A messy slop of corn sat in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket a couple of steps away from Jeff Arthur’s still, inside Mountain State Distillery on Capitol Street in Charleston.
The mess in the bucket looked like a Thanksgiving accident. Brewing and distilling whiskey isn’t pretty.
“Is that going in the still?” I asked, nodding toward the stainless-steel kettle to my right. It was about the size of a water heater.
Jeff laughed and said, “No, that’s going home tonight to leave out for the deer.”
This was leftover from the other vat, what Jeff had distilled earlier in the week. The soggy, spent grain had been separated from the liquid. It didn’t have much use, except as fertilizer or as animal feed.
What remained of the liquid remained in the still.
“We’ll get started once we get the tank drained and rinsed out,” he said.
Then I stood back and watched as Jeff pumped water out of the stainless-steel tank and into yet another bucket.
Jeff seemed to have a million of them.
One more time
My month spent learning about distilling whiskey was coming to a close. There hadn’t been all that much work, just a lot of observation and waiting.
The process had been slow.
More than two weeks prior, Jeff had poured in a mix of cracked corn and barley, sugar, yeast and water into a plastic vat. It was an ugly beige mess, the color of stewed breakfast cereal that smelled a little like bread.
For weeks, the sludgy mess bubbled and burped as the yeast devoured the sugars, excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol. When it was ready, we would run the mash through the distiller, which would cook the liquid. Alcohol and some water vapor would then travel up into copper tubing and then come back down, dripping into a glass vessel.
The first portion, the head, would be poison. The second part, the hearts, was the good stuff, and the third portion, the tail, would need to be filtered but could be re-distilled with another batch.
The tail from Jeff’s last batch was still in the glass bucket.
“We’ll add that to the new batch,” he said and moved it aside.
The leftover water from the tank of the still filled a couple of buckets, which Jeff dumped down the sink.
“It’s just water,” he told me. “There might be some trace amounts of alcohol in there, but not so much that you noticed. What’s left is harmless.”
After Jeff drained and rinsed and then again drained the tank, he ran the hose for the small pump up to the waiting vat, dropping it in through the top.
When he flipped the switch, Jeff said the pump would draw out a gallon a minute — not exactly fast, but nothing about this process had been fast, so far.
“And now moment of truth,” he said and found his refractometer, a wand-like gadget that can measure alcohol and sugar content.
Jeff plunged the business end of the thing into the vat, pressed a button and read the readout. It was 1.04.
“That’s not good,” he said.
Jeff repeated the test.
“There’s still too much sugar,” he said. “It needs to be .997 or so.”
The mash couldn’t be distilled — or maybe it could, but it wouldn’t produce as much alcohol as Jeff wanted. The heat would scorch the sugar, which could gum up the equipment and affect the quality of the finished product.
“The yeast just stopped working,” he said. “The mash stalled.”
We blamed the recent cold snap.
With fermenting, Jeff had told me there was a sweet spot for the yeast to do its best work. The yeast didn’t mind warm summer days, but it absolutely hated cold, winter nights.
The yeast worked best when the temperature was above 60 degrees, but the previous week, the thermostat had dived into the teens at night. During a few days, temperatures hovered around 30.
I didn’t like the cold either. The temperatures had been low enough to chase me back to my warm car after I tried to run a couple miles along the Kanawha River.
Jeff said he thought he’d taken precautions. “I had the heat set at 66,” he said.
But his shop, in a former bank building on a national registry, was old and drafty. The mash might have stalled for some other reason, but he was pretty sure the cold had messed up the batch.
“So, what can we do?” I asked.
Sighing, Jeff climbed down from the step stool and began mixing up a batch of yeast, yeast nutrients, sugar and water. He told me that activated yeast can sometimes revive or kickstart a batch.
“It probably won’t work,” he added gloomily.
But he had to try. If he could get the mash to restart, then maybe he could distill in a week and he’d only be a little behind schedule.
The holidays were coming up. He didn’t want to come up short on stock.
An extra week was no good for me, however. I was at the end of my time. The holiday season was looming. I had places to be, other plans to take on and nothing could be done.
My month would end with failure. Jeff wasn’t happy about that. He was overly apologetic about it, but he really had bigger things to worry about.
“This has only happened one other time,” he said. “I’m sorry about the story.”
I shrugged. Success with these projects is never guaranteed, though I was disappointed. I’d looked forward to making the moonshine. Jeff had told me that once we had a batch, I could take a small bottle home with me.
I’d planned to try and talk my best friend, Brad, into drinking it over Christmas and then posting the pictures on Facebook.
The eventual empty bottle would have been a nice souvenir, but I guess I didn’t leave completely empty-handed.
The owners at Big Timber Brewing Company gifted me with a four-pack of their porter after I’d stopped in for a tour. I guess I could share that. I guess ...
“So, do you think you learned enough to make your own moonshine?” Jeff asked me.
I laughed and said, “I don’t think so. I still think I’d blow myself up or poison the neighborhood. I think I should just get my whiskey at the liquor store, like everybody else.”
Or maybe I could try this again some other time.
“It’s not the ending I would have liked,” I said. “But it’s an ending.”
While Jeff sat down in front of his computer to work on bottle labels, I put on my jacket. It was time to go home.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
Jeff sighed and said, “Pray that people show up to shop.”