Moonshine, or home-made whiskey, has a long, time honoured tradition in the US, ever since the first Scots-Irish immigrants arrived in North America from the old country across the Atlantic. There was already a tradition of brewing grain alcohol that was several hundred years old by the time – and the poorer farmers in Appalachia and elsewhere within the new colony found use for their surplus corn, rye and barley, making it a popular occupation.
However, contrary to popular notions, it is not legal to make whiskey at home within the US. There are urban legends (about how using a still smaller than 1 gallon is fine) and TV shows such as Moonshiners. But make no mistake – you are in violation of a host of laws if you brew whiskey at home without a permit.
Are you Allowed to Make Whiskey at Home in America?
If you live in the US, there are two sets of laws guiding the production of alcohol – Federal Law and State Law (plus local ordinances). Federal law in this regard is administered by the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which was formerly part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Trade and Firearms (ATF) but split out into a separate body in 2003. State laws are administered by specific state agencies. In addition, there may be county, parish, city or township laws that require local certifications, permits or licenses to be maintained in order to operate a moonshine still at home.
While a handful of states do allow their residents to make whiskey legally (see below), it is important to know that Federal law trumps State law on the question of whether it is legal to operate a still and make whiskey (or other spirits) at home. So, the upshot is that even if you happen to live in a state which allows you to produce whisky at home, you are in violation of Federal Laws and in danger of facing tax and other charges that could be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and lead to the forfeiture of all property used to manufacture whiskey at home.
Why are You not Allowed to make Whiskey (or Other Spirits) at Home in the US?
There are a number of reasons that are advanced for why it’s not allowed to make whiskey at home, most of which center around quality control, personal and public safety. For example, it’s often said that home distillation could lead to products that contain large amounts of harmful congeners, such as methanol – which can cause blindness or even death. Another danger is the presence of large amounts of volatile substances being mixed together and heated, which has all the ingredients for an explosion that could burn your house down or cause damage to the neighborhood.
The cynical, and even government sources, will point out that the matter is simply one of tax collection by the Federal and State governments. Permits for a number of activities involving a moonshine still are easy to obtain. Licenses for distilling, which are contained in the Federal Distilled Spirits Permit, require a number of norms to be adhered to, a hefty fee, and regular inspections. In addition, the alcohol is taxed heavily, a “sin tax” concept that has not faced widespread pushback in modern times.
Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794)
Ironically, the origin of the Federal restrictions against moonshine without licenses date back to the period shortly after the ratification of the US Constitution (1789) and the Bill of Rights (1790). The newly formed republic had substantial debts (to the tune of approximately $80 million) from the Revolutionary War and subsequent expenses. Desperate for revenues, President Washington decided to levy an excise tax on whiskey.
This led to a popular uprising in Western Pennsylvania, where poor farmers, distillers and townsfolk protested that their fundamental rights (as just ratified under the Bill of Rights) were being infringed upon. There were a series of attempts at reconciliation, but matters kept getting worse till in July of 1794, things reached a head with an armed insurgency.
The rebellion was quelled by militia from a number of states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland (aided by a handful of Army regulars) but the die was cast – the Federal government had decided that whisky was a commodity whose production and distribution could be taxed to pay for the needs of the state.
These taxes were later repealed in 1802, when Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. President. The final nail in the coffin was put in place during the Civil War period. In 1862, President Lincoln signed a tax bill with sweeping effect on many sectors of the US economy, including Whiskey.
Revenues from taxing whiskey were so high over the next 60+ years, that it was hard to take the decision to impose Prohibition from a purely economic perspective. That trend continues to this very day – whiskey taxes are here to stay, and so too the restrictions on producing moonshine at home.
Is it Legal to Buy or Own a Moonshine Still?
Copper stills which were used for moonshine are a tradition in Americana and in most states, you do not require a permit to buy or own a moonshine still as in the example above. There are no size restrictions either – just as its not ok to brew whiskey in small batches with a still below 1 gallon in size (an urban legend, as we pointed out), there is no upper limit (a 13 gallon limit is another urban legend) as to the size of the still you buy – as long as you do not use it to manufacture whiskey or other spirits.
The use of copper stills is permitted for a number of “legal purposes” – starting with decoration and distilling water or non-alcoholic matter. If you want to move one step further, you can manufacture alcohol (ethanol) based fuel for home use by obtaining a Federal Fuel Alcohol permit – which is inexpensive, easy to obtain and maintain.
However, you cannot distill, distribute, consume and sell any alcoholic products made from your copper still, unless you have a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit.
There are some state level exceptions. For example, Florida does not allow residents to own or operate stills for “legal purposes” even without obtaining a license. They are not hard to get, but something that will fetch a fine if the law is violated.
Are There Different Laws in Different States?
State laws about distilling whiskey vary in two regards – legality and enforcement. In general, most of the states hold distillation of whiskey (and other spirits) to be illegal, but there are some definite exceptions. Missouri, for example, allows residents to distill up to 100 gallons of spirits a year. Other states where distillation to produce whiskey at home is legal include Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Rhode Island.
The important thing to realize, of course, is that even a Missouri resident cannot freely distill whisky for personal or general consumption – s/he is subject to Federal laws first, then state.
One way to interpret the State laws is to say that if Federal laws allowed one to distill and produce whiskey at home, a resident of Missouri would be free to do so without additional licensing, whereas a resident of Illinois, say, or Colorado still could not distill whisky without a state license.
However, a second way has emerged as craft brewing of moonshine has taken on a renewed life in recent times – and that is local enforcement of Federal or state statutes. Since it is often unlikely that TTB agents would move against a small home brewery, it is often the states who will be in charge of enforcement. Here there is a certain bit of leeway. For example, some believe that if you get charged with home brewing whiskey in Colorado, you will be let off with a small fine and a cease and desist warning.
Is the US Position on Home Brewing Whisky at Odds with the Rest of the World?
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), the US position regarding home brewing alcohol is consistent with laws over most of the developed world, with very few exceptions – such as South Africa, Peru and parts of Russia.
How Common is It to Brew Moonshine in the US?
Illegal or not, it is extremely common to find people brewing moonshine – not as common, perhaps, as craft beer or wine but that too depends on where you’re looking. Interviews with sellers of stills and barrels, such as Moonshine Still Pro, in Missouri, and Hillbilly Stills, in Barlow, Kentucky, have reported how interest in buying ethanol stills have spiked up over the past 3-5 years. Some of it may be attributed to popularization of the craft through TV shows (e.g., the aforementioned Moonshiners) – there are stories about how sales spike right after the show opens on a new season. Similarly, the sales of Sherry and Bourbon kegs tend to go up.
There is no hard evidence that the stills and kegs are being used to make moonshine, but anecdotal evidence seems to point towards a rejuvenation of such trends.
In Conclusion …
Laws regulating the distillation of alcohol exist at the Federal, State and (sometimes) local level in the US. Federal Law prohibits the making of moonshine without a proper license and that trumps regulations at the state level. It is generally (with a few exceptions) ok to buy and own stills, and even use them for different purposes – as long as you don’t distill, consume or sell whiskey from such equipment. If you decide to make moonshine without a permit, do so at your own risk.