Making Hooch in São Paulo

I have always had an insatiable desire to get shitfaced on a low budget. Unfortunately I’m also a big fan of natural, organic stuff, which means I don’t do crack or other “dirty” drugs, thereby making my desire harder to quell. With that in mind, I decided to make my own booze in a cheap and hippie-like way. After a lot of consideration about what group of people have the least means, but the strongest thirst for booze, I decided on prisoners. In Brazil, the typical penitentiary moonshine is called Crazy-Mary [Maria-louca, in Portuguese]. After beginning my research, I quickly found out that that stuff is neither easy nor fast to make. But it tastes fucking fantastic.

I knew I needed to make the acquaintance of a former inmate, so I called up my friend João Wainer, who has extensively photographed São Paulo Detention House aka Carandirúgot. He got me in touch with his friend Sophia, who did volunteer work in the prison for more than 20 years, who in turn put me into contact with Twin and Issac, both of whom have served time in Brazil.

Twin told me, “I was in prison for about ten years. Last time I did eight years--got in in ’96 and left in 2004. But before that I was in that huge riot, the Carandirú slaughter--I got two years for two 157s [robbery and assault - ed.] and a 155 [theft – ed.]. He also worked with the famous penitentiary doctor, Dráuzio Varella, in the hole’s infirmary.

Twin’s friend Issac, who served time at Baixada Santista knows how to prepare the booze. He learned the process during his fifteen years inside Carandiru, which he served for everything from homicide to robbery and assault to drug trafficking. “I did a lot of stuff,” he says. “Making the Crazy-Mary is like making handicraft. And how do you learn handicraft? From the elders. There were some dudes doing 20, 30 years in jail. I met many Red Light Bandits [famous Brazilian robbers – ed.] and they passed on some knowledge to me. I’ve had Crazy-Mary in many places, but there’s only one experience—only one system for making it. I had to prepare Crazy-Mary all the time, because how can you survive in a place like that? It’s just like those people from the mines who were buried for two months, but in jail there’s no time span--especially if you do something inside, then you stay even longer.”

Before we had met him, Issac, at the request of Sophia, started preparing the first stage of the Crazy-Mary for us a week before our meeting. When he brought the little plastic barrel out (which originally had olives inside) Twin gave it a once over before giving his appraisal, “It looks good, it looks stuffy.”

Before opening the container Issac explained, “The process was to sterilize everything and wash the fruits really well. Then you put in hot water, two kilos of sugar, uncooked rice, guava, passion fruit, and orange. Then you chop all of that up and put in some baker’s yeast.” You do all of this in a sealed barrel, and if you want to get to the real crazy Crazy-Mary, you have to put it through another process, but we'll get into that later.

Because we bought only the freshest ingredients at a fruit stand, our recipe was in fact bourgeois, but trust me when I tell you you don’t have to use fresh, organic produce. Any combination of fruits can be used. Or just rice, and the yeast can be plain bread.

Twin told me, “Inside they used to take the ingredients from the trash, from all the fruits that the visitors would bring. They would get the fruit peel and what was left of the fruit, and then they would sell it to the one who prepared the booze. Then they washed everything and fermented it with sugar, water, and yeast. Back in the day--from ’91 to ’94 there was a kitchen in jail. Those were the best Crazy-Mary years. It was like a saké, just rice, sugar, and yeast.”

Although there isn’t a kitchen in jail these days, all of the food comes to them pre-cooked. After it’s delivered, Twin would reheat everything with a lighter or whatever was available. He says it’s just as easy to prepare Crazy-Mary with the pre-cooked food as it was in the kitchen, “The process to make it is the same, it doesn’t change anything.”

As soon as our friends opened the barrel the smell of something putrid jumped out. The concoction was in its first stage. We all took a sip, and the first stage is strong as fuck. The alcohol crawls inside your nose immediately and you feel a strong buzz almost instantly. The luxury of using uncooked rice gave our batch a taste not unlike a fruity saké. It tasted so good that, despite the horrid odor, we couldn’t stop drinking the booze until it was time to go home.

This first stage “is like champagne at Christmas,” Twin says, “it’s like being warm inside and listening to all the fireworks outside--it’s amazing,” he said, laughing. “But to get liquor out of it, you have to use a serpentine on the fire.” That’s when the process gets complicated.

First of all, getting the distillation equipment is a pain in the ass, “We used to use a copper serpentine. Normally, we would take it from a drinking fountain. All of a sudden the serpentine from the director’s office was gone, and nobody knew where to. After they found it they’d hide it in another place, but you’d always find ways to get it,” Twin told us.

Then he warned us about one of the biggest risks of the homemade booze-maker: “You have to strain the liquid very thoroughly before heating it, because what comes out and becomes liquor is the vapor. You have to keep watching it throughout the process, and if it a little piece of fruit gets clogged in it, it becomes a pressure cooker with no air outlet and it’s likely to explode. I’ve seen many people lose all of the skin on their chest. I used to work in the infirmary, if I heard an explosion I’d say, ‘get the stretcher because there’s someone coming down.’ Once, there was an explosion during visiting hours--during those hours nobody checks on what the inmates are doing. It’s hard to explode these things if the person is careful—if it’s dripping, it’s all good. But this day the man was by himself in his shack and he got distracted for a second. He went to unclog the serpentine and boom! The recipient’s lid carved another mouth on his face, all that boiling sugared water got in his clothes. You can only imagine how fucked up he got. We took him to Hall 4, did all the first-aid, but everyday afterwards is just suffering for him. You have to extract the dead skin, rub it with hydrogen peroxide. It’s horrible, the liquor is not worth that.”

The distillation part was indeed fucked up. Issac and Twin estimated that out of 200 liters of the fermented liquid you could get 20 liters of pure liquor. Aside from the mess of the process, the whole apparatus is too big to hide. “You couldn’t hide it when there were inspections, and if you got caught you’d get 30 days in solitary,” he said. “But that was jail whiskey, way stronger than any other liquor out there. It’s not for everyone, a quarter liter of it was around R$100, so you can imagine it’s not for everyone, it’s only for those who have some money… for those who left something outside, and for those who actually prepare it. The latter had the privilege to have a big bottle of it at home. If anyone knew that you were preparing it they would come to you and ask for some of it, or sometimes they would even help you get all the ingredients, so they could get some of the first distillation--the first one is the best, then it gets weaker. But it wasn’t for everyone, no. There was way cheaper and easier shit to use.”

Now officially drunk, we thanked them, said goodbye, and headed back to São Paulo, where, some days later, we tried distilling the thing. Developing our own suburban-safe version of the rustic process, we bought our own copper serpentine, a pressure cooker, and epoxy mass. We drilled a hole in the lid, fixed the serpentine through it, sealed it with the epoxy mass, and it was ready. We didn’t strain the fermented liquid with a sock (that’s how they do it in the hole), but we used a piece of cloth, making sure that nothing solid would be heated.

We heated it as low as possible, the cooker was even halfway out of the stove, and soon our liquor started dripping. Despite it’s fruity taste (and smell), that was the strongest shit I have ever put in my mouth. I got fucked up instantly. We didn’t measure the alcohol content of it, because I think we would have shit our pants if we knew it. That’s how it happened and, well, you really shouldn’t try this home.