Tuesday, April 15, 2014


When I was growing up, a rumor would often be repeated about a farmer who bootlegged and sold it to his brother who operated a bar in "South O" (South Omaha, a rough area then and now) by the stockyards. I started to write a story about that, and the research has led me to believe that it was probably just untrue.

The farmer was accused of shipping livestock to Omaha and returning with a truck full of sugar, the coveted "profitable backhaul." The sugar would be converted into alcohol, shipped back to Omaha with the next load of livestock, the brother would fill bottles with it and serve in his bar and taxes would be avoided.

Maybe it was feasible in the 1940's and 1950's, but right now the economics are not compelling--you would avoid Federal and state taxes of about $17.50 per gallon. The sugar involved would cost $5 or more, you should use distilled water, the yeast is about a dollar per gallon, and, even though the equipment is reusable to a large extent, there is a lot of labor involved. Plus ice. Your "gross margins" are not that great.

The glass fermentation vessels, the stainless steel mash pot and the sealed distillation vessel, the copper coil (without lead solder joints)...pretty soon you have quite a little investment. Just to make about a gallon of 80 proof (40%) liquor with virtually no taste--sort of a version of vodka--and avoid less that $20 of taxes.

Add on the risk of getting caught and the risk of poisoning somebody, and there accumulate a few disincentives. Not that those always deter lawbreakers. Part of the poison issue involves the collection and disposal of the first amounts produced during distillation. These first volatile substances are chemicals that vaporize at a lower temperature than ethanol, such as methanol and acetone. It is probably a good rule for humans to avoid drinking cleaning fluids.

Lead is quite a traditional culprit since some old timers used automobile radiators to condense the ethanol, and those radiators had lead-solder connections. Some plastic is often used today for the fermentation process that takes a while, and alcohol can react unfavorably with some plastics.

Better to go buy a whole bunch of cheap vodka at just over $20 per gallon, taxes included, and fool your patrons with that.

Nuts. I thought I might have a good story to relate, but after all is said and done, it isn't very plausible and good stories always have an element of "it could have happened that way." Maybe next time.

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