Fill 'er up with moonshine

  • Chris Myles with a souped-up New York City cab he hopes to fuel with homemade ethanol

    JONATHAN THOMPSON
  • The still Myles made for $350 from plans he found on the Internet

    JONATHAN THOMPSON
 
  • Name Chris Myles
  • Age 51
  • Vocation A chronic volunteer, he’s studying to become a paramedic and makes homemade classic guitars.
  • Known for Attempting to distill homebrewed ethanol
  • On what brought him to Silverton “The blue skies here are like nothing I’d ever seen before. You get clear days in the Midwest but there is always a little haze in the air. This is the freshest air in the continuous 48. And, I can’t drink the water in St. Louis (his hometown) anymore; I may as well be drinking ethanol. I’ve become a bit of a snob.”
  • He says “It never crossed my mind to try and save a lot of money off this project. In fact, I’ll probably lose money and just chalk it up to a hobby. I think the first step is people making it in the backyard if we are going to do this. We can’t depend on Exxon and ADM because they still have a lot of oil to sell.”

Tucked up against a snow-covered hillside in a grove of aspen trees, Chris Myles’ Silverton, Colo., home is a strange combination of mountain retreat and auto shop. The view from the front porch is dominated by 13,000-foot Kendall Mountain. Along the street are three Saab cars, a Dodge pickup, a BMW motorcycle and what looks like a taxi on steroids — a New York City cab made mountain-ready by putting it on a truck chassis.

Before winter’s end, Myles hopes that at least some of these vehicles will be powered by ethanol, or grain alcohol. But he has no intention of relying on the 100 or so ethanol bio-refineries currently operating in the United States. A slender man with wispy grey hair poking out from under the edges of his cap, Myles plans to make his own ethanol, moonshine-style.

This self-described “sixties left-winger” first heard about ethanol during the oil crisis of the late ’70s. But it wasn’t until gasoline prices recently shot up again that he decided to try to brew ethanol himself. He ordered plans off the Internet for $20, then spent $350 on materials — mostly copper pipe. Then he spent some “$9 million worth of my own labor” fashioning the still.

For now, the almost-6-foot-tall still — a compact copper column with several protruding spouts — sits against a table in his workshop. Eventually, the mash — a mixture of corn, water and yeast — will be heated in a 50-gallon drum connected to the still by hoses. The final location of the contraption is still in doubt, however, thanks in part to Silverton’s severe climate.

“I was dumb enough to think the hardest part would be putting the still together,” says Myles, his voice picking up speed and volume. “But I overlooked the fact that I live in a place that — for months at a time — it doesn’t get above freezing. When I was envisioning this in my mind, it was always me doing this out in my driveway.”

But as winter set in, the search for a warmer location began. Myles is considering using one bay of his garage, where two partially disassembled cars now sit. He’d like to save energy and effort by cooking the mash in the same wood-burning stove that heats his house. But that would require upgrading his stove, which currently sits in the shop where he does woodworking and makes furniture and guitars.

Wherever the still ends up, Myles looks forward to using his first batch of the finished product: 198-proof ethanol. He hopes to make enough fuel to get him over the mountain roads to Durango for the weekly paramedic classes he’s taking. That will require about 27 gallons per week, or about nine hours of distilling, although over time, he hopes to make the process more efficient. Myles adds that he has no intention of sampling anything from his still: “There is a reason moonshine was called rotgut whiskey.”

Unwittingly, Myles has joined a sort of homegrown fuel-making revolution. It took three months for the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to process his distilling permit because the agency has been overwhelmed by similar applications — it has issued some 1,500 permits to small-production ethanol distillers. That’s heartening to Myles, who hopes to inspire others not only to be independent from foreign oil, but also from giant ethanol-producing corporations.

“I’ve always been a compulsive volunteer,” Myles says, scratching his white chin stubble. “Show me a good cause and I’ll jump right in. I saw the oil crisis as a problem that wasn’t going away. So I said to myself, ‘OK, get off your ass.’ So now I want to spread the word about how to do this.”

 

The author, a former HCN intern, now writes from Denver, Colorado.

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