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I confess to twinges of anxiety about whether we had ventured into redneck territory. When the pandemic began, as others kneaded sourdough and became addicted to TikTok, my husband elevated his home-brewing game. He tinkered in the shed for hours, hammering together a moonshine still that produced surprisingly good hooch. As we sat under patio lanterns at dusk and raised the first glass, I got to thinking – is he a mechanical genius turned moonshiner or an artisan craftsman?
It really boils down to perspective. Backyard moonshining could become respectable, depending on how you spin it. Even in elite circles, artisans take local ingredients and add time, patience and love to produce delectable fare. Why not homespun moonshine? After all, the water we use to make the elixir comes from our own well. The fruit for the fermentation mash is grown on our tiny acreage, borne by lovingly tended trees that are never treated with chemicals. The whole affair is made even more wholesome when you add family and friends to the harvest.
In the summer, physical distancing allowed for outdoor visits and we gathered to pick transparent apples and mirabelle plums that exploded when we bit into them. Plum juice left sticky trails as it ran over chins and down necks. Cheerful harvesters filled their pails and made frequent stops to hydrate and cool off in shady areas. It was a true spectacle of bucolic bliss. We washed and gleefully pulverized the fruit, then added water and other classified ingredients to make a mash.
The brooding concoction was kept in glass carboys, which are bulbous fermenting jars with narrow necks. We eagerly waited for the first frothy signs of fermentation, a process dating back at least 10,000 years. We learned the hard way that moonshine mash should never be kept in the house. I wish we had resisted the urge to move a batch into the warm basement during an unseasonal cold snap. We ended up with sickly green mash dripping from our basement ceiling. It was an eerie scene that looked a lot like alien blood oozing into the escape-pod aboard a spaceship.
One particular distilling day presented a fine opportunity for another family shindig. It arrived in late summer, dawning with the promise of perfect weather. Vehicles nosed their way into shady spots, crunching to a halt along the gravel driveway. Family called out greetings as they wandered over to the backyard. The viewing gallery was positioned a safe distance from the flame as it licked the base of the pot.
Copper tubes looped and spiralled before they converged into a single spout suspended over a clear glass bottle. The spectators, starved for entertainment during the pandemic, watched eagerly from the safety of their lawn chairs. Noses and cheeks smeared with sunblock and hats shading eyes, they waited in anticipation for the first few drops to make their slow descent. My husband leaned forward in his chair; his steely gaze fixed on the flow rate. The moment of truth had arrived.
Fifteen gallons of fermented mash produced about eight precious bottles of drinkable moonshine. The undrinkable stuff made pretty good hand sanitizer – a useful byproduct during a pandemic. A little aloe vera gel mixed with 65 per cent alcohol got the job done.
Conversation ebbed and flowed as the afternoon wore on. Self-proclaimed science buffs estimated the alcohol content by shaking the bottle and observing how long it took for the bubbles to settle. Hard-core moonshiners call this the bead. Naturally, verification was needed. A hydrometer was produced and the exuberant winners of Guess-the-Proof were declared.
The brave and stupid took tentative sips of the clear potion. These intrepid tasters spluttered and grimaced but remained steadfast and undeterred. The liquor was not really drinkable at that point. My husband, the master distiller, regaled the audience with a detailed description of the finishing process as the members languished in the growing shade of an old Douglas fir.
As I watched my husband, I realized that almost anybody could make moonshine, but elevating it to a drinkable spirit required some skill. This is where the magic happened. The “shine” was poured into mini oak barrels which were previously seasoned with quality Canadian whisky. After it aged for a few weeks, he added cinnamon sticks and other undisclosed flavours to round out the overall profile.
The notably pleasing result made its way to the palates of a discerning and clandestine few. Access to this elusive beverage was by invitation and could only be acquired by donation. One such beneficiary, a medical doctor, sent a sample for laboratory testing – no doubt as a safeguard against poisoning. Not surprisingly, the moonshine was found to be pure, immediately making it even more popular.
Supply and demand theory dictates that there is much work to be done again this year. As the fruit ripens, we stay vigilant and keep watch for blight and other pesky invasions. We hose spider webs from lawn chairs and wonder who will be sitting in them this year. Equipment is dusted and instruments are calibrated. My husband reminisces about how the original parts for the still came from his family in the far North and says he hopes they will be able to travel down for the next batch.
Another artisanal summer is in full swing. It feels good to use what we have on hand to make something unique. My husband is blessed with a green thumb and is good with his hands. He can fix just about anything. What started as a hobby has become more of a calling. A humble distiller, quietly making moonshine for a discerning few, notches up another win for pandemic productivity.
Ann Douglas lives in the Fraser Valley, B.C.
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