Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Well, another year has come and gone during which I have been really good. Exceptionally good. Amazingly, outstandingly good. Not by choice, mind you, for at my age (and income level) the opportunities for being truly bad are few and far between, but we must judge people by their actions and not their intentions, right? Right? Oh, sweet Crom, I hope so.
The Noodle Incident doesn't count.
Anyway, the list...
Kindle books: any (or...ahem!...all) of the items on my Amazon.com Wish List would be greatly appreciated, but what I'd really like is a nice, shiny, new workspace. Okay, so maybe I don't actually "work" in my "workspace", so maybe I just want a cool-looking area to surf the Intarweb, watch YouTube videos of cute animals, suck up whatever looks interesting on Netflix, post the occasional blog entry, and perhaps write some tawdry little short stories (see Darkest Richmond). For those I'm going to need a work surface: the C-119 Flap Airplane Desk looks like a winner. Boy, does it ever! And if I get such a desk, I'm going to need something appropriate to sit on, like a F-4 Ejection Seat modified for home office use. Yeah, that's looking good. You know what else would be good? A new computer and I'm thinking the Alienware 18 Laptop fits the bill nicely. But we still need a touch of class, don't we? How about a tray of Doomed Crystal Skull Shotglasses? The perfect thing for chugging highly caffeinated beverages in small doses, say, Funranium Labs Black Blood of the Earth coffee extract (whose motto should be sleep and functioning kidneys are for the worthless and weak). And, just for the hell of it, how about a fancy letter opener? Maybe Ka-Bar's Black Kukri Machete? And a paperweight. A nice paperweight. A functional paperweight. A Magnum Research Desert Eagle in .50 AE, with polished chrome and muzzle brake. It can sit next to the Time Machine Chronambulator Dial Clock.
*sigh* Well, a fellow can dream, can't he?
Monday, November 12, 2012
"Honey! I'm home!" Ron shouted as he came down the stairs, clutching a plastic bag and big red cup of something.
"Jesus, dude!" I shouted back, startled. "You scared me! What time is it?"
"I'm not sure. Late. And sorry, that wasn't my intention." Ron was slurring ever so slightly.
"You went across the street, didn't you?" I said.
"I did, I did. That's a hell of a crew over there, y'know? Plenty of booze but not a lot of women."
"Did you see Sarah?"
"Nope. She was around, though. One of those big guys said she was out back doing something with sheet metal and a welding torch. Oh, here's the extension cords." Ron struggled awkwardly with his cup and the bag. "I got two long ones since I figure we'd better run the heater off the kitchen circuit rather than risk another blackout."
"Oh, and here's a drink for you," he said, handing me the cup. "It's got vodka in it."
Vodka and cherry Kool-Aid, as it turned out. A little sweet, but not bad for a freebie.
Ron cocked his head and looked around the basement. "What's that hissing noise?"
"Oh, Jesus, The still! Ron, do me a favor and go plug in those extension cords." I rushed over to see what was happening.
With a slight whistle, steam emerged from the nozzle of the condensing unit and a few drops of clear liquid fell to the floor. I noted a distinctly chemical smell, vaguely alcohol-like. "Bottle," I muttered to myself. "Funnel." I grabbed a plastic gallon milk jug and a stainless steel funnel, placed them under the condenser, and started collecting what old-time moonshiners called the foreshots.
"Hey, Ron!" I shouted. "It's working! We've got alcohol!"
Ron literally galloped down the steps, almost tripping in the process, and stood beside me, an expression of awe on his face.
"I smell it," he said.
"Me, too." We stared at the steaming still.
"We made that," Ron said.
"I thought it would come out faster," Ron said.
"Well, so did I... oh, shit. Cooling water. We need cooling water." I checked the condenser hose connections, grabbed for the faucet, and turned it on full force.
"Oh, damn it. Not again. Please, not again," I said. "This is so not the time." I looked at Ron. "We cannot catch a damn break this evening."
The pipes shuddered and groaned as if possessed, but this time the noise stopped after a only a couple of minutes and, to my surprise, mostly clear water flowed freely from the condenser's cooling jacket.
"Maybe our luck is changing," Ron said.
Not surprisingly, two working heaters and a properly adjusted condenser made a huge difference in performance. I noted a steady but not alarming rise in the still's temperature while Ron stared, transfixed, at the filling milk jug.
"I've got to have a taste," he said.
"Uh, that's not a particularly good idea." I checked the thermometer. "At this temperature, what's coming off now is mostly methanol, you know, wood alcohol, the stuff that makes you go blind and die. There's some other nasty crap in there, too, so you definitely don't want to drink it."
"Well, shit. Is that normal?"
"Yeah, it just happens to be what distills off first, at least that's what all the books and websites say, and it's a good thing it does or the whole batch would be poison. The good stuff should be coming in just a few minutes."
"How will we know?"
"Alcohol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit, so once we hit that, we'll start collecting for real."
I stood there watching the thermometer while Ron paced the basement, stopping every now and then to look at me and the still. You'd have thought he was expecting a baby, the way he was acting, and maybe, in a sense, he was. This was all his idea to begin with, his money funding the project, and though I hadn't kept close tabs on our expenses, Ron's bank account had to be considerably drained. The poor guy had reasons to be anxious.
Suddenly, the still started sputtering.
"What's that? What's that?" Ron ran over and looked at the collecting jug. "It stopped. What's happening?"
