There is nothing amateur about James Wilson’s* distilling operation, which he runs out of his modest, comfortable home surrounded by a view-blocking 10-foot fence.
A hose runs through the doggie door in his living room, draining condensed water onto the grass. In his small dining room all furniture is shoved to the wall to accommodate a propane tank and homemade eight-gallon, stainless steel milk can-style still, parts of which were purchased on eBay and at Home Depot.
Wilson’s kids smell the telltale scents of spirit production and chant, “Daddy’s making whiskey! Daddy’s making whiskey!” Though Wilson’s passion is high-end barley whiskey, he also makes rye whiskey, both dark and white rum, gin, and vodka.
If he’s caught, he could face up to five years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau’s penalty codes. That agency oversees distilling operation in the United States. In some cases TTB agents may even seek forfeiture of the distiller’s home and property.
That hasn’t deterred Wilson and others like him who are joining the growing movement of clandestine craft distillers in Bend.
“I really don’t like the hillbilly stigma,” said Wilson. “I have no desire to make money illegally with alcohol. I’m doing it to develop my craft so people will really enjoy what I make and I can support my family with a legitimate business. It’s a wonderful art, just like crafting beer, where art and science come together with the possibility of so many variations by just tweaking one thing.”
DISTILLING SCENE GROWING
Wilson is not alone in his passion. There are now dozens of distillers in Bend, working on homemade systems, made of tanks, hoses and pipes attached with couplers from local hardware stores.
While most distillers here are making the product for personal consumption or to share with friends and family, some aim to open craft distilleries with a goal of turning Bend into both a beer haven and a craft distilling paradise.
Opening a distillery involves a maze of paperwork and permits and is a very expensive prospect—as much as $500,000 by some estimates for a small system. It’s a classic catch 22 scenario. People aren’t allowed to legally practice distilling without being licensed and permitted, but who in their right mind would sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into an enterprise with which he or she had little or no experience.
So, while distillers like Wilson hold out hope that they will one day be able to legitimately practice their craft in the commercial market, for now they’re growing the ranks of an underground movement where black market booze is the only thing that makes sense.
BLACKMARKET BOOZE MAKES CENTS
The outbuilding next to Michael Smith’s* house looks like a garage, but inside Smith has developed a distilling operation that’s recently provided about 50 percent of his monthly income. Smith has been selling an average of about 60 bottles of his homemade spirits per month for about $20 a bottle to friends and family.
He uses a pump, filters and treatment methods to prepare rainwater, stored in a 300-gallon tank, for distilling. He has two stills. Both are Frankenstein contraptions—one uses a stainless steel beer keg, the other an old home hot water heater. He purchased all the couplers, hoses, columns and pipes from local hardware stores.
Smith said he learned his trade while serving in the military in Saudi Arabia, where lots of Americans living overseas there make booze under the radar. It’s a common practice throughout the Middle East, said Smith, where many Muslim countries ban alcohol.
Here in Bend, Smith has gained a following for quality spirits and the humorous names he gives his products around pop culture and current events. His style shines through on the funky bottle labels, stickers and screen-printed shirts marketing his wares. He describes himself as a street punk, DIY guy who brews and distills “just for fun, for a hobby.”
It’s been a good business, too. But the hurdles to becoming a legal operation are just too steep, and lately Smith has decided to give it all up because of the potential penalties.
“I’m retired now, though, ‘cause I don’t wanna get busted,” said Smith.
DISTILLERS BREAK THE LAW TO BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS
Getting busted was a very real concern for the men running legit distilleries in Bend, too.
Brad Irwin, head distiller at Oregon Spirit Distillers, first got curious about distilling when he was a teenager. He went to the Internet and started making his own rickety still. He now says that, thankfully, he was missing certain key pieces of information that prevented his success. Otherwise, he might have managed to set himself on fire or drink poisonous liquor.
Years later now, Irwin operates one of only two federally licensed distilling operations in Central Oregon. But before Irwin could get that business started, he put the pieces together for himself with research and development at home, without a license.
It was the same process for the other permitted distillery in Central Oregon, Bendistillery. The founder of that company, Jim Bendis, also ghetto rigged his own home still to learn on.
“Back in early 1995 I had the typical souped-up crock pot, pressure cooker, and a few other 'home distiller' items,” said Bendis, who quickly discovered he wanted to run his own company. “I started filing all the paperwork right away because of the lengthy process.”
