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Pete Kamer at the hydrometer.

If all you knew of making whiskey was what you’d seen on the hit TV show, “Moonshiners,” you might imagine it easy work.

But as 14 students at the daylong Oct. 18 session of Moonshine University learned, it’s not simple at all. That people could do it at all without the benefit of modern devices is nothing short of incredible, said Colin Blake, creative director at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter (DSE) in downtown Louisville.

“When you think about what goes into it, it’s absolutely amazing (the “Moonshiners” cast) can pull this off with a creek-side still,” he said. “For hundreds of years people didn’t know what was happening scientifically when they distilled alcohol. They just figured out that if you did this, this would happen, or that you didn’t want to do this or you’d have a problem.”

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A few of 18 total “heads, hearts and tails” samples from a single distilling run.

Such as a potentially lethal still explosion or the unwanted capture and consumption of dangerous alcohols. Or maybe a mistimed fermentation cycle that allowed bacterial growth to sour it unappealingly.

Avoiding such problems is one reason for Moonshine University’s $395 “enthusiast’s course” for people who are thinking about setting up a distillery—if they haven’t already done so.

Several remarks about attendees’ distilling knowledge were peppered with wink-wink suggestions such as, “Not that I’d know anything about that,” or “I may or may not have been making moonshine.” As Blake mentioned, any illegitimate distillation flirts with breaking more than 100 state and federal laws.

Fermented mash pours into a copper still.
Fermented mash pours into a copper still.

“Get caught doing that and you’re likely looking at prison time,” Blake added while standing in front of a televised slide reading, “DISCLAIMER: It is illegal to distill alcohol without a permit.”

“So we’re just going to assume no one in here would ever consider such a thing,” said Blake, whose remark drew more than a few snickers. “Our job is to teach people how to do it legit.”

That includes using DSE’s $600,000 small-batch distillation system, complete with a cooker, fermenter, pot still and hybrid vodka column still. If you can conjure up the booze of your dreams, it can be made here.

The complete distilling process is discussed topically in the one-day class, but in the five-day intensive Distiller’s Class, students pay $5,000 for private lessons that include creating a whiskey fit for bottling.

“But since we aren’t licensed to bottle, all that good whiskey just goes down the drain,” Blake said, eliciting groans from the group.

Still, our class did participate in every major part of the distilling process from milling 270 pounds of corn, cooking it into a near porridge and then adding 32 pounds of malted barley. We pitched yeast to begin fermentation in a previously cooked mash and then tasted alcohol pouring off the still from another previous batch.

Pete Kamer, a retired distiller from Very Old Barton, serves a consultant to the Distilled Spirits Epicenter during instructional classes.
Pete Kamer, a retired distiller from Very Old Barton, serves a consultant to the Distilled Spirits Epicenter during instructional classes.

If you took the class only to learn the concept of “heads, hearts and tails,” what they are, what they taste like and how distillers use them to flavor their distillates, it’s darn near worth the price just to hear consultant Pete Kamer break down the nuances. The retired Seagram’s and Very Old Barton distiller is an entertaining whiskey wonk who never seems to tire of questions about his craft.

When fermented beverages are distilled, water and multiple alcohols — some bad, some good — evaporate and condense over a wide range of temperatures. Those liquids that emerge at lower boiling points are the “heads,” which include acetone and methanol. In the middle, at around 173 F, comes desirable ethyl alcohol, called the “hearts.” From about 200 F on up, the mash releases butyl and amyl alcohols and water, which are among the “tails.”

Were one to keep only the hearts, he’d have a safe but bland distillate, said Kamer, who allowed us to taste some, while directing us to smell more than a dozen other undesirable distillates. But while the heads and tails do contain unwanted and potentially poisonous alcohols, skilled distillers know how to return trace amounts of each safely to add flavor.

“That people were doing it right for centuries just by tasting it is amazing,” Blake said.

“But they never had the consistency we do now,” Kamer added. “Now it’s much easier to do it precisely so you get the same flavors each time.”

As Kamer spoke, student Karl Laviolette listened closely. The Quebec native wants to make Canadian whiskey commercially and drove to Louisville for the class.

“I’ve gotten a lot of good information from this,” said Laviolette, an I.T. professional by day. “I know it would take some time to get a distillery going, but it’s what I want to do.”

Same for Carol McKee, who, along with husband, Steve, drove from Stallings, N.C., to take the class. The former chefs left the restaurant industry many years ago to develop a building and home restoration franchise. Now they’re looking to sell that business and start distilling.

 Student Martha Creek pours dried corn into a grain miller.
Student Martha Creek pours dried corn into a grain miller.

“It’s not food, but it draws on our past as chefs in that creative way,” said Carol McKee. Their future business, to be named Copper Rock Distillery, includes a third partner, David Pollard, who also attended the class. “There’s such a demand for craft spirits right now that we’re considering getting into making our own for sale.”

Martha Creek, a Louisville minister, came to the class with a pair of friends from her hometown of Bugtussle, Ky., near the central Tennessee border. She saw the class as an opportunity to expose her friends to a potential business opportunity in an area of the state lacking income opportunities other than farming.

“It’s something for all of us to think about,” said Creek, dusting off her hands after pouring a sack of dried corn into a noisy milling machine. Adding with a mischievous grin, she said, “Why not? It’s probably something they might know how to do.”

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.