On a concrete slab in a warehouse in SoDo squats a contraption worthy of Professor Potts: a stainless steel barrel, wrapped in insulation like a diaper and topped by two long copper pipes, tubes sprawling this way and that. But don’t be fooled. This humble, even ugly, apparatus is the work of Mike McCaw, whose stills boil and steam some of the region’s hottest local moonshine at 2bar Spirits in SoDo, Oola Distillery in Capitol Hill and several other distilleries in Portland.
“My equipment is about 10 percent the cost of the big names, but it’s not pretty,” says McCaw, a former Weyerhaeuser research scientist. He spent 20 years working to reduce heat waste in pulp and paper mills before applying that experience to the hobby of making alcohol. “A still is a heat engine. You put heat in one end and take it out the other, and magical stuff happens in between,” says McCaw, who owns The Amphora Society, a distillation consulting company that he runs out of the basement workshop of his Green Lake home. His goal is to create a still that is simple to operate and offers complete control over the strength of the final product.
He doesn’t distill spirits for himself, however—and not just because in the U.S. it’s illegal to distill in your home. McCaw says he’s more interested in the intellectual challenge of the still than in making booze. “Similarly,” he says, “most luthiers—stringed instrument builders—don’t actually play their own instruments, other than to check the tone.”
NEED TO KNOW
1. Mike McCaw got his start after cowriting a how-to book about distilling. He eventually gave in to the many requests from readers asking him to build stills for them.
2. Because his stills are less expensive than some others, McCaw tends to work with smaller operations. That suits him. “The typical customer is a guy with a lot of passion and not a whole lot of capital,” he says. “Those are fun people to work with.”
3. The Amphora Society was founded in New Zealand in 1999, where home distilling is legal.
4. Wizard of Oz–style, Oola Distillery created a shiny copper-clad body with artful coils to hide McCaw’s down and dirty still.