Brenton Engel, the now-legitimate distiller behind Chicago’s Letherbee Distillers
, isn’t afraid of admitting he got his start moonshining hooch and selling it to friends. He says distillers with fewer resources (he bought his still with a $15,000 inheritance his grandmother left him), at least initially, are stuck working on the wrong side of the law.
Illicit distilling is generally a felony, unlike homebrewing beer. But during the last decade in Chicago there are no records of any moonshining arrests, making many distillers think enforcement agencies are turning a blind eye to those making spirits for personal consumption. At least they hope so.
“I was never too worried,” Engel says, “except when I started getting emails and phone calls from strangers. And as soon as I started to become a legit distiller, I ceased all illegal activity. I don’t wanna press my luck with anybody.”
At Letherbee, he’s continued making spirits using the same pot still he started out on. Though now, he’s sometimes running it three or four times a day, seven days a week. Pot stills are what most people imagine when they think of moonshining. They’re simple, cheap, and not particularly precise. They’re readily available online, too, ostensibly for the purpose of distilling drinking water or fuel alcohols.
For Engel, using that pot still to turn out Letherbee’s floral gin was the easy part. Earning status as a legal distiller had been the challenge. “If you get your shit together enough to get paperwork like that done,” Engel says, “you’re at least somewhat qualified to work around highly explosive liquids like alcohol.”
The Legal Process
At CH Distillery
in Chicago’s West Loop, Tremaine Atkinson is pretty happy that it only took a year to get their paperwork together. Even with two lawyers, a distillation consultant, and “about $3 million, soup to nuts,” there were probably times when it seemed like things could get much worse.
Distillers all have to obtain licenses from three levels of government before they can even consider making their first mash. “You get your federal first, then your city, then your state,” Atkinson says. “City was confusing because we’re the first ones to be a combination of a bar and distillery. They would scratch their heads and go ‘What…what is this?’”
Susan Sherman of Licensing Solutions LLC is one of the attorneys who helped get CH off the ground. “Currently,” she says, “the city does not offer a craft distiller license, so the licensing process becomes even more difficult. It’s the old trying-to-put-a-square-peg-into-a-round-hole problem.” The federal level is even more convoluted, she adds.
Even doing everything else right, Atkinson could have, in theory, while still learning the craft of distilling itself, been scooped up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “I started playing around with distilling gin at home last summer. So that was my first foray into it,” he says.
He’s not completely sold on the need for such serious barriers to entry. “You don’t want to make it too easy. It’s an interesting question, though, as to whether there’s more danger potentially in distilled spirits than in beer. There are some alcohol compounds that we’re isolating and taking off, but then again if you served somebody a spirit that has the dangerous stuff in it, they just wouldn’t want to drink it.”
This doesn’t quite mean that government agencies should expect a surge of paperwork from people looking to start their own whiskey brands. Engel, the reformed moonshiner at Letherbee, says small distilleries, opened in a rush over the last few years, are already beginning to fail.
“Some of these people feel like they missed out on the microbrewing boom and are pumping money into microdistilling,” he says. “There are all of these companies that will help you open a turnkey distiller. You pay the money and push a button and a truck comes out and they set it up that afternoon. Therefore, a lot of them are very similar.”
While it was hard to find exciting beer in Chicago before the microbrewing boom, he says there was never any real shortage of good spirits. “You can go to Binny’s and find incredible stuff. Shit, you can go to the corner store and find incredible stuff.”
And indeed, Brett Pontoni, the spirits buyer for Binny’s
in Chicago, explains that there isn’t quite the same vacuum to fill. “When craft beer started in the ‘80s and ‘90s, nobody had heard of any such thing. There was Bud and Pabst and Schlitz and Stroh’s. The greatest invention of the ‘70s was Miller Lite.”
But that hasn’t been the case for spirits.
“There’s been incredible vodka produced in the world for 500 years,” he says. “Whiskey and gin for 300.” And then there’s the uncertainty as to how much booze people with taste are consuming. “It’s a hell of a lot easier to go through a six-pack of craft beer,” Pontoni says, “than a bottle of vodka.”
Pontoni does think craft distillers who make a quality product will be around for a while. “You can’t just say ‘I’m a local distiller’ and expect people to snap it up. But you can win some jump balls. Looking at North Shore versus a spirit made in Minnesota, you’re going to win that jump ball. From that standpoint people will be supportive.”
Letherbee’s Engel lights up at the possibility of a microdistilling bubble.
“A while ago, you could sell someone a barrel-aged turd,” he says. “I remember bartending a few years ago and thinking ‘Hey man, microdistillery stuff!’ But at this point bartenders are like ‘Oh, another microdistiller.’
“They don’t care.”
While beer brewers in the city regularly collaborate and share facilities and staff, competition makes things decidedly chillier among the distillers.
“It’s a weird vibe,” Engel says. “Microbrewers all get together and party and have a good time. The distilleries, quite the opposite. You look around and say if that guy wasn’t around, we’d have his customer’s dollar.”
Back at CH, Atkinson thinks “there’s definitely room for everyone.” CH Distillery is a cathedral of gleaming glass and steel, ideal for producing finely tuned vodkas.
“Vodka is a much more technical distillation,” he says. “You’re really in the business of removing flavors. In whiskey and rum, the heads-and-tails cuts are much more subjective and more flavor oriented. There, I think it’d be helpful to have some moonshining experience.”
If nothing else, the chaotic world of distilling forces everyone to find a niche.
And expect these niches to be carved by the next generation of distillers, who Engel says are discovering their trade right now in garages everywhere (and mostly on inexpensive pot stills).
“Anybody that has curiosity and an internet connection can learn. It’s just like anything at this point. You could probably learn how to do some rudimentary surgery off the internet. There are 10 or 15 times as many people doing it now as there were five years ago when I was doing it.
“It’s going to lead to fun stuff in the next half a generation.”