Home Distilling is Popular, But is it legal?

on 10/10/14 at 11:39 am

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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:

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