The Question Of Legality

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This chapter is written specifically for readers who live in countries where it is presently illegal for amateurs to produce their own spirits by distillation. The rest can happily jump ahead to the chapters dealing with corn whiskey and how to make it.

The conflict between governments and "moonshiners" has been going on for centuries and the reasons are not hard to find. From the government point of view, alcohol in one form or another is in such demand that it can be heavily taxed without fear of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. From the moonshiners' or smugglers' point of view, the spread between the cost of manufacture of alcohol and the cost to the consumer after tax is so great that the incentive to circumvent the law is considerable.

The dollar figures involved are informative. When alcohol is made on a large scale, as it is for the fuel-alcohol industry (gasohol) its cost of manufacture is about 25 cents per litre. This is for 100% alcohol. If diluted to 40%, as in whiskey, a litre would contain about 10 cents worth of alcohol. The retail price of a litre of whiskey will lie somewhere between $10.00 and $20.00 depending on the country and the level of taxation (this price range does not include specialty whiskies that can run in excess of $50.00 per 750 ml bottle). Some of the difference of course, is due to the scale of manufacture, packaging, marketing, aging, transportation, profit margin, etc., but even allowing for these factors the tax burden on the consumer is extremely high. Is it any wonder that an unscrupulous operator will attempt to sell his alcohol direct to the consumer, perhaps at half the normal retail price, which would still give him a very handsome profit? Or, is it any wonder that the authorities crack down hard on anyone attempting to interfere with their huge source of revenue?

The battle between illicit distillers (moonshiners) or illicit importers (smugglers) and the authorities has now become the stuff of legends. Consider the number of stories written or movies made about rumrunners and road hustlers! Or, about the battles between gangsters and police during the prohibition in the United States! Unfortunately, such stories have been taken too much to heart by the general public so that the whole idea of home distillation is now perceived as being inherently more wicked than the gentle art of beer or wine making.

It is understandable, and fully supported by the author, that a government would wish to put a stop to smuggling and moonshining for illicit commercial purposes, that is to say in order to sell the product and avoid the payment of taxes. But why would there be a complete ban on distillation by amateurs on a small scale and for their own use? Beer and wine making by amateurs is perfectly legal on the small scale for personal consumption, and total government tax revenues on beer and wine are the same or more than for distilled spirits.

Some people have suggested that improper distillation can produce poisons that cause blindness, but this is a myth. Blindness, in this context, is caused by drinking methyl alcohol (wood alcohol). People who went blind from drinking illicit liquor did so by drinking concoctions that were heavily adulterated with store-bought wood alcohol. There's a tendency for people to think that any mention of illicit liquor is referring to a product of illicit distillation. Many such illicit liquors are concocted by mixing ingredients from someone's garage or basement and are not produced by fermentation or distillation.

Although a trace amount of methyl alcohol is produced by fermentation, it does not occur at a concentration capable of poisoning an individual. Such trace amounts of methyl alcohol are removed from spirits by distillation, but remain in undistilled beverages like beer and wine. The truth is, there is very very little methyl alcohol produced by fermentation, so it poses no threat to consumers of beer or wine where it remains in solution, or to consumers of distilled spirits where it has been removed. And, in the event of poor distillation procedures where it may not be completely removed, it still poses no more threat than it does in beer or wine where it's not removed at all.

In attempting to find the reason for governments to ban home distillation, the first thing that comes to mind is the potential loss of revenue. After all, if everyone started making his or her own spirits at home the loss of revenue could be considerable. But this cannot be the real reason because the home production of beer and wine for one's own use is legal, and both are taxable when sold commercially. So, evidently the authorities are not concerned about the loss of revenue from home beer and wine making. And further thought, makes it very unlikely that amateur production of spirits would have any appreciable effect on commercial sales. For one thing, the process is considerably more technical and equipment intensive than beer or winemaking, so it's very unlikely the practice would become any more widespread than beer and wine making. So, if distillation were legalized for amateurs, it would probably become nothing more than an interesting hobby like making beer or wine, and offer little competition to commercial spirit production.

So, why is the home production of distilled alcoholic beverages illegal, where the home production of non-distilled alcoholic beverages is not? The drug involved is ethyl alcohol, an acknowledged mood-modifier, but ethyl alcohol itself is not singled out by governments as the bad actor. The alcohol in beer, wine, and whiskey are identical, and imbibed in similar quantities will have identical effects in terms of mood modification. No, apparently distillation per se is perceived as evil, to the point where even owning the equipment is illegal.

A few attempts have been made to ascertain the reasons behind the official attitude to distillation but nothing has yielded a logical explanation. Perhaps, the laws regarding home distillation are simply outmoded and are nothing more than a residual from a previous social paradigm, and since the appeal of distillation up until now has been confined to a comparatively small and esoteric group of people, there hasn't been a sufficient protest from the public to challenge the laws.

The above discussion has been argued at some length because it is important for the reader to feel comfortable with the moral aspects of distillation, and not feel obliged to be furtive about it. Also, it's important to illustrate the difficulties that would be encountered in any attempt to change the law. There would be no point in approaching government officials who in many cases are sympathetic to the arguments but are powerless to do anything about it. It would be necessary to first air the subject in the news media to get the public (the voters) up to speed and then work through politicians.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson in 1800, "...the infernal whiskey excise is hostile to the genius of a free people". Jefferson, as President of the time, repealed the whiskey excise on June 30, 1802 as one of his early objectives.

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