Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol' Demon Alcoholby Gene Logsdon
Here we go. Gene "The Contrary Farmer" Logsdon has taken on some controversial subjects in his time, but this time he has bitten off ("sipped on" doesn't sound right) a topic bound to raise strong feelings on both sides of society's moral boundary lines. His subject is alcohol and its traditional role on the family homestead. Not surprisingly, Gene speaks/em>… See more details below
Here we go. Gene "The Contrary Farmer" Logsdon has taken on some controversial subjects in his time, but this time he has bitten off ("sipped on" doesn't sound right) a topic bound to raise strong feelings on both sides of society's moral boundary lines. His subject is alcohol and its traditional role on the family homestead. Not surprisingly, Gene speaks the bare-naked truth, and finds a lot more good than bad to say about booze.
Alcohol has historically played a significant role in agricultural life. In colonial times it was the most "liquid" alternative to hard currency as a means of exchange. Alcohol was the most reliable, safest, and most convenient way to store the grain harvest, and was an integral commodity on nearly every farmstead. Because it was so valued--does this surprise us?--the government muscled in, looking for its own piece of the action. George Washington was the first of many politicians to regulate alcohol as a means to generate revenues and gain political control.
Good Spirits is a rare and brave revisionist view of history. Logsdon is a master at exposing the absurdity of the commonplace. Does it really make sense that the government can make it illegal for us to combine common substances (grain, water, and yeast) on our own property? Can it be true that every war effort in the nation's history has been fueled literally and figuratively by alcohol and the tax revenues it produces? Why must the farmer fund the government that oppresses him?
In between good-natured tirades, Logsdon makes sure the reader learns some valuable lessons. He tells us how to make beer; he teaches the rudiments of distilling; he interviews Booker Noe (patron of America's First Family of bourbon) to tell us how to sip and tell; and he adds lively tales from alcohol's quasi-legitimate past. This is vintage Contrary Farmer: 100-proof, single-barrel select. Good Spirits is outrageous, entertaining, enlightening, and an eye-poppingly interesting, natural and holistic look at the role of alcohol. You will savor this book like a snifter of Calvados, the double-distilled apple brandy of Normandy that evaporates on the tongue like a heavenly ambrosia. Heady stuff, but delicious when consumed in moderation.
Read an Excerpt
[From Chapter 2, My Father-in-Law, "The Old Moonshiner", pp.13-16]
It may seem that including a chapter on the distillation of alcohol before chapters on fermentation, which must precede distillation, is putting the cart before the horse, or the whiskey barrel before the fermenting beer vat. But the chapters that follow, dealing with the necessary partnership of fermentation and distillation, must presume some prior knowledge not only of the former, which is relatively well known, but of the latter, which is relatively unknown. Homo sippiens is an alcohol-loving animal, but most of us-myself included, until I sipped my way through myriad bottles of "research"-are rather alcohol-illiterate, no matter how fond we might be of drinking the stuff.
My father-in-law, whom we all called Granddaddy, is gone now, so I can't get him in trouble by relating his story. He decided during Prohibition and the Depression that he was going to make spirits despite the law. Mind you, in every other respect he was the most law-abiding and highly moral person I ever had the pleasure of knowing. So he became a moonshiner, and gathering from the way he signed his name, "The old moonshiner, Vassel Downs," on the parchment on which he left his directions for making whiskey, he was proud of it. Since his moonshine was well respected in those days by all accounts that I can gather, he had to have been, as he was in all his other work, an artisan skilled in, and respectful of, the details. I assume he also received some direction from his father-in-law, John Wesley Kurtz, who was a master distiller at Jim Beam, but Granddaddy never said. Moonshining was rarely discussed in the Downs family in earlier days and when I persisted in hearing about it, the subject was treated by some members as a shameful skeleton in the family closet. But eventually everyone came to be as openly proud of "the old moonshiner" as I was. He was my hero. He understood "value-added" agriculture long before that phrase had been coined. He told me that moonshine paid for his farm.
But before I tell how he made whiskey, I need to put down some detailed background about the process. Granddaddy understood it, and taught me some of it, but I doubt he could have written it down clearly enough for a modern audience that knows little about the tradition in which he grew up. Granddaddy took for granted knowledge which has been lost to most of us.
First, consider how biologically efficient is the fermentation/distillation process. The spirits industry is one in which there should be no waste management problem. When the juice from a bushel of apples is fermented into about two and a half gallons of cider or distilled into a half gallon of applejack brandy, the pomace remaining will make great vinegar or certain kinds of brandy or can be used for animal feed. Cows and sheep love it. (Don't give them too much at once, though.) Commercial cider mills in fact sell pomace to dairy farms. Or the pomace can be turned into a formidable amount of heat by way of composting, after which the compost makes a good fertilizer. Greenhouses in Austria are sometimes heated with grape pomace compost. Or, if you have a fencerow you'd like to plant to apple trees for wildlife and livestock food, dribble the pomace, which is full of apple seeds, over the area you want seeded, and some of the apple trees will sprout and grow. The acidic nature of the juice in the pomace enhances sprouting.
This natural efficiency can be seen even better in beer and whiskey making. The mash left after a bushel of grain has fermented into three gallons of beer or distilled into two and a half gallons of whiskey can be fed to animals. Granddaddy used to laugh about how his cows once got into the spent whiskey mash and came to the barn drunk that night. Actually, distillers grain, as the spent mash is called after it is dried and no longer intoxicating, can make nutritious human food too. Distillers have made cookies and other pastries out of it to prove the point. The mash contains at least half the nutrients found in the original corn-nearly all the proteins-and may actually be almost as nutritious because the grain has been rendered more digestible. Furthermore, in a commercial operation, carbon dioxide, a by-product of both fermentation and distillation, can be collected and sold, as can the acetates and aldehydes that are separated from the ethyl alcohol during distillation.
In other words, fermentation and distillation allow you to drink your cake and have it, too, which suggests a sort of victory over the "law" of entropy. That's a heady concept to be suggesting in the same breath with talk about cider and beer. But consider: the first law of thermodynamics states that energy in the universe is constant. The second law states that while the amount of energy is constant, it can change or be changed from one form to another indefinitely. A comforting thought, science has always said. We could go on using energy forever, and it wouldn't diminish. Then some smart-ass came along and argued that, while it is true that energy is never lost but only changed in form, it can't be used over and over again indefinitely without a loss. Burn a match and you can recover the sulfur and ash and other gases that originally made up the match. But you can't remake and reburn that match and get the same net amount of work or energy out of it. The unrecoverable energy is an example of entropy, and it means (fill my beer mug again, please) that we are doomed to a slow but inexorable extinction. (A good stout ale will be fine this time around.)Far be it from me to differ with brilliant scientists who understand this entropical doom descending upon us, but allow me in rebuttal to trumpet the miracle of fermentation. No doubt entropy comes into play here somewhere, but if I raise a bushel of corn, brew from it with water three gallons of good beer, feed the mash to livestock, eat the livestock while drinking my beer, collect and use the carbon dioxide given off in the process, and use the manure (mine and the livestock's) to grow another bushel of corn, how much should I really worry about entropy?
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