09 October 2009

When is it moonshine?

image by epicbeer

When visiting family in Romania, I am often served throat searing plum brandy. Usually, distilled at home and poured from an unmarked PET bottle. There it is called ţuică; here, it would be called moonshine. Moonshine is simply a generic term for illegally produced distilled spirits. A term deriving from the moonlit conditions necessary to produce the spirit: enough light to see what you’re making, but still under the cover of night.

In the United States home distilling is illegal. It is even illegal to own an unlicensed still, much less a homemade still. Unlike making beer or wine at home, making your own applejack is a felony punishable by up to $10K in fines and 5 years in jail for each offense - not to mention additional state penalties and fines.

The laws are relics from the prohibition years, but safety concerns are still used to justify them. One is not likely to go blind from drinking home distilled spirits if the first run has been discarded. The first run is more likely to contain methanol, which can damage your vision. This is not totally an urban myth. It has, however, been perpetuated since prohibition, when bootleggers used additional chemicals to speed up the fermentation process or increase the alcohol percentage. The key is not to buy moonshine from strangers, or strange characters.

Excise taxes are another likely reason for the continued prohibition on home distilled spirits. The IRS alone collects $13.50 per gallon of distilled spirits. Compare this to the federal excise tax on beer and wine: $0.23 per gallon for cider; between $1.07 and $3.40 per gallon for wine (depending on the alcohol content); and $0.23 or $0.58 per gallon for beer (depending on how much beer the brewery makes). The states also each collect much higher excise taxes on distilled spirits. Or, perhaps, it’s a strong liquor lobby that is unwilling to compete on the open market.

Despite the many hurdles to overcome, there has been an increase in craft distilleries opening in the United States in the last few years. Maybe it’s time for America to also re-look at home distilling.

You can even buy a still on-line: Copper Moonshine Stills. Again, presumably in case the laws do change.
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