Communion Of Dreams

Finding the essence.
January 17, 2011, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

* * * * * * *

Distillation. I’ve known the theory since at least grade school, and had read up a bit on the applications used in alchemy and then later to produce various alcoholic spirits. It can be very simple or exceedingly elaborate, from a basic alembic to industrial production. Here’s an image of the set up my friends used:

What you see there is an all copper still. On the left is the reaction vessel where all the stuff to be distilled goes. Vapor rises from this as it is heated, passes through the copper tube to the vessel on the right. That’s actually a coil of copper tubing inside a bucket, which you fill with cold water and ice. The light colored globby bits are a simple paste made from rye flour and water and used to seal the joints to minimize leakage. The still is resting on bricks over a woodfire in a friend’s kiln.

* * * * * * *

Years back, after I closed the gallery and started caring for Martha Sr at home, I started spending more time participating in political forums. It was an outlet for me as I tried to find some balance in life – a way to keep my mind active and alert, but without the same level of demands as trying to work on conservation projects or creative writing.

As the care-giving became more demanding, I found myself even more involved on one forum in particular – it gave me a kind of community, a form of support. Eventually I began sharing my blogging about being a care provider for someone with Alzheimer’s there, and that led to meeting GreyHawk and eventually to writing Her Final Year.

I spent a lot of time writing for the site – many of the items here tagged “Daily Kos” actually started as things I wrote for that site and then decided to cross post here. It helped me keep my sanity, and gave me a forum for exploring ideas which I knew would get a decent amount of feedback. A writer likes to have readers.

* * * * * * *

They started with two five-liter boxes of wine. The idea is that you have to make a conditioning run to clean off all the copper surfaces. It also gives you a chance to see how the whole thing operates, and to learn from a small batch.

The biggest problem was with controlling the heat on the still. The initial plan had been to use a propane burner, but the one purchased to go with the still was European, and it was discovered that there weren’t the necessary adapters readily available to hook it up to American propane tanks. This was a shame, because it meant that it would be difficult to achieve the correct level of heat over a wood fire in an impromptu oven. But my friends have experience in doing such things, and pretty soon they sorted out the right combination of brick configuration, draw, and amount of firewood to get the necessary control.

The other downside was that the use of the kiln meant we needed to be outside. In January. In Iowa. For hours and hours. The woodfire did give off heat, of course, but it also gave off smoke, so you wanted to keep your distance a bit. And we were working with water and ice, as it was necessary to change the water in the condensation vessel regularly.

* * * * * * *

I mentioned getting back to work on the prequel to Communion of Dreams the other day. There’s still a ton of research I have to do, but in the process of the drive I was able to sort out some basic ideas – to narrow down the essential metaphor of the book, as it were. This establishes a framework for building the rest of the book, gives it form and definition.

* * * * * * *

After the conditioning run, it was time for the first real batch. After dumping out the previous residual mess (which stunk to high heaven) and a quick rinsing, the reaction vessel was filled with about 20 liters of red wine, placed back on the heat. The rest of the still apparatus was put in place, and sealed. Water was added to the condensation vessel.

It takes a while to get that much liquid up to temperature. But after a while you start to hear a low rumble, a sort of gurgling. The first vapors to be condensed are called the “heads” – these are volatiles that you don’t actually want to save, since it contains things like methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”, the stuff that’ll make you blind). But you can tell that the distillate contains these impurities because of the color and cloudiness. Once the stream starts to run clear, you can save it. This is traditionally called the “hearts” of distillation. Towards the end, you get more bitter flavors and an almost oily taste – these are called the “tails” and once they start to show up you stop that batch. Altogether you get about 10% yield of alcohol – say about two liters.

* * * * * * *

In recent months, I’ve noticed that I’ve put less time into writing items for Daily Kos. Looking at the things which I have cross posted here, I see that increasingly I’ve written them for this site, and then decided to post them over there (only I would know this, it’s almost impossible to tell from reading the pieces).

This is neither good nor bad. I think partly it is a simple matter of my being more busy with my own actual work – getting CoD ready for publication, getting HFY ready for submission. And partly it has been because as I’ve continued the long recovery from being a care provider, I have found myself more outgoing, less reliant on the support that I found in that political forum.

And to a certain extent I think I have become . . . bored. So many of the discussions have become repetitive, almost redundant.

Now I have a new book brewing. Other projects I am considering. It’s time to concentrate interests a bit – to find what is essential.

* * * * * * *

Five batches, all told. Total of about 8 hours from start to finish. Went through about 120 liters of box wine, distilled down to about two gallons of alcohol.

That two gallons was poured into a small barrel, bunged close.

We tested the batches as they poured out of the still, but only in very small amounts – a few drops on a finger. The alcohol bite was there, sharp and raw. But there was also a taste of the grape, some of the flavor of the wine.

Now that product will age in the barrel, becoming mellower, interacting with the charred wood. Because of the relative surface area, a small barrel like that accelerates the aging process by a factor of ten – meaning that in six months it’ll be like the liquor tastes 5 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes.

* * * * * * *

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

And that gave me a metaphor I had been searching for, in more ways than one.

Jim Downey

(Thanks to Wendy for the image, and to all my friends for welcoming me into their project at a late date.)

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I’m guessing you were up at Jim’s place – cold! Looks fun though!

Comment by Joe

Ayup, on all counts.

Comment by James Downey

[…] still almost nothing in the file I opened last week. But as I noted the other day, the weekend trip to Iowa gave me a chance to sort some things out. Since then, I […]

Pingback by “What’s it about?” « Communion Of Dreams

[…] to the surface, as I am now with working out all the characters, setting, plot, et cetera for the prequel to Communion of Dreams. It’s like the barrier between the conscious and subconscious parts of […]

Pingback by I blame the Prednisone. « Communion Of Dreams

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