to making corn grits fermentable. In addition to mashing, he covers fermentation in enough depth to make it relatively foolproof for the uninitiated as well as offering special considerations for unique distilling applications.
The most important, and complicated, aspect of moonshine/whiskey production is in the distilling itself. Owens gives a thorough rundown on the necessary apparatus from basic pot stills to fancy column stills, along with their feasibility, operation and general application. His outline of still operation and collection of the runnings is exact, methodical and comprehensive, describing the theory and precise conditions needed at each step. Recipes are included for bourbon, corn, wheat, malt and rye whiskey. Owens finishes with a few appendices that cover and describe a small distillers operational plan, regulations, licensing and resources.
Modern Moonshine Techniques is a basic book that takes the mystery out of distilling these elixirs and would be worth exploring if becoming a distiller is of interest. In light of the ever-growing number of microdistilleries, perhaps we are ready for a new manifestation of American spirit, and Bill Owens has no shortage of that.