Were our ancestors making a Sugar Cane Vodka
In the spirits world, most people think of vodka as a neutral spirit. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) standards of identity use to read, ”Vodka is a neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” The new definition of vodka for TTB is more inclusive but it is more specific. In general, vodkas can be made from grain, sugar, or potatoes. In short, the design of the liquor distill (the device that separate alcohol from water by taken advantage of the differences in boiling point of alcohol and water), can be the limiting device to produce high proof(measure of alcohol per volume) spirits based upon the design and operation. So the question, I am asking myself was our forefathers distilling/bootlegging in the woods essentially making vodka, an unaged neutral spirit) and with the new found interest for sugar cane based vodka, maybe they were ahead of their time.
Let me explain, the old moonshiners, used to make a sour mash using grain, sugar, water, and yeast before distilling the beer or low wines created during fermentation. In terms of fermentation, the grain added a flavor and the alcohol(technically ethanol) was made by converting sugar with yeast. It did not require any additional steps for the yeast to convert sugar to alcohol, like when using grains. Scientifically and from a point of practice, the fermentation could have been done with the conversion of sugar alone. However, to make whiskeys and bourbons, the grains must be cooked to aid in the gelatination process while treating with enzymes to aid in the conversion of carbohydrates to fermentable sugars. The additional processes of converting grain into sugars, other substances and impurities causes the development of by products like methyl alcohol, esters, acetone and other undesirable compounds, also called cogeners, that impacts the flavor of the final product or notes as the experts say.
If our bootlegging forefathers removed the grain, they would have a neutral sugar-based spirit, if the pot stills they operated in the woods would allow them to get 190 proof. Unfortunately, as designed the pot still could not get the required proof with one run. The reason grains were used in the agricultural south, as the farmer sometimes a bootlegger was value-adding a product they grown locally to create a product with higher market value, illicit or not. For black people, we have to think that bootlegging was not illegal from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, because the laws would not allow one to obtained a Distilled Plant Permit (DSP). If a black person did apply for a permit without a white co-owner during that time period, the permit application the paperwork would end up in the trash can. The moonshiner could get that high of proof, but it would require distilling multiple times, which Is inefficient in a pot still but it did happen inadvertently. It is known that some distillers/moonshiners would distill multiple times as they would label a container with XXX, where each X denoted the redistillation. The distiller may or may not filtered in charcoal but they definitely filtered the runs through something to remove any fine particulates, as I have heard a piece of felt or felt cap. The more sophisticated moonshiners might have done a charcoal filtering (Mellowing), that Mr. Nearest Green contributed to Tennessee Whiskey from a charcoal filtration process learned in Ghana for water, the first recognized Master Distiller that was black. Mr. Nearest Green, is what I like to call him because during the time he ran the stills for Rev. Dan McCall and then Jack Daniels, no white boy was forced to called a black man using the correct term for respect in Mr. Nearest Green. As an aside, what treatment plants around the world using activated charcoal to filter. Today, Fawn Weaver founded the premium beverage brand to honor the legacy of Mr. Nearest Green. So if the moonshiners had a column still, they could have gotten to the required proof level coming off the still with a column at 190 proof with much improved efficiency, but a column still in the woods is impractical. Inside an old barn, a column still could be feasible but if you are making liquor illegally would you want to invest that type of money to build a device that might be destroyed during a raid. Then by definition, the spirit is watered down to 90 proof and filtered in charcoal. Distilling to this required proof is required by definition and to get more concentrated alcohol, but is it really required if was a way to get rid of any fusel oils, esters, that may come out in fermentation.
So in some ways, could making an old family moonshine recipe with processes could translate to making a very high quality sugar cane vodka with paying taxes(the paperwork) in removing the grain and going through a column still, as the latter is more efficient. However, moonshine in my opinion would have more notes and nuance as those ethers and cogeners add to the spirit, not like a straight vodka.
One last thing, growing up I was in close proximity to bootlegging culture as it was often intertwined with barbecue tradition. So growing up, I may have been exposed to nuances of a culture in oral conversations, but because I was a minor, the conversation around this was always a grown folks conversation and I had to leave. However, I could not help hearing, but I did always see the mason jar or the gallon jug with a clear liquid that I was forbidden to touch or consume.