"I don't know. Wait a minute. Let's not panic." I checked the thermometer again, then tapped it a couple of times.
"It's not going to blow up, is it?" Ron said.
"No, it's okay, we're good. It's holding steady at 173 degrees. Let's switch containers." I moved the first jug out of the way and positioned a second one just in time to capture a steady flow of clear liquid.
"That's what we're after," I said, sticking my finger into the stream and taking a little taste. It was hot and raw and unrefined with just a hint of paint thinner, but beneath that was a certain grainy sweetness.
It tasted like whiskey.
Not great whiskey, not something you'd serve to friends or mix drinks with, unaged, unmellowed, and unblended as it was, but it definitely smelled like whiskey, tasted like whiskey, and burned like whiskey.
"Well?" Ron said. "Can I try it?"
"Have at it, but try and keep your expectations low. It isn't smooth and it's not a consumer-grade product by any stretch of the imagination. It needs to rest for about three to five years in a charred oak barrel."
Ron found my cup of Kool-Aid and vodka, dumped the remnants into the sink, rinsed it with the condenser cooling jacket outflow, snagged a sample from the still, and took a cautious sip.
"Huh. You're right. It's not great, but it is whiskey. Not rum, not vodka, not Everclear, but whiskey." Ron smiled. "I kind of like it," he said, taking another sip and rolling it around on his tongue. "It needs some ice cubes and soda or something to get rid of that solvent taste, but yeah, I can drink this."
"Well, we're not going to be winning a blue ribbon award any time soon, but for a first attempt, I think we've done pretty well. In fact, we did far better than I had any right to imagine, given the night we've had."
The milk jug was almost full, so I switched it out for another, snagging another taste in the process. Yes, it still tasted like whiskey.
"So how many gallons are we going to get," Ron asked.
"I don't know. I'm happy to get one, but with ten gallons of mash, I don't know. Maybe two, possibly three." I checked the thermometer again. "Temperature's still holding. That's a good sign."
"Two gallons doesn't sound like very much."
"It isn't, but remember, this is just a test run. I deliberately kept it small so we could iron out any problems before committing to distilling any significant volume, and man, you saw what it was like earlier this evening."
"A veritable shit storm," Ron said.
"We'll do better with our next run."
"I sure hope so. Oh, I was wondering, how will we know when it's done?"
"Well, I don't want the still to run dry for a couple of reason. One, we'll never get it clean if we do, and two, eventually we'll have distilled out all the drinkable alcohol and start getting some seriously crappy stuff again. Fusel oils and such. We're going to have to sample it at regular intervals and stop when it starts to taste bad."
"I see no problem there." Ron grinned.
I laughed. "Really, I don't, either. Just take it easy, okay? Getting sloshed now could be an unmitigated disaster."
"Moderation is my middle name."
"I thought you were the one always quoting Robert Heinlein: 'Moderation is for monks.'"
"Oh, whatever. I was probably drunk."
We filled the second jug and started on a third.
"This is where we have to be extra careful," I said, "or we could end up contaminating our batch with what real moonshiners called 'the tails' and the stuff will taste nasty. According to the books, this is going to happen when the thermometer reaches about 205 degrees Fahrenheit, but I don't trust that, which is why we're going to do taste tests. If it starts going bad or we hit 200 degrees, whatever comes first, we shut down."
We sat in companionable, boozy silence for a while, listening to the still hiss and the water run, taking occasional sips of our very first batch of home brewed whiskey whenever it seemed appropriate.
"Do you hear something dripping?" Ron asked.
"Actually, I do. What is that?"
"I'm not sure."
Suddenly, the sump pump in the corner roared to life.
"Oh, shit," Ron said. "The sink's overflowing."
"Crap. Oh, man, there's water all over the place. Unplug the still."
I meant for Ron to pull the extension cords from their respective outlets. Instead, he unplugged the heaters and dropped the extension cords into the growing pool of water. Sparks flew, there was a loud bang, and the basement was immediately plunged into darkness. Again.
"Where's the flashlight?"
"On the work bench."
"Where's the work bench?"
"Behind you. Be careful not to..."
There was a soggy thump as Ron slipped and fell into a puddle of water.
"You okay?" I was feeling my way to the sink, being very careful not to grab a double handful of hot still in the process. Tepid water filled my shoes as I turned off the tap.
"Yeah," Ron said. "Where's that damn flashlight? Oh, got it."
"If you're planning on changing the fuse again, I'd make sure the extension cords were out of the water first."
I heard a slithering noise as Ron dragged the cords across the floor and placed them on the work bench.
"We've got one fuse left," Ron said.
"Let's hope that's all we need, at least for tonight."
Ron fumbled with the fuse box for a minute or so until the lights came back on.
"This is not a level floor," Ron said, looking around. "How come I didn't notice that before?"
He was right. There was a large pool of water in the corner under the sink and watery pseudopods going out from there and off in several directions following hitherto unsuspected ridges and valleys.
"You think they evened this out with a bulldozer blade?" I said.
"Tank treads are more likely. Damaged tank treads."
"Damaged, rusty tank treads from the battlefields of World War I."
'Damaged, rusty World War I tank treads with bundles of barbed wire sticking out all over."
"Damaged, rusty... you know what? We're a little drunk."
Ron crossed his eyes and made a goofy face. "No, we're a lot drunk. I need to go to bed. We can clean this up in the morning."
I glanced at my wrist watch. "Actually, it is morning, but, yeah, let's deal with this later. Let me cap that last jug."
