Shine a light
When I first started making beer as a minor six years ago, I likened making my own alcohol to digging up coal from my backyard: regardless of the volume, I was producing a usable commodity. I’ve never sold my beer because even goods like my basement brew are usually subject to taxes, and while my small operation is unlikely to attract any attention from law enforcement, this is a well-known plight of a more clandestine sect of Reno home brewers—moonshiners.
I wanted to know more about how locals make their hard stuff and if the tradition was faring as well as beer-making. I couldn’t find a source to admit to a felony for my column, however, so I went to see how “legal moonshine” is handled.
“The real definition of moonshine is untaxed liquor,” said Tom Adams, owner and head distiller of Seven Troughs Distillery. “It was something that was done to avoid taxes and so you did it by the light of the moon.”
Adams has wanted to own a distillery since he was a child and saw the impromptu gin still rigged by Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. And he perfected his craft on some equally shoddy equipment until legislation legalized his hobby—legislation he helped write.
“In 2012, we figured out that the state of Nevada couldn’t tell us ’No, we can’t give you a permit’ because there was a void of law,” Adams said.
Since the federal repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1934, Nevada lacked any laws to properly license a distillery, meaning that all liquor production in Nevada was technically moonshine. The law resulted in Seven Troughs being granted one of the first distillery licenses issued in the state.
Adams invited me to Seven Troughs to see how he makes Old Commissary Whiskey, based on a recipe used in eastern Nevada’s Fort Ruby in 1862. The recipe, he assured me, is authentic down to his heat source—a flame fired still.
On his shop floor are two 450-gallon vats for fermenting 500 pounds of raw barley. After a few days, wild yeast from the air yields a tart, citrusy tasting mash. I sampled the Old Commissary and about four other whiskeys. Some of the sweetness of the original mash came through, despite the characteristic burn of young whiskey.
We talked about moonshine culture, and Adams told me he used to buy equipment from homebrew stores with the unspoken acknowledgment of what he was actually making.
“There was this respectful thing that they’re not going to get in our business and we’re not going to advertise what we’re doing,” Adams said. “That still exists. There’s a huge and very vibrant underground culture of booze-makers, and they’re everywhere, man. They walk among us.” He alluded to certain circles where one could inquire about “a gallon of West Seventh’s Finest,” or families in Ely that never quite gave up their prohibition-era enterprises.
While the moonshine tradition in town is alive and flourishing, there are some risks involved, including blindness from toxic alcohol byproducts and explosions in the form of condensed alcohol vapors. So, Adams has some advice for aspiring moonshiners: “There’s a legal way [to learn] and that’s give us a call, give any one of us distillers a call,” he said.
The internet, Adams said, is “full of crap” when it comes to information about distilling.