VERMILLION, S.D. -- Mention the word moonshine, and images of a hillbilly concocting "corn squeezings" in some rusty kettle deep in the woods come to mind.
Well, Nate Brady is pretty clean-cut. His rural Vermillion home sits next to a busy county road. The equipment he uses to distill his own spirits is stainless steel.
Brady says he has one thing in common with the moonshiners of days gone by, though. Their goal was to make high-quality booze, and they took great pride in their products. Brady is the same way.
"This isn't something I'm going to get rich on, but I really want to make a good product," Brady said.
Through years of Internet research, trial and error and honing his smell and taste, Brady has produced rum and vodka that he's proud to market commercially, selling his Dakota dark and light rums and vodka through a Sioux Falls distributor.
It's satisfying to actually earn a little income off of what's been a longtime interest, Brady said, but not as satisfying as it is to continue to learn and hone his craft.
"It's about making a product off your own labor," said Brady, a full-time computer server manager at the University of South Dakota.
Brady holds one of about 460 distiller licenses in the United States. The federal taxes and fees he must pay are worth the peace of mind he got for being able to legally build and tinker with a still until he was able to produce up to 60 gallons of nearly pure ethanol at a time.
"My main goal was to make beverage alcohol. To do it without having to go to jail was a bonus," he said.
Before he was filling the fine bottles with spirits worthy of public consumption, Brady tried just about everything. When he was 17, using the shower in the basement of his family's Mt. Vernon, S.D., home for a laboratory, he combined baker's yeast and honey to create mead, a honey wine. He bottled it in milk jugs.
"It was awful, every last drink," Brady said.
He kept trying, kept experimenting. There were fruit wines, then beer. Part of his interest was practical. What college guy doesn't want a cheaper source of high-quality alcohol? But it was more than that. The science was fascinating. Plus, he was a little bit stubborn about it.
"If somebody else could do it, why couldn't I?" he said. "It's simple science that's been around for 5,000 years."
He moved from beer onto distilling spirits. His work was made a little easier in 2007, when the South Dakota Legislature created an artisan distiller's license that allows producers to make beverage alcohol as long as they use 30 percent South Dakota products. Well, there's plenty of corn around, and Brady distills grapes provided by Vermillion's Valiant Vineyards, for whom he also does custom distilling.
Someday, perhaps, Brady said, he'll take the plunge and make distilling fine alcohol his main occupation. For now, he'll keep it small. He knows there's always going to be a market for what he produces.
"Alcohol will always sell," he said.
Just as Brady will be always be tinkering with his still, smelling, tasting what comes out of it in the ongoing quest for perfection.