So there we were, a little soggy, a little drunk, a little tired, older, maybe wiser, with two and a half gallons of homemade hooch from an illegal still in our basement. It was time for bed.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
"Jesus God," Ron said. "This place smells like Satan's bakery. What's in that stuff, moldy sourdough bread soaked in kerosene?"
It was early evening and we were in the basement, surrounded by several vats of fermenting mash, most of them bubbling and roiling like some kind of turbo-charged witch's brew.
"It's just bottled water, sugar, corn, rye, barley, malt, and some of that super-yeast we got at the wine-making store. I kind of like it."
"You would," Ron said, breathing through his mouth. "You like the smell of unleaded gasoline."
"And other petroleum distillates. Let's not leave anything out."
"So where do we stand? I'm getting tired of waiting around with my thumb up my ass. I wanna make some booze."
"Well..." I looked around, did some quick mental calculations, and walked over to one of the plastic buckets. "It's been five days and batch number one should be just about ready. According to the instructions, once the bubbling stops and the yeast settles out, we should have something on the order of thirty per cent alcohol."
"Damn. Hot damn! And that's before we even run it through the still. What are we going to get afterwards?"
"That's a good question and the answer is, I have no idea. We'll just have to run it and see what happens."
"Then what are we waiting for?"
"Nothing, I guess. Help me lift this thing onto the work bench. Gently. Try not to disturb the sediment."
Ten gallons doesn't sound like much, but it translates to over eighty pounds of awkward, dead weight. Since neither one of us had any real upper body strength, there was a certain amount of grunting and groaning involved as we hoisted the bucket onto the bench.
"Jesus God, it smells even worse close up," Ron said.
"It's no bouquet of roses, I'll admit. Now, where's that Tygon tubing? I'm going to siphon it into the still."
Ron nodded, moved over to the still, and started trying to pry off the head assembly.
"Damn, that's tight. Give me a hand, will ya?"
Ron wasn't kidding. The head was on tight. We tried pulling, then twisting, then pulling again and still the head resisted.
"Bang on it with something," Ron said.
I grabbed a rubber mallet off the work bench and whacked the join a couple of times.
"Okay," I said. "That should do it."
I whacked it a few more times, then Ron and I grabbed the head assembly as tightly as we could, twisting and pulling at the same time. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then there was a sudden screeching of metal and the head came free.
"That's one hell of a flange. We should put some grease on that or something," Ron said.
"Yeah, that's a good idea... wait, is that a dead mouse?"
Ron peered into the base of the still. "Yep. Two of 'em. Dead and mummified." He dumped them out onto the floor.
"Oh, gross." I took the base from Ron, carried it over to the sink, and turned on the faucet full force.
The room filled with a deafening THRUMUMUMUMUMUMUMSHREEEEEEEEEE as something resembling liquid sewage spewed and sputtered from the tap.
"Oh, damn it all to hell" I scrambled to turn off the tap.
"Let it flow," Ron yelled. "The one thing we haven't tried is flushing the pipes until they run clear. Leave it alone for a minute."
The pipes pounded and vibrated in a manic symphony of demonic noise that would have made Einsturzende Neubauten envious, but the sputtering water slowly changed from sewage-colored to muddy. A minute passed. Then two. Then three. A sulfurous odor filled the basement.
"It's not getting better," I yelled at Ron.
"I know," Ron yelled back. "Maybe we should..."
And suddenly, miraculously, the pipes stopped banging and the water flowed in a steady stream.
"Praise Jesus," Ron said.
"Hail Satan," I said.
I rinsed the copper base of the still, scoured it with sanitizer, rinsed it some more, then carried it back to its place near the work bench.
"Let's try again," I said. "Tygon, please."
I cut off a convenient length of tubing, placed one end just beneath the surface of the liquid in the bucket and starting sucking on the other end as hard as I could, trying to start a siphon. I got one, alright, and a mouthful of nasty-tasting ferment in the process. Quickly, I dropped my end of the tube into the still base and then proceeded to retch.
"Oh, gawd, that's foul," I said, spitting onto the floor. "But judging from the taste, there's alcohol in there." I spit again. "Do we have anything to drink that doesn't come out of the faucet?"
"We've got some Diet Pepsi and some orange juice," Ron said. "I could make a pot of coffee."
"No, I don't want to wait for coffee. It tastes like the entire Russian Army just held field maneuvers in their muddy boots on my tongue. I'll be right back." I dashed up the stairs and grabbed an orange juice for me and a Diet Pepsi for Ron.
Somewhere out front of our apartment someone was playing a sound system at top volume. I looked out the front door.
Vintage rockabilly was playing and a slew of biker types, both male and female, emanated from the anarchists' collective and began dancing in the front yard, drinking from forty ounce bottles of malt liquor, cavorting, and just having a good time in general. There were the occasional sounds of breaking glass, high-pitched female laughter, and good-natured drunken revelry.
Huh, I thought. Sarah never said anything about having a party. I wonder why we weren't invited? Oh, it doesn't matter. We're working.
I went back to the basement.
"Jesus, John," Ron said. "Is there any faster way to fill this thing?"
The bucket was emptying, but oh so slowly. "Guess I should have gotten some wider diameter tubing. I'll add that to my list."
We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, after about twenty minutes, most of the cloudy liquid slop from the bucket was in the still, leaving only a slimy mass of dead yeast and fermented grain.
