"Well, that was different," I said. "And why the hell were you haggling with the guy? Jesus, he was pissed off. What if he had a gun or something?"
We were headed to Ron's car.
"He wasn't going to use a gun," Ron said. "I did a little fact checking and found out he needs money, really, really bad and really, really fast. No sense in paying full price if we don't have to."
"Agreed, especially since you're the one who's paying. But still, what a character. He's the kind of guy who'd get profiled in The New Yorker if he did anything more interesting than drink, smoke, and spit."
Ron shot me a look. "He's the kind of guy who'd get profiled in Gotcha for running an all-male animal prostitution ring."
I snickered. "Yeah, well, there's that. 'Otto the Landlord's All-Cat Cathouse.'"
"Or worse," Ron added. " He's the owner and operator of 'Uncle Tickle's Secret Touching Club.'"
We got in the car and started heading towards the Willow Lawn Starbucks via Monument Avenue.
"So what's the deal with the berries?" I said.
"I don't know, but you've got to admit, it sounds intriguing. Also a little silly. 'Farkleberry' wine. Who ever heard of such a thing? And talk about your bizarre coincidences. If this were a novel people would start booing right about now."
"Apparently not Otto's aunt and neighbors. Did the stuff sound just a little psychoactive to you?
"Yes, it did," Ron said. "And I'm thinking that merits further investigation. Deep investigation."
"Speaking of deep investigation," I said, as I shifted around in the passenger seat, "I've got a buttload of notes on distilling."
Ron glanced at me just before swerving slightly to avoid some loathsome a bright yellow Hummer's abrupt right turn.
"Don't those things come equipped with signal lights?" Ron muttered.
"'Your penis must be this small before you can buy a Hummer,'" I said as I started in on the papers in my bulging accordion file.
"Holy moley, Batman! That's a lot of notes!"
"Well, I've been doing my homework and the bottom line is this: home distilling is not as simple as you might think. In fact, there's as much art to it as science. Plus, we're going to have to buy a shitload of stuff just to get started."
"Like what?" Ron asked.
I shuffled through some papers. "Sugar, corn, malt, yeast, and, oh, boy, you don't even want to know about all the ins and outs of yeast. And we're going to need gallons of bottled water if that crap from the tap is any indication, or maybe rain water. That's a possibility. A hydrometer..."
"A hydrometer measures alcohol by volume. Bar owners use them to make sure the bartenders aren't watering down the liquor. We'll also need a decent-sized fermenter."
"Nothing fancy, just an appropriately-sized copper or stainless steel tub into which we dump the ingredients and allow them to ferment. They don't have to be expensive, but they can be."
"Well, the still, and that's the big ticket item."
"Can we make one and cut some costs?"
"Well, we could, but here's the thing, Dukes of Hazzard and Li'l Abner notwithstanding, stills are fairly tricky things to build. They may look cobbled together in the movies, but every part has its purpose. Plus, use the wrong solder and everybody gets lead poisoning. You can buy smaller ones made out of beer kegs for not too much money, but you're thinking volume and for that you're going to need something in the ten to twenty gallon range at least."
"Ten to twenty gallons of what? Alcohol?"
"No, mash. The fermented stuff. That's what the still does, separates the alcohols from all the other stuff."
"You said 'alcohols.'"
"Yeah, well, you don't just make drinking alcohol when you ferment stuff. You get all kinds of other stuff, some of which distills on through. Wood alcohol, ethyl acetate, fusel oils, stuff you don't want to be drinking. You throw away the first and last parts, keep the middle, then run it through the still again. Part of the art is knowing when and what to throw away and when and what to save."
"Don't you lose a lot of stuff when you do that?"
"Yes, you do, but if you want a drinkable product, which translates to a salable product, you just deal with the loss, otherwise, people will go blind, die, and whammo! There goes your entire customer base. And, more than likely, you're going to run your product through the still at least twice with a little additional loss each time."
"You know how in cartoons you have a bunch of hillbillies sitting around a still with earthenware jugs marked with a triple X? Well, each X indicates one time through the still. But there's a payoff, in a sense: each run yields a higher concentration of alcohol."
"Which is a good thing, right?"
"Well, that depends. If you're just going for alcohol alone, yeah, that's a good thing, but you said you wanted something special, unique, something you can't get in a liquor store. High proof alone won't do it, unless you're just looking for your run of the mill skullbuster. Or rocket fuel. And there's already a variety of straight moonshines on the shelves. Virginia Lightning out of Culpeper. Shine On Georgia Moon. Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon. If you want to distinguish yourself, now we're talking about aging, flavor profiles, alcohol concentration versus taste, mouth feel, nuances of aroma, all sorts of things that master distillers spend years learning how to do."
