Hooch - an impractical guide.

This is the first in a series of "Booze Extras" consisting of parts of my Booze Handbook which didn't fit into the pages allowed.

I have some very bad news for you – distilling your own liquor at home is illegal, not even for personal use is it allowed. It can become legal if you get a licence but they won’t give one and if they did you would have to painfully keep records and pay duty anyway. (in Britain, “they” are HM Customs and Excise).
This is a serious business as the penalties are high – you just can’t do it. However it is terribly interesting and worth hearing a bit about it. And by the way if you live in or ever move to New Zealand or Sark you will be able to distil your own liquor because it is legal to do so there.
There are two reasons why distilling is illegal, one is arguably bad with good intentions the other is arguably good but profoundly irritating none the less. The latter of course is taxation. An enormous amount of revenue is extracted from people who buy spirits. The Wine and Spirits Trade Association understandably complain that the duty on a 70cl bottle of spirit is £7.41 at the time of writing and VAT is also charged. If people started distilling their own hooch a huge revenue stream would be damaged. The other reason, the arguably bad reason, is the one that is put around in whispers; that drinking hooch makes you go blind. Well I heard a similar story when I was a teenager and that one turned out not to be true, so what about the effects of hooch?
Before I continue I must point out that, of course, I have never distilled anything. It is illegal to do so and I am a law abiding citizen. My knowledge of the subject comes from a chap I met in the pub, Terry (his real name), who cares less than I for the laws of man. Also, this is not a practical guide because there is no point in telling you how to do something that you won't be doing.
There are, potentially at least, two dangers with illicit distillation. One is the very real risk that arises from producing an air-alcohol mix in the presence of a naked flame. Traditional stills boil up low alcohol brews such as cider, potato wine, grain alcohol and cheap grape wine over a fire or over a gas ring, condensing the alcohol in a cooling system and collecting the resulting high alcohol brew. If the vapour comes into contact with the naked heat source then disaster is almost inevitable. Even today illicit stills come to the attention of the authorities less by detective work and tip-offs than by blowing themselves up spectacularly taking their operators with them. Modern domestic “stills” (readily available under the assumed name of "water purifier") use an enclosed electric heater so the danger of fire is removed for all but the determinedly reckless.
The other, less easily explained problem is that of methyl alcohol. Methyl alcohol is highly toxic but nevertheless present in all wines and ciders at low levels. If you buy a bottle of methylated spirits to French polish your sideboard it will contain around 10% methyl alcohol – more than enough to make it undrinkable – and with several unpleasant tasting chemicals thrown in as well to make sure you don’t just risk it. Methyl alcohol is the simplest of the alcohols and is indeed very dangerous. Ingestion of a mere 4 – 10 ml can cause permanent damage. It is the chemical formate, created during the metabolism of methyl alcohol, that causes problems. The central nervous system is attacked and Parkinson-like symptoms can result. The part of the nervous system that suffers most however is the optic nerve. Methyl alcohol, it seems, really does make you go blind.

Hooch has a reputation for containing a large enough proportion of methyl alcohol to poison you. Sometimes this is true, but much more often it is not. Very nearly the only reason for it appearing in Hooch at dangerous levels is through adulteration – methyl alcohol is added by doubly unscrupulous illicit producers who use one or another industrial alcohol in their “products” to produce cheap liquor. Even the most criminal of suppliers will not wish to poison his customers so one must assume it is a matter of carelessness. One question remains – is it possible to distil a wine or cider and end up with toxic levels of methyl alcohol?
I have canvassed all the chemists I know and they agree that ethyl alcohol, of which there is an abundance in any homebrew, cannot turn into methyl alcohol during the distillation process; nor can anything else. In other words – if wine or cider is safe to drink, a distillate of it will be too. What may happen, however, is that what little methyl alcohol there is in the original brew (and nearly all brews contain some) is concentrated and if you drank an entire bottle of hooch made with a methyl alcohol rich cider for example then toxic levels could conceivably be consumed.

But there is a plus side to distillation. Methyl alcohol is a small molecule which evaporates preferentially before the ethyl alcohol. This enables professional distillers to discard the first part of the distillation run (the “heads”) as this will contain a relatively high proportion of methyl alcohol as well as other unwanted chemicals such as acetone and some esters. Other unpleasant alcohols (fusel alcohols) are created in the brewing process too and, since they have larger molecular sizes, evaporate at a higher temperature than ethyl alcohol and are left behind in the still, these are called the “tails”. Distillation actually purifies a brew, removing toxins not adding them.

The final bit of good news is that the antidote to methyl alcohol is ethyl alcohol! If you give your liver a lot to do by dosing it with the latter it does not have time to metabolise the former into anything at all, allowing it to pass harmlessly out of the body unchanged.

No doubt some of those who distil at home either legally, as in New Zealand, or illegally – just about everywhere else, drink the stuff straight. However what comes out of a still is almost entirely an alcohol/water mix with no real flavour. Vodka, in other words. As such it is used in mixes and for the homebrewer as a base for infusions. What you will never get is a decent whiskey. The lengths to which whiskey distillers go to produce their blessed brews are extraordinary and can never be matched at home.

I do not know if I have reassured anyone with the above but I can tell you that I have not reassured myself. Perhaps it is all those years of trying not to poison myself with fungi that makes me nervous and the bottle that Terry gave me remains unopened.

John Wright: 8th Mar 2014 10:00:00

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