"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.