Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Home Brewing Beer or Wine for Personal Use is Legal, but Home Distilling is Not, Why is This?

Home Still Available on Amazon
      “Just because someone buys a still doesn’t mean they’re out to break the law.  A lot of people are making fuel.”  And there’s the crux of the problem: Although home brewing has been legal in the United States since 1979, home distillation of spirits for consumption has remained illegal since the days of prohibition.  This is not to say that distilling is illegal.  Distilling by definition is no more than separating a liquid by first vaporizing it then condensing and collecting the vapor. It’s a great process for purifying water, convert seawater to fresh water and the method by which one creates fuel alcohol, or ethanol.   Because distilling has practical, non drinking applications, both owning and selling stills remain legal provided a few guidelines are followed.

     But the pressure is on to decriminalize non-commercial micro-distilling.  A Hobby Distillers Organization popped up this year with the express intent of modifying federal law.  Remember, federal law trumps state law, several states have moved toward legalization.   Alaska, for instance, excludes “private” manufacture of spirits from its alcohol control laws…except in quantities that exceed federal limits.   In other words, Alaska allows zero liters for home distillers.   Missouri is more explicit, asserting that “No person at least twenty-one years of age shall be required to obtain a license to manufacture intoxicating liquor…for personal or family use.”   Arizona expressly permits personal distilling of spirits such as brandy or whiskey if owners register their rigs with the state’s Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, of which no one has done so.   

     Legality aside, home distilling does carries some much-debated risks of explosion during the process and methanol poisoning from the finished product.   While the occasional home distillery tragedy generates headlines, hobby advocates assert that these risks are overstated.   “It is no less safe than frying a turkey. I think it is actually safer”.   Advocates who use the safety of the craft often focus on a competing theory for why their favorite hobby remains illegal, taxes.
    Resistance to excise taxes on spirits dates to our founding fathers. During his second term, President George Washington imposed an excise tax on all spirits, a decision that didn’t go down smoothly with the farmers who just a few years earlier were fighting against centralized taxation. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion, the details of which you probably slept through during US History.
     Things haven’t changed much in this regard since 1791. The prohibitive cost of permits and excise taxes drive artisanal distillers underground.   Some find imaginative ways to skirt the law; others simply hide their stills in basements or attics.
The Basic Process of Distilling
    " Why would a hobby with risks like blindness, death, and prison time be on the uptick?"   Time Magazine’s Josh Ozersky sums it up:, “Because it’s delicious. Because it’s illegal. And because it’s cool.”  That coolness comes from the craft’s outsider, non-mainstream nature. Ozersky compares the “white whiskey” revolution to the rise of food trucks, bloggers, and “yahoos” suffering from the delusion that they know better how to run a municipality than do seasoned politicians.   “The moonshine revolution, in other words, is utterly a part of the libertarian mood of the times”.   “And if its illegality adds an excitement of rebellion to the pleasure of making something good all by yourself, then so much the better.”

     This is an interesting dilemma, just like different people like different types of alcoholic beverages, some people like to make their own from scratch.  This includes choosing the basic materials to ferment, yeast to get a specific flavor, watch the fermentation process bubbling away, to the final step of distillation and tasting the product.  Following well documented instructions and using the proper equipment to distill with, it can be a s safe as any other type of cooking.  As a distiller at a rum company, I understand the safety issues, but I don't understand the discrimination between the two types of making alcoholic beverages at home.