How to: NOT Make Homemade Whiskey

I post words on the internet therefore I’m a pretty big deal and it’s my civic duty to educate. Thus, I present the first officially licensed BringaSnack.com How To. In this case if you do everything the opposite of the way we did you might end up with a palatable whiskey, or at least something that won’t blind you.

“Have a taste,” my partner in this disaster said to me, as we were siphoning the partially-made whiskey from its fermenter to the distilling pot.

“Tastes…vinegar-y,” I said. “Good, but…yeah, vinegar-y.” We had no idea at the time, but this wasn’t a good sign. We pushed on with the distilling process.

Above all, make whiskey. Don’t make vinegar. I can’t stress this enough. Careful sanitation is priority number one when preparing for fermenting. If a single stray bacteria or wild yeast particle gets in after the boil, the result will be ugly, or at least not what you’re looking for. In our case we ended up with some pretty tasty malt vinegar, but that’s a very, very small consolation.

Yes, that's a toilet.

Yes, that’s a toilet.

But, assuming you’ve gotten through the fermenting process unfazed and have achieved something alcoholic, don’t distill in a small room, like a bathroom. Leaving aside the obvious sanitation problems, if there had been any alcohol in this pot, its vapors may have seeped out through a leaky hose fitting (mistake number three). Confined alcohol vapors plus open flame equals BOOM! So we dodged a bullet there.

The goal of distilling is to separate the substances in your pot so you get the good stuff and can discard the rest. The temperature of the liquid is raised slowly, allowing certain bits to boil and evaporate and then be cooled by a condenser and turned back into liquid. Usually the condenser looks like a big copper coil and is cooled by air. Ours was a slightly fancier water-cooled version.

The first thing that we needed to watch for was methyl alcohol, which evaporates at 64.7 degrees celsius. This is poison and must be tossed out unless you want to go blind/crazy. So we had to keep a close eye on the temperature and when it reached the magic number we’d know the methyl alcohol was evaporated and we were safe to save the rest.

Unfortunately we were using an infared thermometer and trying to get readings off of a shiny metal pot, which kept showing suspiciously low temperatures. Hmm. As it turns out, infared thermometers work by magic light and are thrown out of whack by shiny surfaces (mistake number…oh hell I’ve lost count).

So, even though we were boiling vinegar over an open flame in a tiny bathroom and had a leaky fitting, we managed to squeeze in one more mistake. I hung the condenser from the ceiling a few feet above the distilling pot and connected the two via a meter-long plastic tube. This means that the vapor particles had to travel all that distance to get to the condenser, but they never got there. They were cooled by air in the rubber tube and ran back into the heated pot. They were effectively condensed before they reached the condenser, which never got a chance to divert the liquid into our old timey moonshine jars. That’s one thing we got right. When making bathtub booze, always, always use old-timey jars.

It was a learning experience. I hope your attempts go better, or at least you love malt vinegar. Regardless, for all the “don’ts” this taught, it also reminded me of an important “do”: try, try again.


Oamaru Victorian Fete

While we were in Oamaru, we attended their annual Victorian Fete, a street fair in the historic district. The event was a riot. People come from all over the country to dress up and partake in ridiculous events like the beard judging competition, the Penny Farthing bicycle race, and the stone sawing competition. I’ll let the pictures and video tell the story.



The Dark Side of WWOOFing


It’s not all tomatoes and bacon, people. We’ve been in New Zealand since August, and every one of our WWOOFing experiences has been awesomely positive. Until now.

It began fine. The first few days of any relationship, let alone one that insists on working and eating three meals together, can be rough. We’re accustomed to a short “breaking in period” where conversations are a little awkward and we’re walking on eggshells. This time there were a few condescending comments sprinkled in here and there from the male head of the household, who shall remain nameless. We shrugged it off. We thought we were being overly sensitive.

But our host had continued difficulty controlling his frustration, and that manifested itself as anger towards us and his family. We talked with him about changing his tone around us and he was receptive, for a short time. We gave it another week, but little changed.

Yesterday was the last straw. He and I were moving cows to get ready for slaughter and he berated me for not moving quick enough to block the path of an angry heifer that didn’t want any part of this activity. Oh, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I’m a pretty agile guy any time of day, but diving in front of a hostile 800-pound animal is something I’m instinctually wired to avoid. No, thank you very much. He flew off the handle.

I told him that there is a nice way to give instructions, and a not-so-nice way, and I preferred that he used the former. He became more disgruntled, words were exchanged on both sides, and he stormed off, leaving me alone to move the agitated cow into the adjacent pen, where she most definitely didn’t want to go. I tried in vain to get the cow to cooperate, nearly getting stampeded multiple times, before he returned and told me to stop because he didn’t want the beast’s adrenaline to effect the quality of the meat.

This interaction proved that this situation was not tenable. First, this was the latest in a string of moments in which we were treated with disdain and condescension; not the pastoral ideal of a working environment. But most importantly, leaving a greenhorn such as myself alone with a massive, angry animal is grossly irresponsible. I could have been seriously injured, had I not been quick enough to dive from the path of the cow. So rather than endure a moment more we decided to it was time to pack up and leave before breakfast.

Now we’re sitting on a riverbank, surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the gurgling water and wind rustling the trees, about
to eat a fine feast of beans and veggies. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Why didn’t we do this a week ago?

If it were another situation, I might have stuck it out. Sometimes one needs to grin and bear it for professional reasons. But this was no paying gig. It was a short-term work-trade arrangement on a farm. I felt no loyalty here, no reason to fulfill my intention of staying the full three weeks. We have the means to move on, so we rid ourselves of this source of stress. Suddenly, I feel powerful again.

I’m not free of regret, though. In the heat of the moment, I was so blinded by emotion that I couldn’t properly articulate the damage he’s doing to those around him. I felt as if my blood might actually boil. And I had grown fond of his wife and child. They were pillars of kindness and compassionate throughout this ordeal, and remained graceful and sympathetic when we told them that we were moving on. I hope they understand that it’s not them we were fleeing, but their arrogant, delusional husband and father. We’ve learned a lot from this experience, but my suspicion is that he, unfortunately, hasn’t. Good riddance.


Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die..

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