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SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Learning the secrets of the Dark Corner

Posted 9/6/2013 1:23:00 PM

As a former full-time journalist, I must confess that I am very familiar with the kinds of alcohol people drink.

From beer and wine to whiskey and vodka to tequila (never again), gin and Scotch (not my cup of spirits) and moonshine (it will curl your nose hairs).

So I thought I knew it all and would not need to take notes during distillery class at the Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville. Ha! I scribbled through six pages of scrap paper I found in my purse.

Here are a few highlights of things I did not previously know about distilled spirits:

* Liquor is distilled from a form of beer. It’s not beer that you would want to drink, but it is a beer nonetheless.

* The first part of a distillation is methanol. Do not drink it.

* The second part of a distillation is acetone. Do not drink it.

* After that is the good ethanol stuff that you want to capture.

* The fourth part of a distillation is propanol (tastes like rubbing alcohol). Do not drink it.

* The last part of a distillation is called “mop water.” Do I have to say it?

You determine the alcohol by volume with a hydrometer, which works on the principle of liquid density. Water is 0 and “absolute alcohol” is about 98 percent alcohol – think Everclear. The proof is about twice the percentage of alcohol. 

For example, Everclear – a brand name of grain-neutral alcohol – is 190 proof. That is about 95 percent alcohol. Most commercial liquors (vodka, gin, bourbon) are 80 proof – that’s about 40 percent alcohol by volume. Liqueurs – such as amaretto, cordials and schnapps – are 30-60 proof or 15 percent to 30 percent alcohol. Wines are typically no more than 14 percent alcohol while beers range from 3 percent to 10 percent alcohol.

That brings me to another thing I didn’t know about alcohol: Distillers reduce the alcohol content of liquor the same way we do at home – by adding water.

Now, I will stop telling you all the things I learned in class – not because we had to taste all stages of the distillation and I am still trying to forget what mop water tastes like – but because you should sign up for one of the monthly classes yourself.

Dark Corner’s chief distiller John Wilcox is a delight to spend the day with. He knows and obviously loves his craft. It is contagious.

Classes start at 9 a.m., last about six hours and include lunch at a nearby sandwich shop. You get to stir the brew before it is yeasted and can help “feed” the still. You also will learn a lot of things you didn’t know about distilled spirits. (I didn’t tell you everything.)

After you have completed the class and bottled, labeled and sealed your complimentary hooch, you are invited upstairs to the tasting area, where you can sample all Dark Corner’s offerings from bourbon to absinthe. Just a note here: If you do not like liquorice, you probably won’t like absinthe, which cannot be consumed without a “mixer.” Here, they put a small bit of absinthe in a glass and drizzle ice water over a sugar cube and into the glass. It looks cool, in an alchemy kind of way, but since I have spent most of my life avoiding liquorice, it did not sit well on my taste buds.

The details: Dark Corner Distillery, in Greenville’s beautiful downtown, just celebrated its second anniversary. Founded by engineer Joe Fenten (who looks too young to even be in a liquor store), the distillery is the only operation in the Southeast that makes and bottles absinthe. Classes are $195 per person. Wilcox, an artist who hails from Alaska, loves his work and it is infectious. But as he very clearly tells you at the beginning of class: You cannot legally distill spirits in your own home. Plus with an open flame and all that alcohol, it is not safe unless you really know what you are doing. They’re at 241 N. Main St., Greenville, (864) 631-1144.

Side note: About that name, Dark Corner. Apparently, South Carolina statesman and U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun failed to sell the idea of a state’s right to nullify federal laws to folks who lived in the northeast corner of Greenville County, where the Appalachian Mountains touch the foothills. He said “the bright light of nullification will never shine in that dark corner of South Carolina.” It is in this corner along with the other side of the North Carolina state line where moonshining flourished after the Civil War, when the federal government put a tax on distilled spirits, and during prohibition when liquor was outlawed completely. Some say the practice continues today. Distillery founder Fenten hails from this area and named his business as an homage to his roots.

And finally: Wilcox points out that true “moonshine” is by definition illegally made spirits distilled by the light of the moon to avoid “revenuers.” While the distillery bottles and sells a “moonshine” liquor, there is nothing illegal about Dark Corner’s operations.