It's a breezy midwinter evening in the Mission District and half a dozen people are huddled around a stainless steel contraption in a small backyard watching intently as a clear liquid drips out of a spigot. "We're distilling an all malt beer, without the hops, to make this whiskey," notes our host, who asked to remain anonymous due to the legal ramifications of his work. Unlike commercial whiskey, though, this newly distilled batch of "White Dog"—the unaged distillate that eventually becomes bourbon—will be cut with cold water and consumed fresh. No months resting in an oak barrel to add color, hints of vanilla, and the mysterious smoothness that comes with time.
Our host, a software programmer by day, is one of the city's newly minted home distillers. The recent availability of small column stills via the Internet or from homebrew and winemaking supply stores now enables anyone to make spirits from grain mashes, wine, or any other beverage that's been fermented. For those who wish to act out the current Prohibition/Speakeasy trend on a more literal level, White Dog is a draw. It's the real deal. Making it is completely illegal (a federal offense, actually) and potentially unsafe (flammable alcohol vapors in an unventilated building could equal disaster).
I ask about the risk of consuming poisonous methyl alcohol? But this is no matter to some. "Not much danger, really," our host explains. "A still doesn't create anything. It just separates what's already there. Methyl alcohol boils at 148 degrees, ethyl alcohol at 174 and water at 212. As you slowly heat the still up, the first liquid to separate out by evaporation and then condense again into liquid contains methyl alcohol. This is called the "foreshot" of the run and you throw it away. By the time the still heats up to 174 degrees, the liquid that comes out is ethyl alcohol, called the 'middle run,' and that's the stuff you keep. When the still creeps up to about 200, I stop the run and toss the remaining 'tails.'"
I take a sip of the White Dog and it tastes more like whiskey-flavored vodka than anything else. Clearly the thrill of making it is a big part of the allure. How it tastes might be of secondary importance.
So how does one find these roguish outlaws making White Dog and try it for oneself? "We ain't on Facebook or Meetup, I can tell you that," he say. "Chat up enough home-brewers or winemakers, though, and eventually you'll find someone who distills."
Keep in mind, though, that people who get caught distilling spirits without a license face a fine of up to $15,000 along with prison time, so don't be surprised if you're not welcomed over to watch a still in operation. Finally, before you go to the trouble of drinking someone's moonshine, try some of the legal white whiskies that are available.
Buffalo Trace White Dog
Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey
Death's Door White Whiskey
Whipper Snapper Oregon Spirit Whiskey
photo: Buffalo Trace White Dog, the legal stuff