America is enjoying its greatest DIY movement in decades. Knitting, gardening, preserving and home brewing all are enjoying tremendous popularity. “Farm to fork” is the new hipster mantra. Also enjoying a revival: spirits, both straight and combined into classic cocktails. Put that all together and shake vigorously and what do you get? The rising popularity of home distilling.
Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course, adds that distilling is a logical, if illegal, outgrowth of home brewing:
Beer and whiskey are basically cousins that have grown up differently. Once home brewers make that connection, it’s a short leap to trying your hand at home distilling. As home brewers have discovered, there’s no limit to the variety of beers one can make. Home distillers, too, are realizing there’s an endless variety of flavors that have scarcely been scratched in the spirits world.
Supply companies like Hillbilly Stills, Moonshine Distiller, and Clawhammer Supply abound online, and the Discovery Channel series Moonshiners is entering its fourth season. Austin Homebrew Supply’s Chris Ellison told NPR earlier this year that they see an uptick in sales with each season’s premiere and finale. In the same article, a spokesperson for Hillbilly Stills notes that “Just that 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, for example, and the method by which one creates fuel alcohol, or ethanol. Because distilling has practical, non-ingestible 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, and although federal law trumps state law, several states have moved toward legalization. Matt Rowley reports in a Whisky Advocate article reprinted on the Hobby Distillers Organization site:
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. According to DLLC, however, none has done so.
Legality aside, home distilling carries the 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,” says Josh Bayne, founder of the Craft Distilling Academy.
Advocates who espouse 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.
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 of a piece with the libertarian mood of the times,” he writes. “And if its illegality adds a frisson of rebellion to the pleasure of making something good all by yourself, then so much the better.”