"Now can we run the still? Ron asked
"Now we can run the still," I said, replacing the head assembly. "All we have to do is plug it in, hook up water to the condenser, and let 'er rip."
"Well, as I see it, the electrical outlets are over here and the sink is way over there where there are no electrical outlets."
"Oh," I said.
"We're going to need a couple of long extension cords or some really long hoses with fittings."
"Do we have any extension cords?"
"I've got one in the train room," Ron said.
"We're going to need two. Two heaters, two cords."
"Okay," Ron said. "How about a really long cord with a power strip on one end."
"Ron, you're a mad genius! Go get it and I'll move the still closer to the sink."
I could tell by the way Ron ran up the basement steps he was really excited by the prospect of running our still for the first time. Ron never ran anywhere, if he could help it. Hell, neither did I, but his excitement was contagious. I started pushing the still closer to the sink.
Which wasn't going to happen without a struggle. Thirty pounds of copper plus eighty pounds of liquid equals, well, a problem.
'Hey, Ron," I yelled. "I need some help here."
Ron clomped down the stairs, a coiled yellow extension cord hanging from his shoulder.
"This'll takes care of our electrical problem. What do you need?"
"Help me move the still."
"Sure. Is it that heavy?"
"Oh, yeah. Give it a try."
Ron pushed, I pulled, and the still moved reluctantly.
"Wait a minute," Ron said. "We're going about this all wrong. Friction is not our friend. Hold on a sec." Ron ran back up the basement steps, then returned with a double handful of wooden dowels.
"We're going to use these as rollers," he said, laying the dowels in a path from the still to the sink. "I don't know why I didn't think of this to begin with."
"Well, it never occurred to me, either, not that I knew we had rollers. Maybe our blood sugar is low."
"Doesn't matter," Ron said. "Let's push."
The dowels worked like a charm and with only a little effort, we situated the still near the sink. I quickly attached the intake and outflow hoses to the condenser while Ron unraveled the extension cord, plugged it into an outlet, then attached the two heating elements to the power strip.
There was a loud pop, a brief flash of sparks from somewhere in the corner, and the room went pitch black.
"Fuck!" we said, simultaneously.
"I'm betting we don't have a flashlight down here, do we?" Ron said.
"I'm betting you're right. I think I've got one in the bedroom, though."
"Let's hope so. When you said distilling wasn't as easy as I might think, I had no idea this kind of shit would happen." Ron stumbled a bit making his way back to the work bench.
"Well, it wasn't exactly what I envisioned, either. Dionysus is not smiling upon us tonight," I said.
"Dionysus. The Greek god of wine, intoxication, and ritual madness. Guess he's busy at the party across the street."
"There's a party across the street?"
"You didn't notice when you went upstairs? Well, cool your jets there, son. It's a big biker bash to which we were not invited and besides, we're working, remember?"
I worked my way cautiously to the steps and went off to find my flashlight.
The party at the anarchists' collective was still going strong; in fact, it had grown. People were milling about in the street, in the front yard, in our front yard, and in the neighbors' front yards. Motorcycles of all shapes and sizes were everywhere, their comings and goings punctuated by loud bass engine noises I felt as much as heard. People were having a good time. Sex and drugs and rock and roll filled the night air. Yeah, I thought. There's our problem. Dionysus is too busy getting down with his twenty-first century posse to shower us with blessings, the freak.
"Where the hell is that flashlight?" Ron's voice came up from the basement.
"I'm coming, I'm coming." I stumbled a bit coming down the darkened steps.
"Well, it's about time," Ron said. "Where's the breaker box?"
We searched around for a bit, my tiny flashlight casting a dim, barely sufficient glow, until we came to a dusty, cobweb-encrusted metal door in the wall.
"Shit," said Ron. "Fuses, not breakers. Old ones." He sighed deeply. "I don't suppose you know where any fuses are, by chance?"
"Couldn't we just jam a penny in there?"
"Besides the fact that's a sure way to get electrocuted, not to mention start a house fire, these aren't screw-in fuses. They're older than that."
"So what do we do?"
"Well, there's nothing in the fuse box, nothing on the fuse box. Let's look on the work bench."
Sure enough, there, in plain sight, was a faded box of old school tube fuses.
"These things are ancient. Better unplug the heaters while I stick this in."
"What?" Ron said.
"You're going to stick in in."
"Are you high?"
"No, just a little giddy. Everything's unplugged."
There was a sharp electrical crack, a couple of bluish sparks, and the lights came back on.
"Well, that was entertaining," Ron said. "Let's try it with one heating element."
I took in a deep breath, inserted the plug, then exhaled when I saw the heating unit's little orange indicator light come on.
"And we have ignition."
"Great. Now what?"
"Now we watch the temperature, wait for things to boil, turn on the water to the condenser, and start collecting our alcohol."
"How long will that take?"
"I have no idea. Probably a while, since we only have the one heating element. You got another extension cord somewhere?"
"No, but if this is going to take a while, I could run down to Walgreen's or someplace and buy one."
"Might not be a bad idea."
"Of course, I just might have to check out that party, too."
I gave Ron my best look of exasperation, then said, "Go ahead. This could wind up being an all-night affair anyway. No sense in both of us being bored."
"I'll be right back, I promise."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You'll be right back. I've heard that line before. Try not to to pick up any STDs while you're at it."
"No STDs. Just an extension cord. Got it."
