Frequently Asked Questions
When we started our push to legalize home distilling, we learned right off the bat that there are a lot of misconceptions about the hobby. So we've put together a list of some of the most common questions people ask us about hobby distilling, with topics ranging from safety concerns to taxes to "criminal Moonshiners" and beyond.
What is hobby distilling?
Hobby distilling is a recreational activity for people who legally make beer, wine, or other fermented beverages, and then use that beer or wine to make a distilled spirit.
Isn’t hobby distilling already permitted?
No. Although hobbyists are allowed to make beer and wine, current laws prohibit hobbyists from using their beer and wine to make a distilled spirit.
What is distilling?
Distilling is a process that increases the concentration of alcohol. Basically, you warm beer or wine until it makes a vapor, then you cool the vapor so it becomes a liquid again. The cooled liquid (the spirit) will then have a higher concentration of alcohol.
If that’s all you’re doing, then why is it prohibited?
Hobby distilling is currently prohibited because many of the existing laws that were written during the prohibition era (1920 to 1933) were never updated. During that time, there was a national ban on the sale, production and transportation of alcohol as mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to The Constitution of the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in December of 1933, but many of the laws and regulations were never changed.
Then why are you allowed to make beer and wine, but not spirits?
No one knows for sure. But many people believe that beer and wine were simply more popular when some of the laws were updated. Winemaking was permitted when prohibition was repealed in 1933. Then in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law that permitted hobbyists to make beer without paying taxes or posting bonds that took effect in 1979. That’s what prompted most states to update their own beer and wine laws. In some states making beer and wine as a hobby only recently became legal . For example, until July 1, 2013 it was still illegal to make beer or wine in Mississippi.
You mentioned taxes. Won’t the government lose money if hobby distilling is permitted?
Not at all. The beer and wine used by hobbyists are already exempt from taxes. There isn’t anything new for the government to tax.
Do any other countries allow hobby distilling?
Yes. New Zealand changed its laws to permit hobby distilling in 1996.
Don’t home made spirits make you go blind?
This is a very common misconception that is due to a practice commonly employed by prohibition era moonshiners and bootleggers: that of adding methanol (methyl alcohol) to previously distilled spirits. This nefarious practice was used to increase profits by increasing the volume of illicit spirits with the much less expensive and widely available methanol. The intentional use of such contaminants within the hobby distilling community, which is motivated by quality rather than profit, simply does not occur.
But isn’t there still some methanol in spirits?
Yes. Methanol occurs naturally in foods, beverages, and even in the human body. It is found in most fruit and vegetable juices as well as in beer, wine and even soft drinks. However, in small naturally occurring amounts, methanol poses no significant health risks. Most people don’t realize that a liter of orange juice can contain more methanol than ten liters of bourbon! In New Zealand, where hobby distilling has been legal for almost 18 years there hasn’t been a single reported case of methanol poisoning due to hobby distilling.
What about explosions and fires?
We’re not sure where this misconception originated, but it may be related to accidents caused by pressure cookers and turkey fryers. Pressure cookers are sealed units (not open to the atmosphere) which is why they must employ one or more pressure relief valves. However, a distillation unit (still) is designed to be open to the atmosphere at all times. The risk of an explosion does not exist under such conditions.Based on statistics gathered by the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Data Center, the primary causes of residential building fires are cooking, heating system malfunction, electrical malfunction, and carelessness, which account for over 60% of all residential fires. Cooking, by a large margin, is the leading cause and accounts for over 45% of all residential fires of known cause. Basically, human behavior is responsible for an overwhelming majority of cooking fires, not the contents of the pot or pan.Hobby distilling falls squarely into the cooking category as it amounts to little more than warming a liquid and cooling its vapor. It most closely resembles the process of steaming vegetables or seafood. Distilling within the home is no less safe than boiling a pot full of potatoes.
What about the show “Moonshiners?” Aren’t you doing the same thing?
Heavens no! The people you see on the show “Moonshiners” are criminals that are motivated by greed and profit. They make hundreds of gallons of illicit alcohol, and then sell that alcohol for the sole purpose of making money.
Then what makes a hobbyist any different than the people we see on “Moonshiners?”
Hobbyists are simply engaging in a safe, fun and interesting recreational activity. They do not sell the spirits they produce, so they are not motivated by profits. A typical hobbyist may produce only a few gallons of spirits each year for personal and family use, so they seek quality and perfection, much like the people who bake or cook for a hobby.
So what’s the problem? Don’t the laws treat hobbyists and moonshiners differently?
Unfortunately, no. Based on existing laws, there is no difference between a hobby distiller and a criminal moonshiner. The very same penalties that apply to a criminal who makes and sells hundreds of gallons of illicit alcohol also apply to the hobbyist who occasionally makes a liter of brandy to enjoy only with his family.
That doesn’t sound fair. What laws need to be changed?
Only a few small changes to the Internal Revenue Code are necessary – basically the same changes that currently permit a hobbyist to make beer and wine.
How can I help legalize hobby distilling?
Visit the Hobby Distiller’s Association website (www.hobbydistillersassociation.org) and offer your support.