Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hard Times Distillery - Update

Some of you may recollect that one of my first posts was about Hard Times Distillery in Monroe. Since the time I posted that article it's been a rough road for the owners, Dudley Clark and James Stegall. Difficulties with funding, with getting parts for their custom stills, and other obstacles kept them from attaining production status until last autumn.

As I originally reported, it had been their plan to make vodka from rye. Insufficient funds prevented the acquisition of some equipment needed for that, so they fell back on a simpler solution: sugar. They describe their product as being based on "an old moonshine recipe" a statement which is, in fact, completely accurate.

There's a lot of confusion about the term "moonshine". There are a number of small distilleries around the US that are selling unaged whiskey as "moonshine". These are corn whiskies, or ones that use a bourbon mashbill of corn with rye and barley malt. These are not really moonshine for two reasons. The first is that "moonshine", strictly defined, is any illegally produced spirit. So if they produced it legally, it's not moonshine.

The second reason is that most modern moonshine is not produced from grain but from sugar. Why? Because the easiest and cheapest way to make alcohol is with sugar, warm water and yeast, and if your goal is to make money, this is what you do. The extra bother of converting starch to sugar is viewed as an unnecessary expense by most moonshiners. Some will add a measure of converted hog chow (85% corn meal and 15% ground soybeans) to impart some "corn whiskey" character, but the soybeans add a rather funky element to that. While still living in Florida, I sampled some sugar/hog chow moonshine and it was, frankly, pretty wretched stuff.

Most moonshine is produced in simple pot stills, which are capable of producing spirit no stronger than about 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). That which is made from sugar is known as "sugar jack" and it smells and tastes more like rum than anything else.

Hard Times Distillery is equipped with a column still and their "Sugar Momma" vodka is, like all vodka, distilled at 95% ABV. At this level of distillation it's usually the case that very little of the aroma and taste of the original fermented product survives the process. For example, although I'm pretty attuned to the aroma of rye (being a fan of rye whiskey), I can just barely smell the rye in Sobieski vodka.

So when I finally sampled some "Sugar Momma" I wasn't expecting much in the way of aroma or flavor. Man, was I in for a surprise. The stuff exudes a distinct bouquet of brown sugar, similar to a lot of rums. Although it lacks the additional exotic aromas of finer rums, it also lacks the medicinal alcohol character of the not-so-fine ones. On the palate it's extraordinarily smooth, and has a richness uncharacteristic of vodka. Seriously, if you're a rum fan, this is your vodka. When the weather warms up a bit more, I'm going to try this in a Mojito.

Sold only in Oregon, for $14.95, it's already developed a following in Eugene and Corvallis. Dudley tells me that they "can't keep it on the shelves." Indeed, when I recently visited Big Y Liquors in Eugene I noticed it was sold out.

Hard Times is working to increase production, and if it continues to do well, the profits can be plowed back in to the business and we will, hopefully, see rye whiskey being produced before the end of the year.

"Sugar Momma" is sold here in Corvallis at the liquor store on Washington Avenue, and served at Block 15.

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