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The Master: Can You Really Make Booze Out of Paint Thinner?

If you walked into The Master wondering if it would answer questions about Scientology, you may have left with new ones about moonshine. In Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, emotionally unhinged World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes an unlikely disciple of spiritual guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Freddie initially wins Dodd over with a unique gift: moonshine, manufactured from odds and ends (including paint thinner) found aboard Dodd's yacht. Throughout the film, we also see Freddie distill alcohol aboard a navy vessel, on a cabbage farm, and in a photo lab, each time creating the hooch from available materials. Curious about the plausibility of this hobby, we called up Colin Spoelman, who makes handcrafted (and legal) moonshine at the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. As it turns out, Spoelman worked on The Master, in an indirect sort of way: When the production crew decided to make their own moonshine, they gave him a call. 

So you didn't consult on the film itself, but you helped the crew make moonshine?
I had a friend of a friend who was in the art department, and I think they were trying to make moonshine on their own in the production room, and they were unsuccessful, and they wanted somebody who knew what they were doing. It's actually hard to find somebody who knows how to make moonshine, because it's illegal and nobody will admit that they know how. But because I had gone legal and turned what had been a moonshine operation into a legitimate distillery, I kind of helped them.

I'm interested in your professional take on the ways that Joaquin Phoenix made moonshine in the film. Let's start with the naval ship, where it looked like he was tapping into a torpedo.
Torpedoes, from what I understand, had motors in them that were fueled with ethanol, the most common type of alcohol. It's what we drink, and it's the same type of alcohol that you can use in your car, so historically, it's been used for fuel. But to make sure that people don't drink it, the government would often denature the alcohol by including methanol with it, which poisons it. It's a way for them to separate out food grade ethanol from industrial ethanol. But chemically, they are the same. During Prohibition, the government did the same thing, and when you hear about people going blind from bootleg alcohol, generally that's what it refers to: traces of methanol that were added to increase the toxicity of the alcohol.

But because the methanol has a lower boiling point, if you were just to boil it and then condense it back down with a really simple mechanism, you could re-separate out the methanol. He's not really making alcohol so much as recovering it from another source. And that did happen. There's even a name for it: "Torpedo juice."

So how did he make whiskey in the photo lab?
I looked for photo chemicals to see what was used in processing, and nothing really jumped out at me as something that would be similar to ethanol, or involving ethanol. One thing that I think is used in photo processing is acetic acid, which can sometimes be a byproduct of fermentation, such as when your wine goes bad and turns into vinegar. But it's not toxic per se; it's really just vinegar. So maybe that was like a flavoring agent, to give it a little kick? I don't know, but then, I don't know as much about photo processing. I'm guessing that Paul [Thomas Anderson] did research and has a pretty good precedent for that; I just didn't personally find it.

How about the migrant farm?
So that's the one that's most credible, because you can generally ferment anything organic, or anything with sugar in it. So I'm guessing he was just on a farm surrounded by fruits and vegetables, and just making a really conventional moonshine, probably from fruit. I mean, it would be hard to make it from cabbage, but not impossible.

Let's talk about the stuff he made aboard the boat. It definitely had paint thinner in it.
Right. The paint thinner is pretty plausible. There are a lot of different things you can use as a paint thinner: acetone (which is more commonly nail polish remover) is a pretty common one. I don't know how toxic it is if you were just to drink your nail polish remover. But there are other paint thinner ingredients, like mineral spirits, that are very toxic, and if you consumed enough of them you would kill yourself. I guess if you consumed a very small amount of them, you might make yourself dizzy and delirious; sort of like being drunk, but more on the way to death. The paint thinner at that time could have been an organic solvent compound, so that one is very credible.

He grabbed bottled liquors too. Is that something that people do, combining other alcohol with the moonshine?
Generally, people tend to fall sort of on the side of one or the other. If you're a distiller, you don't do a whole lot of mixology because you're into the primacy of what you're distilling. But on the other hand, I think it's totally credible in the world of that character. He seems interested in getting fucked up, but also making something that people find very magically delicious.

You don't get the impression that the moonshine tasted good, though. What do you think the experience of drinking that stuff would have been like?
It's a funny thing. When I have been in Kentucky around legitimate moonshine, you'll see people drink it and be like, "Omigod, that's totally awful." And then continue to consume it. [Laughs] I think if people are desperate enough or just bored enough, as is usually the case in Kentucky, they'll end up enjoying something that their body is pretty much telling them not to drink.  In Kentucky, where I'm from, it's a dry county, so a lot of people who are alcoholics will drink Listerine or rubbing alcohol. And in the era of the film, you were only twenty years after Prohibition ended. So there was still intelligence from Prohibition as to how to trick people into thinking they were drinking legitimate alcohol.

That's something I was wondering about, because the film does take place mostly in the fifties, a good twenty years after Prohibition. Why was moonshine so exciting to people like Dodd, who could buy legitimate alcohol?
It's hard for us to understand what the nostalgia for Prohibition might have been. I mean, even now there's a nostalgia for Prohibition, but I'm sure in a weird way, it was probably even stronger twenty years afterwards.

And it's probably stronger than any alcohol you could buy, right?
Well, it depends a little bit on the distiller and the equipment that he's using, but in general, it's possible to pretty easily get up to 160 proof, which is 80 percent. And then if you're using a little bit more of a complex system, you can get pretty close to 95 percent alcohol, pretty much pure alcohol. Most spirits are diluted pretty substantially by the time they get to the bottle: It comes off the still at a really high proof and for commercial purposes, everything is diluted. A moonshiner who is not necessarily interested in meeting a legal threshold, won't  spend the time to dilute it down. I mean, we sell 70 percent moonshine, little 100-milliliter bottles, like an airline bottle, and that's four drinks in one shot.

I had a college roommate who made moonshine but I never actually tried it; he made very small quantities.
It's hard to make a lot. That was one thing when I was working on The Master, they kept being like, "well, he's got a tea kettle, and he's making gallons of spirit out of it." I'm like, "Mmm, you might get a shot of spirit out of a tea kettle." Like that flask setup in the shed in the cabbage field? No way that would have produced a five-gallon glass carboy full of moonshine, unless you were working every day for several weeks. But, you know, movie magic.