I grew up in Prince Edward Island with a guy named Merle.* A few years prior to his wedding, Merle, a seventh-generation islander, got drunk on shine and ended up chasing his future wife around the house with a shotgun.
Shine can do that to a person, though.
The wedding didn't happen for a few years after the incident, and when it finally did, the traditional moonshine punch was scratched off the menu. Moonshine punch almost always appears at weddings and funerals here—it's simply a part of life. People make it for their own use and to share with friends and family.
The culture of moonshine is strong in poor, rural Canadian areas where people are used to making everything from scratch, cherish a healthy disrespect for politics and the law, and have plenty of acreage to work in total obscurity.
"Even though Prohibition was in place from 1881 until 1949, people could still access alcohol— either by smuggling it in or making it themselves," island historian and UPEI professor Ed MacDonald tells me. "For much of that history, it wasn't that hard to get a drink if they wanted one—it was just illegal. To make shine was a way of thumbing your nose at authority."
Most Americans associate the white lightning booze with the deep South, but in Canada, we think of the East Coast's stills churning out moonshine.
Prince Edward Island is Canada's smallest province. Nicknamed "Spud Island" for its incredible potatoes, famous blue mussels, and fictional literary heroine, Anne of Green Gables, our beaches and golf courses are some of the best in the country. It also happens to be the last province to repeal Prohibition. Most of Canada turned the taps back on in the 20s, but our island stayed dry until 1948. Keeping alcohol illegal for Islanders almost 20 years longer than the rest of the country became a driving force of dedication to making homemade booze.
I had my first sip of shine from a Mason jar in tenth grade. It was our go-to when my girlfriends and I couldn't scrape together enough cash for a pint of vodka or lemon gin. There were always a few jars in my friend's bedroom closet, so we'd sneak one and hitchhike to the nearest field party. The moonshine tasted terrible and it didn't get you drunk so much as blotto, violent, and sort of stoned. It was like a several-day bender on bad tequila. We'd mix it with Sprite, plug our noses, shoot it back, and hope for the best.
But after a lifetime of shine, I recently realized recently that I don't know how it's made, so I headed back to PEI in search of a moonshiner who could take me through the process.
We are looking for a dirt road, unmarked except by a mailbox, leading into the woods. We wind along the road, passing red dirt fields of leafy potato plants. When we pull up to the house, a moonshiner named Wyatt* is out front chopping wood. He wipes the sawdust from his brow and comes over to invite us in.
"I started out making my own beer, and after that I got interested in making homemade wine. I don't think I even tried shine until I'd made my own," he explains as he brings me over to the still. There are packages of sugar laid out, indicating what would be needed for one batch of mash, which will then be distilled into a batch of shine.
Wyatt's a second-generation Islander, but he's taken to this place with a passion. He's been making moonshine for over 15 years. He admits that he first began doing it as a way to make cheap alcohol, but then the process began to interest him. He started reading more about it and then built his own still from directions he found online.
"People used to make their mash with raisins or brown sugar. Molasses was big on the island, too. They were just using regular bread yeast or wild yeast, but now you can use this super-yeast, which can withstand higher degrees of alcohol," Wyatt explains. "That's the purpose of this yeast, to make as high a concentration of mash as possible, before you distill it."
To make the mash, eight kilos of sugar, five gallons of water, and two packages of super yeast are mixed together and left to ferment over five to seven days. Fully clear, it smells a little yeasty when it is placed into the still. A flame goes on underneath it and the lid is sealed tight. Wyatt uses a distillation column still rather than the traditional pot still, which is a pot with a copper line coming off it that is set in a sink of cold water.
"The pot still is a fine system," he says, "but it's a little more difficult to get a pure product coming out. It's harder to control the temperature."
With Wyatt's still, the mash heats up and the alcohol starts to vaporize. The vapours travel up through the column, which is filled with marbles. As the vapors hit the marbles, they and condense to fall back down. Gradually the column and the marbles get hot enough that the alcohol stays vaporized. The vapours then go all the way up to the top and touch the tip of an oven thermometer, which connects to a copper wire that branches off the column. "That is so I can get a temperature reading before it goes around this bend into the copper wire." The copper wire has a jacket of water around it. This water cools the vapour in the tube and turns it to liquid as it travels down the inner wire. The thermometer is set up at this exact spot so Wyatt can tell the precise temperature that the distillate is at before it drips out into the Mason jar he has set up to catch the moonshine.
"The 'low ends' come out first," he tells me. "This is the stuff that can blind you—it's over 90 percent methyl alcohol. We throw that away." Out of ten gallons, this methyl alcohol only makes up about four ounces. Wyatt claims that moonshine is a much healthier drink than beer or wine because of this disposal of the "low ends."
"When you're drinking beer and wine there are trace amounts of methyl alcohol being consumed," he says. "When distilling shine yourself you can get rid of that poison."
After that has run through he gives the jar a rinse and brings the temperature up. At around 80 degrees Celsius the distillate begins to drip through. This is proper moonshine. An alcoholometer measures the exact alcohol content. "This still produces a product that is 93 percentage," Wyatt says, noting that with a traditional pot still you'd need to run it through a few times to get the shine to that concentration.
"After you get the proper ethyl alcohol coming through, the temperature will rise again and the 'high ends' come out," says Wyatt. "Those are not as desirable—they are supposed to be responsible for the hangover—so we throw those out too." He explains that in commercial alcohols the "high ends" are often also included in the finished product. "This is just a healthier drink. I also really like the moonshine buzz."
He pulls out some moonshine in a repurposed Scotch bottle. The smell is not nearly as unpleasant as the shine of my youth—it was often so harsh, just a sniff would elicit a gasp. Wyatt's is mellower and softer, with none of the notes of gasoline I'm used to.
The end result is a gallon and a half of 93 percent moonshine. Once it is diluted, that becomes more than three gallons of 40 percent alcohol. Total cost? Fifty bucks.
It's not surprising that Islanders continue to make their own.
*Names were changed to protect identities.