Can You Distill Your Own Spirits?

Barrel for DistillingWouldn’t it be great to settle down in your home bar with a nice glass of homemade Scotch or bourbon? Perhaps you’ve even thought about purchasing your own distillation equipment in order to create the drink of your dreams. Yet the one thing stopping you is that you don’t know how to do it. What can you do?

For starters, you can watch a television program like the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners.”  If you pay close enough attention and take copious notes, you might be able to figure out what they’re doing in the thick forests of the Appalachians. Or you can just forget about it.

Private Distilling Is Illegal

In the United States, distilling spirits is illegal without a license and the payment of certain federal taxes. That’s true even if you’re distilling only for your own personal use. If you’d like to know more, we recommend you visit the website of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) states, in no uncertain terms, the unlawfulness of home distilling. So if you want to distill your own spirits, the first thing you’ll need to do is obtain a federal license. From there, you’ll have to install government-approved equipment and systems, have it all inspected, and be prepared to pay a tax on what you plan to produce.

Sound like lots of fun, doesn’t it? That’s why people run illegal moonshining operations in Appalachia and elsewhere. But the law is what it is. Get a license or be considered a bootlegger.

How the Feds Got Involved

You might be interested to know that distilling was considered the wild frontier prior to Prohibition. Everybody and his grandmother had a still, producing liquor from family recipes that went back generations. When Prohibition kicked in it sent all the home distilleries underground. But make no mistake; it didn’t put them out of business.

At the conclusion of Prohibition, someone in Washington had an epiphany. He realized that, once the alcohol started flowing again, America’s thirst would mean a sudden boom in production. He also figured out there was plenty of tax money to be had.

According to Potsdam University, the tax issue is the primary motivation behind the tightly regulated distilling of today. Washington wasn’t so adamant about holding onto taxation from beer and wine because it was minimal compared to hard liquor. But the high prices on distilled spirits dictated that home distilling would not be allowed.

The Process, in Theory

For educational purposes only, we’ll take you through an overview of how the distillation process works. We won’t give you any details because, of course, we don’t want to be guilty of promoting something illegal. Should you choose to distill at home, you do so at your own risk. As a side note, the following information comes from Discovery’s “How Stuff Works” website.

The process of distillation involves creating the alcohol and then separating it from the rest of the ingredients. It begins with some sort of grain, usually corn, which is soaked in hot water. Yeast will be added to begin the fermentation process, but the yeast needs food. Distillers typically use sugar or malt to feed the yeast.

Throughout the fermentation process the still is kept at a constant temperature in order to maintain heat. The fermentation releases gases, building pressure and causing the alcohol in the mixture to evaporate. The steam inside the still then flows through a set of tubes and pipes until it condenses, thus converting the alcohol back into a liquid, which is then collected and bottled.

They Call It Moonshine

Distilled spirits made in unlicensed stills is known as “moonshine.” There’s lots of speculation as to where that name comes from, but no one really knows. The most popular theory is based on the fact that people during the Colonial period used the term to describe any type of work that was done at night.

What did they do at night? Things they wanted kept secret from British authorities. The fact that home distilling is illegal means it’s something that needs to be done in secret as well. Thus, the name “moonshine.”

Other names for moonshine include White Lightning, hooch, Mountain Dew (no, not the soda), and Tennessee white whiskey. Each of the names has its own history surrounding a certain area of the country where the liquor was made. In any case, it’s all the same stuff.

With this brief tutorial about home distillation, we hope that we’ve convinced you to tread very lightly in this area. You might want to consider making beer or wine if producing your own alcohol is your dream. There’s no point in getting yourself in trouble with authorities by risking home distillation.

Let the guys with licenses do it. They’re a lot better at it and they’ve been doing it for a longer time. You and I are better off simply enjoying the fruits of their labors.