With Ron gone the basement was quiet except for the faint din of the party outside and another noise else I couldn't quite place. Was that bubbling? Were we at a boil already? I put my hand on the base of the still and noted warmth and a slight vibration. Okay, something was going right. The heater was working and the mash was warming up. Knowing I was going to be disappointed, I checked the thermometer and, yep, sure enough, we had a long way to go before hitting the boiling point of alcohol; hell, we hadn't even reached body temperature. I went upstairs to grab my pen and notebook.
Except for the motorcycles and a few beat-up old cars, the streets were empty, the party having moved inside as far as I could tell. No surprise there; it was getting a bit damp and chilly. Then, too, the police only patrolled this neighborhood at night and I was sure no one wearing biker colors, drunk or sober, wanted to tangle with Richmond's Finest. They had guns and Tasers and weren't afraid to use them. In fact, if local folklore held true, the police got quite a kick out of using their Tasers. It was cheap entertainment and I shuddered at the thought.
I wonder what Sarah is up to? I thought. I wonder what bikers and anarchists do at a house party. They probably didn't sit around sipping brandy and reading Kropotkin in the original Russian. Maybe they had wild sex orgies and rolled around naked on torn-out pages from Ronald Reagan's memoirs. Or the Warren Commission report. Who knows?
I grabbed an orange juice and went back downstairs, where I was pleased to note a thin trickle of steam emerging from where the base and the head joined. Good deal! We're getting somewhere now. I sat on a kitchen stool at the work bench and made a few notes.
Oh, sweet Jeebus, "Magic Carpet Ride" as interpreted by the entire membership of the International Plumbers' Union while drunk. And on acid. In the midst of an epileptic seizure. I nearly fell out of bed from the godawful noise. Why hadn't giant glowing beach towel Elvis protected me? And who the hell was messing with the pipes? And worse, why did my bedside alarm clock say eight a. m.?
"Rise and shine, little buddy," Ron shouted from the bathroom, his voice only slightly muffled by toothpaste. "Time to rub the sleep out of your eyes and greet the new day!"
Oh, of course. Ron was one of those horrible morning people.
"Who the hell are you, my mother?" I shouted back. "What happened to 'the crack of noon?'"
"Meh. You're going to squander the best part of the day. We've got things to do and places to go. Stuff to move and stuff to buy."
Slowly, painfully I attempted to focus my eyes and roll out of bed. "You know," I said, a bit blearily, "when normal people don't have to work they like to sleep in. Late."
"One," Ron said as he threw open my door, "we're not normal people and we never will be. Two, we are working, or rather, we will be once you get up and put some clothes on."
"Are you on meth or something? You're awfully chipper for a guy who spent yesterday driving around all over the state."
"Exciting times ahead, John! A new day, new beginnings, new projects, we've got to get cracking if we're going to get ahead of the game. Oh, and there's coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the kitchen."
I looked at the window and said, "thank you, Jeebus; thank you, Elvis, thank you, J. R. 'Bob' Dobbs."
"Who are you talking to?"
"Deities. My very own short duration personal saviors with whom I will be sharing a very caffeinated and very sugar-laden communion as soon as I can find my pants."
"Well, okay then."
"So are we moving your stuff this morning?" I said.
"Actually, there's good news and bad news. Mostly good news for you and some bad news for me."
"Well, there's not a lot of my stuff to move, courtesy of the Girlfriend From Hell. Apparently, she went on a rampage after I called her, burned most of my stuff in a backyard bonfire, and now all I've got are a couple of suitcases, a trunk, that stained mattress we were using as a doggie bed, and my computer stuff. I got lucky, I suppose, but some of it is kind of smoky, so heads up. I did manage to rescue, well, you know."
"Oh, Christ," I said. "The layout."
"Yeah, the layout."
Have I mentioned that Ron is a model railroad buff? Yeah, HO scale all the way. He got into it in his early teens and over the years has amassed a huge, and I mean huge, collection of brass locomotives worth thousands of dollars along with rolling stock, miles of track, tons of scenery, and who knows how many itty-bitty metal figures. When he got into model construction, he built what amounted to a small city's worth of structures complete with weathering, advertisements, graffitti, electric lighting, myriads of geeky goodness. It's his pride, his joy, and his singular obsession-- excluding inappropriate women-- an entire world on a nine by twelve foot table.
"Where is it now?" I asked.
"You know the front room across from the living room slash library?"
"What I assumed was the dining room? Yeah."
"It's has been officially commandeered and designated the Train Room."
"Oh. Okay. I've never been one for formal dinners, anyway," I said. "I'm more into microwave burritos and paper plates. Where's all the stuff now?"
"It's here. Downstairs. My sister's husband helped me load it into his truck and those four guys from across the street helped me get it into the house."
"Oh, yeah? Was Sarah with them?"
"No, unfortunately, Ron said with a slight leer. "She's pretty hot in a goth trash sort of way. Oh, who am I kidding? Given the chance, I'd hit that so hard whoever pulled me out would be the rightful king of all England."
"And can you imagine a threesome with her and Tara? Oh, man! What do you want to bet they both have piercings in places you wouldn't expect?"
"Changing the subject," I said. "What, exactly, are we doing today if we're not moving you in?"
"I'm thinking it's time we check out The Little Old Winemaker and spend a little money."
"Color me confused, but who do we know that makes wine? Hell, who do we know that drinks wine, unless it's Boone's Farm? Is this person a consultant or something?"
"The Little Old Winemaker is not a person, it's this funky store in Lakeside that sells beer and winemaking supplies. The guy in Goochland was telling me about it, said it was your one-stop shopping source for all things booze-related."