The average cost of legally starting a distillery is about $500,000, said various sources. That pays for permitting and licensing fees as well as equipment and overhead expenses.
“One major hurdle that remains the same is that you have to build your distillery before you know it will be approved and you have to make a product before you know if [the Oregon Liquor Control Commission] will list it,” said Bendis. “Sometimes you are going 'on a wing and a prayer.'”
In the meantime, underground distillers like Wilson and Smith are bidding their time and awaiting the day when they can call themselves pioneers instead of outlaws.
ORIGINS OF DISTILLING
Contributions to fermentation and distilling come from all over the globe. There is evidence the Greeks were distilling two thousand years ago. In 1856, Pasteur identified yeast as the catalyst for fermentation. Fifty years later, chemists cracked the sugar to alcohol conversion code.
The goal has not always been to get drunk.
“Fermentation was first a way to preserve calories on long journeys in three percent alcohol,” said Brad Irwin, head distiller at Oregon Spirit Distillers. “You could carry something like sauerkraut on a 100-mile walk without spoilage. It was a way to prolong the life of starch and carry calories.”
In Central Oregon, no one’s pretending distilling is about survival. It’s really an offshoot of the brewing craze. In fact, the distilling community has grown as a result of the connections made through organizations such as the Central Oregon Homebrewers Organization.
Members of that organization have found that, once they understood basic fermentation processes and how to use equipment for making alcohol, it was a few short steps to making booze in addition to beer.
But even within these supportive communities, distilling is on the down low as people feel out who they can trust with their secret stills.
“They are more secretive about what they are doing,” said one distiller. “So, it’s harder to band together.”
Still, the community has grown and there’s no sign of a slow down.
HOW TO MAKE LIQUOR
1. Create a sugar water called mash from grains, fruits, vegetables or even table sugar.
2. Ferment the mash using yeast. Once fermented it’s called the wash.
3. Bring wash to boil and use cool water flowing through the still to distill the vapors into an alcohol liquid.
4. The run from a single batch is divided into three portions, called heads, which is toxic, hearts, which is the good stuff, and tails, which is just bad tasting, but non-poisonous.
5. Tails can then be redistilled to collect remaining alcohol parts.
Angel’s Share—The name given to the alcohol that escapes cracks in whiskey barrels, about two percent each stored year.
Congeners—The chemical parts created during the fermenting, aging and distilling process that create flavor.
Heads—First drippings from the still run, loaded with poison.
Hearts—The center section of the distillate run which contains most of the consumable liquor.
Mash—The mix of water, yeast and sugars collected from grains, fruits or vegetables—the mash can even be made with table sugar. Once the mash is fermented, it’s called the wash.
Tails—The last part of the still run, containing a weak strain of alcohol. Often rerun through the still to pull out the booze.
Wash—The fermented liquid that’s ready to be boiled and made into distilled alcohol.
THE STEPS TO STARTING A LEGAL
Legally creating and selling liquor is a complicated process, leading distillers who might consider opening a legitimate business to continue selling their product underground. Here’s the expensive and risky process for legally selling liquor.
1. A distiller either hires an already licensed distillery to test recipes, or begins process of opening a distillery, which can take up to three years with all permits involved. Each permit granted involves financing, but does not guarantee subsequent permits will be granted.
2. Distiller begins producing product and generates interest.
3. Distiller sells and delivers product to OLCC where it is stored until someone wants to buy some. In Oregon, the OLCC manages all liquor sales.
4. A special small batch permit is granted for the product producer to purchase their own product back from the OLCC and deliver samples to stir up interest in purchasing to liquor stores and bars.
Once retailers agree to sell the alcohol, the OLCC delivers the distiller’s product to the retailer for sale to the public.
5. Pray people want to buy your product.
Fire— Most at-home stills use an open flame underneath some kind of chamber to heat sugar liquid to the point of vaporization. Propane tanks are often used in these makeshift still operations. Fires can flame up when alcohol from the still accidently comes in contact with the burner.
Poisoning— The “heads” are the first runs of liquid produced in the distilling process. This liquid is extremely toxic and can lead to blindness, and even death, if consumed. The alcohol created in the distilling process can also be extremely strong, causing rapid intoxication and possible alcohol poisoning.
Photos taken by Ciree Linsenman.