Ahh, sundowners — sunset accompanied by a little libation. They sure are a sweet way to end a cruising day. Then we arrived in New Zealand, where even the cheapest gin, vodka and rum still ran about $20 per liter. Sipping suddenly became a big bite out of our tiny cruising budget! Even worse, the rumor was that in Fiji, Vanuatu and Australia, our upcoming cruising destinations, liquor prices leaped further still. Indeed, in Suva, Fiji, a liter of Gordon’s gin would set you back $75!
Kiwis, as enterprising a bunch as cruisers, solved this spiritual dilemma by legalizing home distillation. In New Zealand, easy-to-use, off-the-shelf distillers, about the size of a small coffee maker, can cost about $200 to $250 for a complete starter kit (110 or 220 volts). An ambitious Kiwi friend of ours made his own still custom-fit to his galley. “Check out homedistiller.org. That’s where I got all the info I needed to get started,” he humbly claimed.
The simple four-step distillation process takes as little as three days from start to sip: ferment yeast and sugar in tepid water, distill, dilute and charcoal-filter, and then flavor. Before flavoring, the basic result is a neutral spirit, much like a diluted Everclear or grain alcohol. Flavorings range from basic, such as rum, vodka and whiskey, to those designed to mimic specific brand characteristics, such as Jack Daniel’s or even more exotic liquors, like absinthe. Besides the flavoring essence, special yeast, sugar, purifying charcoal and water are all the essential ingredients needed. (Of course, you can always get fancier and spend more.)
On a power-challenged boat like ours, our tiny still’s distillation uses 340 watts at 110 volts, thus requiring a run of our portable Honda 2000 generator for about two hours. Of course, that’s the perfect time to top off all our other electrical devices and chill down our refrigerator. By preheating what we distill in our pressure cooker on the stove, our distillation and generator run time is cut in half. We figure between the gas for our generator run and the basic ingredients, the total cost for making our own moonshine is about $8 per liter. The taste? So far, so good!
Outside New Zealand, is it legal to run a still? Still Spirits, the manufacturer of our distillation kit, notes in its literature that “in certain countries alcohol distillation may be illegal and you may require a license.” Yet it also coyly adds, “USA authorities have recently allowed distillation for fuel alcohol.” For those of us more chemically challenged, the undiluted distilled product is ethanol, the stuff that makes up about 10 percent of our automotive gasoline.
As any self-respecting, rum-imbibing pirate would declare, “Fuel’s fuel.” To those of us cruisers with a little pirate in our blood (but less than .08 percent) — cheers!
Interested in doing some distilling of your own? Here are a few websites that offer information and supplies:
• Intro to Home Distillation
• Adventures in Homebrewing
• Smiley’s Home Distilling