"What, the guy with the still?"
"The very one. He's done it all: cider, beer, wine; in fact, he had such good luck with wine he wanted to branch out into brandy. He even had wooden casks for aging. You know, we might want to think about that at some point."
"Uh, don't count your barrels just yet. We've got a lot of things to do before we can even think of trying out our still."
"Exactly, and time's a-wastin'. Grab your shopping list and let's see what's what."
I got my notebook, filled a big travel mug with coffee, and grabbed a couple of doughnuts Okay, three doughnuts, but it was early and my blood sugar and caffeine levels were nowhere near optimum.
When Ron said the place was "funky," he wasn't exaggerating. Set back in a little strip mall parallel to Lakeside Drive, The Little Old Winemaker was completely at odds with its surroundings. It was as if a tiny piece of 19th Century rural Bavaria had been magically transported to Richmond and plopped down to live placidly amid the appliance stores, service stations, soul food eateries, and 7-11s. Funky, too, were the smells we encountered as soon as we passed through the door: yeasty bread, dusty grains, a faint whiff of wood smoke, a hint of ripe apples... I was reminded of when I used to visit my grandfather's tobacco farm as a child and play in the hay loft. The walls were darkened wood and covered in advertising posters for obscure beers, exotic wines, and vineyards local and foreign. Well-dressed, soft-spoken customers browsed the aisles and shelves.
It was charming.
"So what are we looking for," Ron asked.
"Well, yeast for one, a couple of ten gallon fermenters, which are just glorified food grade plastic buckets, unless you want to go the stainless or copper route."
"Are they better?
"I don't know if they're better, but they're certainly more expensive."
"Then plastic works for me."
"Let's see, lids for the buckets, a couple of airlocks..."
"One way valves. When we start fermenting stuff, we want a way to keep out the airborne nasties while venting all the carbon dioxide we'll be making."
"This is getting complicated," Ron said.
"I warned you. And we're going to need cheesecloth for filtering, some kind of sanitizing agent for the buckets, some plastic tubing, oh, and a decent grade hydrometer. Then there's corn, malted barley, rye, rye malt..."
"Enough. Let's start shopping," Ron sighed.
The store's layout was a little confusing, but the sales associate was busy briefing this nice-looking gay couple on the finer points of home-aging sherry and port, so Ron and I fumbled around for a bit before finding all the stuff we needed. That was fine as far as I was concerned, since even a cursory glance would tell any astute home brewer exactly what we were planning on doing. Let's be clear: home distilling is illegal. Highly illegal. The Feds don't care if it's a little or a lot; if you're running a still to make alcohol for human consumption, regardless of the quantity and regardless of whether you drink it or sell it or give it away, you're breaking several state and federal laws and can wind up in a dank, dark prison cell for a very long time. Someday the laws may change, just as they did for wine- and beer-making, but someday is not today. I was a little nervous.
We hauled our stuff over to the main counter.
"Okay," said the clerk. "What have we got here?" He began muttering to himself as he tallied up our purchases, then said, "You know this is a Tralles hydrometer, right?"
"What's a Tralles hydrometer?" Ron asked
The clerk looked at Ron for a second. "You use a Tralles hydrometer to figure out the alcoholic content of a liquid based on its specific gravity. You take pre- and post-fermentation readings and from that you can calculate..." His voice trailed off when he saw the expression on my face.
"You're not..." the clerk said.
I stood there open-mouthed.
The clerk's voice dropped to a whisper. "Because I don't want to know if you are."
I stood there at a loss for words.
"Let's speak hypothetically for a moment," he said, glancing to his left and right. "Purely hypothetically."
"If someone, not you two, but someone, wanted to, oh, let's say, ferment a large volume of material really fast, he might want something a little more powerful than champagne yeast."
"He might want a variety of what is called a turbo yeast. It's fast, it's resistant to alcohol, which means it can survive when the concentration is high and make more alcohol, and most importantly, it comes complete with a slew of additional nutrients and pH adjusters so as to make futzing with it significantly trivial. It can survive. It can kick ass. You, uh, he just adds the yeast at the right moment and at the right temperature and lets it do it's thing."
"But it's tricky for wine-making. It brings things to a ferment really fast and it generates a lot of alcohol. A lot. A wine-maker could, entirely by accident, ruin his otherwise perfectly good wine by turning it into something only useful if he were interested in distilling it, which he would not be, in which case the winemaker would not have wine. That would be sad. You understand?"
"Okay." I smiled a little.
"A wine-maker would have to be extremely careful with a turbo yeast or he's going to wind up with a high-proof wine that would be completely undrinkable as it was. It would be beyond insolent and ill-mannered; it would be a pugnacious bully. One would be overwhelmed by the alcohol burn. And that's not what one looks for in a good wine. Excuse me for a moment."
The clerk disappeared behind a curtain then returned holding a couple of test tubes sealed with black plastic screw caps. Inside them was a noxious-looking brown slurry.
"This is a new product, a strain called THX-1138 from the W. A. Sallee labs in Chicago. It's for experimental wine-making purposes only, though it may possibly have other uses. You may also find it... amusing." The clerk smiled and handed me some stapled papers. "And these are the instructions. They reiterate what I said about it being tricky for wine-making. Be sure to read them carefully."
"Okay," I said.
The clerk rang up our purchases, smiled again, and said, "Well, gentlemen, I look forward to hearing about your disasters in... wine-making. Please keep me posted." He winked.
