While some residents of Bernalwood find joy in brewing their own beer, others prefer the hard stuff. Neighbor Boris falls into the latter camp, as he has been making his own bourbon in his Bernal Heights home:
I built a distillation apparatus, and I have recently begun aging my spirits in a small oak barrel. I am not patient enough to wait the requisite three years for legitimate bourbon so I must settle for an underage, illegitimate spirit. Even so, a month in oak makes a big difference in the color and the taste.
In coming up with a name for this batch, I was inspired by a post on your blog.
Celebrating the tale of the drunken woman who went for a naked swim in the Bernal Heights reservoir in the late 19th century, Neighbor Boris named his spirit “Mrs. Brickley’s 1877-Style Old Cherubusco Barely Aged Bourbon.”
Here’s the original story:
One morning in December 1877, Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street strolled naked (except for a wand tipped with several brightly colored ribbons) up to the reservoir. Once there, she took a leisurely bath first in a water trough and then in the reservoir itself. The reservoir-keeper’s aged father “shut his eyes tight and tried to fight her off with a garden rake,” but she managed to evade him. Finally, one young man jumped in to nab her; she was pulled to shore and wrapped in an assortment of clothing provided by the women of the neighborhood. The article concludes, “Mrs. Brickley was conveyed to the City Prison and thence to the House of the Inebriate, and her neighbors are using well water for a few days.”
And here is the insanely fantastic label Neighbor Boris made for his Bernal Heights bourbon:
Bernalwood asked Neighbor Boris to describe his recipe:
Originally, I come from Russia, where, as young man, I worked in Kazakh oil field. In 1990‘s, after perestroika, I become entrepreneur. These are wild times but I make decent money working in ‘security’ and the ‘waste management’. Unfortunately, I have a disagreement with some ‘business partners’ and must leave Moscow quickly. Now, I am living for many years in beautiful Bernal Heights.
I was much interested to read about people in Bernal neighborhood brewing their own beer. This is quaint and enjoyable sport and I myself passed happy times making and consuming such weak alcoholic beverages. When I work in oil refineries, however, I learn a beautiful and, one might say, sacred art: the art of fractional distillation. Such a process can transform pale and ghostly beverages into strong spirits. Such strong spirits that make the nighttime warmer; old friends dearer; and women more beautiful.
Now I use my refinery skills to make strong spirits here in Bernal Heights. Yes, I know that this is illegal activity, but I consider this only an accident of history. You are, of course, free to condemn me as an immoral, anti-social, moonshine-making scofflaw. In fact, maybe I should put that in my Facebook profile.
Here is how it works. Like beer makers, I use yeast to convert natural sugars into alcohol. The sugars can come from anywhere, even from the bakery aisle of our Taoist Safeway. Over the years I have used many organic materials as sources of sugar: pears, apples, plums. Many things will work, but you must be warned: some will taste better than others. If you are not careful, you can make a drink that leaves your mouth to taste like the waste barrel in an abandoned Soviet licorice factory. How do I know what such a thing tastes like? Long story. Now that I live America I use only corn mixed with barley malt and rye. For yeast, I use an old Russian strain, one that is inured to suffering and survives in high alcohol.
After the yeasts do their job, it is time for the distiller to go to work. I filter out the grain and load the beer into the boiler —a stainless steel stock pot. I heat the beer on a propane fish cooker and attach the distillation head.
Normally I do this in the dark of the night, to avoid the prying eyes. This is a common practice and I am told that this is where the name ‘moonshine’ comes from. Last weekend, however, the weather was too beautiful and I risked a daytime run.
Alcohol is volatile so, when the mixture boils, the vapor is more alcohol than water. As the vapor rises up the column, it makes a pleasant murmur, like the rustle of dry grasses on the Caucasian steppe. At the very top of the still, the vapor makes a ‘U turn’ into a thinner copper tube, cooled by flowing water. There, the alcohol condenses back into liquid and runs down into collection vessel —usually a glass milk jug from Good Life Grocery.
I split the distilled spirits into different fractions.
The first thing that comes out is nail polish remover. You can use it to thin paint or clean automobile engine blocks but, if you love life, you do not drink it.
After paint thinner comes good alcohol. You can tell this by smelling.
After pure alcohol come more complicated molecules. These have flavors from the grains and the yeasts, and many of these flavors are pleasant – like toasted barley. Here is the art: deciding which parts to keep and which to throw away.
Once I have collected and blended the spirits I share them with my friends. My wife, Natashka, she often frowns at the time I spend making spirits. In the end, she never refuses to sample the product and, often, it makes her smile.
We are smiling too. Underground, speakeasy-style tasting? Please!?
PHOTOS: Neighbor Boris