Mommy’s Moonshine

After a stint in New Zealand, the art of distilling becomes a family affair.

Not to brag, but my 4-year-old son can spot a juniper bush from the backseat of a car traveling 25 miles per hour. “Look, Mommy!” he shouted as I drove him home from school the other day. “Gin!”

His botanical knowledge is a direct result of the seven months we spent in New Zealand last year. Shortly after we arrived, an American friend told me that New Zealand is one of the few countries where it’s legal to distill liquor at home. So I downloaded a 99-cent e-book on the subject and decided that it sounded simple enough.

After preschool the next day, I took my son to the local distilling supply store. We browsed the colorful rows of spice bins, inhaling the earthy aromas of fermentable grains. He dropped some small fruit candies into our basket, alongside my packets of yeast, charcoal and clearing solution. We admired the selection of shiny stills and chose a silver, idiot-proof model that looked like a Thermos coffee dispenser and cost $250. We named it Robot.

To the naysayers who will inevitably argue that no responsible mother would engage her preschooler in the craft of making hooch, I say...I see your point. But I believe that any activity we enjoy with our children has value.

When done right, distilling is perfectly safe (the rumors about blindness and flammability are overblown). It teaches basic math and chemistry, patience and collaboration. And it offers a controlled peek into a mysterious, adult world. My son now knows where cocktails come from. He understands that liquor is something grown-ups enjoy—responsibly and in small amounts. Isn’t that healthier than keeping our legal vices locked away in forbidden cabinets?

Back at home, we set up our moonshine operation in the kitchen, where my budding bootlegger pushed a step stool up to the counter so he could help. Together we read the numbers on the thermometer until the water temperature was just right. We poured it into the fermenting tank, measured out the sugar and yeast, and stirred them with a long plastic spoon.

We set the mash aside to ferment for a week, marking the end of each day with an “X” on the calendar. In the interim, we went for walks around the neighborhood, hunting for juniper bushes with ripe berries to scavenge. When the fermentation was complete, we plugged in our precious Robot and watched in awe as the droplets of distillate splashed into the collecting cup.

Finally, we filtered the liquor and funneled it into tall, clear bottles, which we stuffed with the herbs, spices and juniper berries that would turn our neutral spirit into gin.

We left the bottles to infuse on the windowsill, where the sunlight shone through them and cast rainbows on the dining room table. I poured us each a celebratory apple juice—mine neat and his “on the rocks”—and we clinked our sippy cups.

“Cheers!” he said, beaming. “Can we make cookies now?”

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