"What just happened?" asked Ron, as we carried our stuff to the truck.
"In legal terms, I think we just gained an accessory before the fact."
"Is that a good thing?"
"I guess we'll find out." I looked at the instructions the clerk had handed me:
So You Want To Make Some Tasty Booze: A Guide to the Effective Use of THX-1138 in Home Distilling.
"It's a good thing, Ron. Let's go buy some sugar."
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
"Behold!" Ron said as he walked me to the bed of the pick-up truck.
"Ooo. Aah. Ohh." I said sarcastically. "A bunch of cardboard boxes and a big-ass something or other under a moving pad. I swoon. I plotz."
"You will in a minute," Ron said. "Look behind the curtain."
I wasn't sure I wanted to touch the filthy, smelly quilt covering the whatever it was, but sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves, say what the fuck, and go for it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I lifted a convenient corner.
The setting sun glinted gloriously off the shiniest conglomeration of metalwork I had ever seen.
"Is that what I think it is?" I said.
"It is, indeed. That, my friend, is a genuine, all-copper, hand-hammered, hand-riveted, hand-constructed, never before used twenty gallon pot still. And it's ours."
"Sweet Jesus, it's beautiful," I said, slowly pulling off the cover. "That's a work of art. It's functional sculpture at its finest. It's glowing and shiny and curvaceous and sexy and I want to marry it. Where the hell did you find it?"
"Four words to know and live by: 'Craigslist is our friend.' Some guy out in Goochland bought it and then had second thoughts or something. That, or his wife raised hell when she saw the price tag. Anyway, he put it up for sale at about half of its original cost and I haggled him down a little more by waving some cash under his nose."
"It's... it's... beautiful. I'm afraid to touch it."
"Well, cover it up. No sense in advertising to the neighborhood that we've got a still. That's just asking for trouble. We'll move it in after the sun sets, safe from prying eyes."
"Actually" I said, looking around, "we should move it in now. In these parts, if you leave something of any value lying around unsecured it's considered a donation to the community. Copper is a big ticket item in distressed neighborhoods, which is why you'll never find electrical wiring in an empty house."
Ron scanned the anarchists' collective across the street and said, "I see what you mean. Okay, let's move it."
"What's in all the other boxes?"
"Oh, well the big one houses the still condenser assembly and the others? Well, take a look."
Ron reached into his pocket, pulled out a Swiss Army knife, slit the tape on one of the boxes, and uncovered a dozen one liter Florence flasks.
"Aren't they cool?" Ron said.
"Well, yeah, I suppose, but what do you want with a bunch of round-bottomed flasks, unless..."
"Exactly! You said Ball Mason jars were trite and passé and, let's face it, with the exception of Crystal Head Vodka, most liquor bottles are not particularly exciting, so when I saw these on Craigslist..."
"You bought a shitload."
"I bought a shitload. A double shitload. About five hundred of them, to be exact. For cash, so there's no paper trail, and at a huge discount. Incidentally, there are more where these came from in case we should need them." Ron was grinning from ear to ear. "I could have gotten a bunch of old-school ceramic jugs, but they all had labels and needed some serious cleaning, so I figured that was just too much damn work. These things, on the other hand, are almost sterile and laboratory-ready."
"I've got to admit, I think you're on to something. Then again, we're not going to have anything to put in them for at least a couple of weeks and maybe longer if things don't go well. There are about ten thousand details we've got to consider." The immensity of what we were about to do swept over me and it must have shown on my face.
"And there go the negative waves again. You need to embrace the power of positive thinking or you're going to become an old man before your time. Visualize. Actualize. Synthesize."
"Yeah, and in the meantime I'm tired as shit and we've still got a bunch of boxes and one highly illegal still to move."
"So let's get cracking," Ron said.
To my surprise, we got everything into the basement with only a minimum of trouble. The boxes of flasks were easy; as far as weight was concerned they were inconsequential. The main body of the still, on the other hand, though not particularly heavy, was big, bulky, slippery, and awkward as hell to move, but after only a couple of sphincter-clenching moments when it didn't look as though it would fit through the door, we got it down the stairs and into position.
"Look at it," Ron said. "That's our future gleaming there."
"That was almost poetic, ya big lug," I said. "Only, let's hope our future doesn't involve prison cells and big bad men in need of butt buddies. I'm fragile." I thought for a moment then looked at Ron. "Now what?"
"A couple of things. I've got to get the pick-up back to my sister's husband and I'm thinking we'd better get a padlock for the basement door just in case."
"Just in case of what?" I asked.
"Just... in case. Nosy neighbors. Wandering landlords. Desperate crackheads. Whatever."
"Based on what I've seen, our landlord is not apt to wander anywhere on foot."
"I'm still going to pick one up on the way back. You need anything?"
I stared at the still shining in the center of our basement floor and thought for a moment. What did I need? The name of a good lawyer? Just... in case? A copy of Virginia's legal code? A bottle of Valium? Zen mind? A nap?
"Nah, I'm good. I'm going to go upstairs, set up my bedroom, then sleep for about a hundred years."
"Uh, don't forget I've still got stuff to move," Ron said.
"Tomorrow, dude. Tomorrow."
Ron glanced at his wristwatch. "Yeah, you're probably right. I'll drag your ass out of bed somewhere around, what, the crack of noon?"
"And not before. Thanks."
Ron clomped up the wooden stairs, leaving me in quiet solitude.
