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Jason Sanders knows that making moonshine is a federal offense and can land one in trouble.
Still, when the 47-year-old Murray chef was laid off in the early days of the pandemic, he used his free time to practice this illicit hobby.
It was an outlaw move that paid off when Sanders defeated two other amateur spirit makers on a recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners: Master Distiller.”
The prize for winning the reality-show competition will be a limited run — and a percentage of profits — of his winning lemon grass and ginger gin. “Even people who don’t like gin,” Sanders said, “will like this one.”
It’s unlikely that any of the 3,000 bottles that will be produced at Sugarlands Distilling Co. in Tennessee — where the show is filmed — will ever make it to Utah.
But Sanders gets to keep the rights to his original recipe, just in case he ever opens a legal distillery of his own, which is something he’d like to do.
Born and reared in Utah, Sanders was a home brewer for about 15 years. “Then, about five years ago,” he said, “the interest morphed into distilling.”
Since then he has made small batches of whisky, vodka, rum and bourbon in an undisclosed location. “I don’t do it at my house,” he said, “but I can’t say where I do it.”
Sanders said he might be a “unicorn” in Utah. “I’ve heard of people making [home] spirits, but I’ve never actually met anyone who is doing it.”
Of course, talking could get you in trouble.
Under federal law, U.S. residents are prohibited from making high-proof spirits outside of a commercially licensed setting. It is legal to own a still and use it for distilling water, perfume or essential oils.
There are several reasons for this national distilling ban — namely that alcohol vapors and heat sources when not managed properly can explode. And no one wants that to happen in the neighborhood.
Filming “Master Distillers” is legal — as the three-round competition takes place inside a licensed facility.
Sanders won the first round of the “Gin Craze” episode with his traditional London Dry. The victory allowed him to get first pick of the produce needed in the second round, when a modern gin was required. Sanders created a peach gin that was jokingly called “a cure for the COVID.”
In a series first, no one was eliminated from the second round, and all three contestants advanced to the finals, where they made a signature gin.
For Sanders, that was his lemon grass and ginger spirit. It was infused with the traditional botanicals of juniper and coriander, but with an Asian twist that included cassia twig and cinnamon.
“As a chef,” he said, “those flavors just worked in my head.”
The judges — Mark, Digger and Tim of Discovery’s “Moonshiners” — also were impressed, using words like “interesting,” “balanced” and “makes you want to buy a second and third bottle.”
That’s good news for an outlaw distiller who’d like to be legal one day.