"Jesus. Who knew?" Ron was starting to look a little worried.
"I sure didn't, not until I started reading up on this stuff. Did you know there's a guy in Colorado who runs a distillery and makes, of all things, a limited edition whiskey at $79.95 a fifth when you can get it? Stranahan's. It's won awards."
"Whiskey awards? There are such things? Sheesh. I just wanted to make a little moonshine, get a little cult thing going, make some quick money."
"Well, I'm starting to think that's not impossible, so long as we don't become too ambitious at first, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's a fairly steep learning curve ahead of us and the sooner we get started, the better."
"So what else do we need," Ron asked.
"Lots of odds and ends: thermometers, funnels, cheesecloth for filtering, siphon tubing, I already mentioned water, mixing vats, and bottles for our end product. Which reminds me, what were you thinking of using to put the stuff in?"
"Aren't Ball Mason jars traditional?"
"There are at least three products on the ABC store shelves in Mason jars, not to mention Mason jars seem a little low-rent to me."
"Well, we'll figure that out later." Ron was starting to sweat a little. "What else do we need?"
"We're going to need a decent heat source to operate the still. Something more powerful than a hot plate, but no open flames."
"So, a propane tank and one of those burner rings wouldn't work?"
"Hell, no! I'm not working in a closed basement with alcohol fumes and an open flame. With the volume and concentrations we'll be working with, that's a recipe for disaster. And we're going to need to do something about ventilation or even the sparks from that knife switch are going to turn us into one righteous fireball."
"So what are you thinking?
"Immersion heaters like they have on hot water tanks. They're cheap, they're safe, and they have the added advantage of giving us some significant temperature control which, by the way, is very important."
"Okay, now back to the still. You say they're difficult to construct?"
"Not difficult, exactly, but tricky. Fortunately, there's a simple solution."
"We buy one."
"What, we wander down to the local still store at the mall and say 'one whiskey maker to go, please, hold the indictments?'"
"Sort of, but not exactly. We buy one online."
"Are you kidding me?"
"Not in the least. Trust me when I say there are a slew of websites offering stills for sale; they're common as sin, especially among the survivalist types. As near as I can tell, and I'm certainly no legal expert, it's not technically illegal to buy a still; it's just illegal to own one and hideously illegal to operate one."
"Well, that's some fucked-up logic. How the hell does that work?"
"I have no idea. It's just one of those weird-ass legal chimeras, like Virginia's switchblade law. It's not illegal to own a switchblade, it's just illegal to sell one; however, possession is considered prima facie evidence of intent to sell, so go figure."
"I'd rather not. It makes my brain all explody."
We managed to find a parking space in front of the Willow Lawn Starbucks with relative ease, skipped around the obnoxious three-man writers' group commandeering the best outdoor table, and proceeded to order venti non-fat lattes.
"So," Ron said. "If we're not going to build one, what's the bottom line on a still, costwise?"
"I've been thinking about that a lot. I've even done some serious comparison shopping and what I'm going to recommend is this very traditional pot still from a company in Texas. It's all copper, which is a big deal as far as avoiding off-flavors, the top comes off, so it's easy to clean, which is another big consideration. I mean, you boil twenty gallons of corn mash for a couple of hours and you have the potential for a righteous, gooey, burned-on mess. The coolest thing, though, is with the top off, you have a stand-alone fermenter. And it comes with a built-in thermometer, so it's not like it's going to need any serious modification. Except..."
"Well, I told you I don't want to work with alcohol fumes and open ignition sources, not in that basement, so we're going to have to drill a couple of holes to insert some immersion heaters."
"Is that a problem?"
"You tell me."
Ron thought for a minute. "It shouldn't be. I've got tools, I've got an electric drill. I've got a little sheet metal experience. Probably the trickiest thing there is sealing the holes around the heaters so there's no leakage."
"Okay, then. Well, the still itself, complete with condensing unit and thermometer, is going to run about five hundred dollars."
Ron winced a little.
"And then there are all the peripheral supplies I mentioned earlier. All told, just to get started, I'm thinking somewhere in the neighborhood of xxxx dollars.
Ron winced again.
"Give or take a few hundred," I said. "And that's not accounting for our time and labor. You sure you want to do this?"
"Well," Ron sighed. "It takes money to make money and it beats hanging out in bars. Where do we begin?"
"We order the still, start laying in all the other supplies, try to make that rat hole of an apartment livable, start fermenting some mash, and do a trial run or two. We time it right and we should be able to run our first batch just as our still arrives."
"Well, then, as Gary Gilmore once said, 'let's do it.'"