I could hear a faint music and a police siren in the distance. A couple of neighborhood dogs barked half-heartedly, then all was silence as a profound sense of melancholy overcame me.
"Well, buddy," I addressed the still. "It's just you and me. I suppose we're going to become close friends, eventually, but right now I'm just a bit overwhelmed by everything."
The house creaked in response.
"I suppose if Ron is right and there really is a market for artisanal booze, then all this is going to be the start of an exciting new venture with us right smack on the cutting edge, and let's be honest, I've never been on the cutting edge of much of anything ever. I should be thrilled as all get-out."
The still said nothing.
"But let me tell you something: I'm not. I'm not fond of unpredictability and this little project is about as unpredictable as anything I've ever encountered. And yeah, maybe Jobs and Wozniak started out in a garage, but I bet they had access to working plumbing. I have no idea what's going to happen the first time I flush the toilet in this place. Maybe a sewage apocalypse. Or worse."
The dogs started barking again, then quieted.
"I'm broke, my girlfriend is long gone, I don't have any family to speak of and no close friends, except for Ron, and here I am starting a new life on the wrong side of town in one of the world's older and shadier professions. 'John Griggs, potential urban moonshiner.' Sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit."
"On the other hand, I'll be my own boss and at least have the chance of making some money without having to say 'you want fries with that?'"
"Oh, well. It's getting late and as much as I hate to leave you alone on your first night here, I'm exhausted. See ya in the morning." I trudged up the stairs feeling more tired than I'd felt in years.
The bedroom was in total disarray, though the Four Stooges had been kind enough to assemble my bed, even to the point of making a half-assed attempt at fitting it with sheets and blankets, which was a little creepy now that I thought about it. Unfortunately, they had then piled it high with clothes, boxes of books, a couple of suitcases, and my two nightstands. I appreciated the effort, I did, but really... the dresser was facing backwards, its drawers against the wall, and my writing desk was standing on end in front of the closet. An errant box of dishes peeked out at me from under the bed. The floor was covered in bits of cardboard and packing tape, my lamps were nowhere in sight, and the whole scene was more than a little stark, gloomy, and depressing, lit as it was by a single bare bulb in the ceiling.
"You're going to want curtains."
"Sweet screaming Jesus!" I shouted, then whirled around to face the bedroom door, my heart pounding, adrenalin coursing through my veins.
"Relax, man," said Sarah, leaning against the door frame. "The serial killers hang out on Southside this time of night. You're reasonably safe here, though if I were you I'd start locking my front door. Otherwise, you'll attract an unsavory element... like me."
"You scared the shit out of me."
Sarah did an exaggerated neck-craning thing. "I dunno... your floor and pants look pretty shit-free to me, but either way, you're still going to need curtains."
"I... Curtains? What are you talking about?"
"Well, whether you know it or not, right now you're putting on a show for the whole neighborhood. The way things are lit, you've got a kind of shadow puppet thing going on." Sarah started poking through some boxes. "Do you even have curtains?"
"Probably not. My girlfriend took care of that kind of stuff, uh, back when I had a girlfriend. She was the one with the domesticity gene. I'm more of a patterned sheets in the window kind of guy."
"Well, I think we can do better than that." Sarah pulled out a huge black and orange beach towel emblazoned with a young, svelte Elvis somebody had given me as a gag gift many years ago.
"Yeah, this will do nicely," Sarah said. "Nothing like sleeping peacefully while being watched over by a glowing King. She moved one of my nightstands, climbed on top, pulled a tack hammer and some nails out of her back pocket, and fastened the towel into place.
"You came prepared."
"Told you you were putting on a show. Moe was concerned you were going to undress and start wagging your dick around or something, so I figured I'd better take action before he had a stroke. He comes across as homophobic, but really, he's so deep in the closet that he's finding Christmas presents."
"That was entirely too much information."
"Wasn't it, though? Cool platform bed, by the way."
"Thanks. I picked it up at La Difference a couple of years ago. It's the only decent piece of furniture I own. The rest is thrift shop chic."
Sarah held out her hand and waited until I took it to help her down from the nightstand. I noted the faint aroma of sandalwood. "Yeah, Curly liked it because there are so many places to attach ropes. He's got a mild bondage fetish, loves to be tied down. Funny how so many otherwise macho men like to be the passive ones in bed."
"Again, too much information."
"Then you definitely don't want to know how many piercings he's got where."
"Yeah, I'll pass on that."
"Thought you might. Want a hand getting your bedroom organized?"
"Yeah, that would be great."
With Sarah orchestrating, it took us all of half an hour to get the place into some semblance of order.
"Damn," I said, surveying the results. "I could live here."
Sarah looked around. "It's a little too multi-purpose for my tastes, what with the desk and computer and printer and all, but get rid of that shit, add some mood lighting, a canopy, maybe a bar and small refrigerator, and yeah, you've got yourself a fuck pad."
"Uh-huh," was all I could say.
She threw herself on the mattress exposing a great deal of bare abdomen and what looked to be a diamond navel ring. "Oh, yeah, baby," she said. "That's memory foam. Nice stuff. I take it back; this is a fuck pad. And I would know."
"Uh, I'll take your word for it."
"Oh, you won't have to do that. She shot me a huge grin. "But it's late and I've got a pirate radio station to get on the air so, we'll pick this up tomorrow. Later, dude!"
And with that, Sarah was off, leaving me to wonder what just happened.