The Question of Legality

This chapter is written specifically for readers who live in countries where it is currently illegal for amateurs to distil their own home-made beer and convert it into gin or vodka. The rest of us can happily jump ahead to the chapters dealing with equipment and procedures.

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 egg. From the moonshiner's or smuggler's 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 the 40% commonly used for vodka, gin and other distilled spirits a litre would contain about 10 cents worth of alcohol. The retail price of a litre of vodka will lie somewhere between $10 and $20 depending on the country and the level of taxation. Some of the difference is due to the scale of manufacture, the purity of the product, transportation, the 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, their milch cow?

This battle between illicit alcohol producers (moon-shiners) or importers (smugglers) and the authorities has now become the stuff of legend. Consider the number of stories written or movies made about desperate men rolling barrels of rum up a beach at midnight! Or about the battles between gangsters and police during prohibition days in the United States! Unfortunately, such stories have been taken too much to heart by the general public so that the whole idea of distillation, and the spirits made by this process, is now perceived as being inherently more wicked than the gentle art of beer- or wine-making. And the "wickedness" is a strong deterrent to most people.

It is understandable why a government would wish to put a stop to smuggling and moonshining for commercial purposes, that is to say in order to re-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? At the risk of being tediously repetitious it is worth reminding ourselves again (and again) that distillation is one of the most innocuous activities imaginable. It doesn't produce a drop of alcohol. Not a drop. What it does is take the beer which you have quite legally made by fermentation and remove all the noxious, poisonous substances which appear inevitably as by-products in all fermentations. Far from making alcohol, a little will actually be lost during this purification process. Instead of prohibiting it, the authorities should really be encouraging distillation by amateurs. And the general public, which is so rightly health-conscious these days, would be more than justified in demanding the right to do so.

In attempting to find the reason for governments to ban the purification of beer or wine by distillation the first thing which comes to mind is the potential loss of revenue. After all, if everyone started making their 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 the authorities must not be all that concerned about the loss of revenue when people make their own alcoholic beverages.

A possible, and somewhat cynical, explanation for the prohibition of home distillation is based on the following reasoning: Home-made beer and wine are usually so inferior to a good commercial product that only the most dedicated amateurs will go to the trouble of first making and then drinking such doubtful concoctions. Consequently, there is no real threat to the sale of commercial products nor to the revenues generated by taxation. If, however, home distillation were permitted, every Tom, Dick and Harriette would be in a position to make a gin or vodka which was every bit as good as the finest commercial product on the market. This could, it might be argued, make serious inroads into commercial sales and into government revenues.

Further thought, however, makes it very unlikely that amateur production of spirits would have any appreciable effect on commercial sales. For one thing the equipment is moderately expensive and it is necessary to follow directions rather carefully when using it so it is unlikely that the practice would ever become really widespread. Moreover, many people prefer scotch, rye, rum, etc. to gin and vodka and it is only the latter which can be made safely and effectively by the amateur. So, if distillation were legalized for amateurs, it would probably become nothing more than an interesting hobby, just like making wine, and offer little competition to commercial producers.

No, we have to look deeper than this in our search for a reason why governments have a hang-up about distillation. You see, it is not just amateurs who are penalized. Commercial producers also feel the heavy hand of government prejudice and disapproval. This is illustrated by several restrictions which apply in many countries. One is the fact that the advertising of beer and wine on television is permitted whereas the advertising of distilled spirits is prohibited. Another concerns the tax imposed on distilled alcoholic products --- per unit of alcohol the tax on the distilled product is much higher than it is on beer and wine. A third restriction on spirits can be seen in the alcoholic beverage section of supermarkets ---- beer and wine are sold, and possibly fortified wines such as vermouth, but raise the alcohol concentration to 40% and the ancient shibboleth of 'hard spirits' reigns supreme. This is grossly unfair discrimination and naturally of great concern to distillers. As they point out, a glass of gin and tonic, a glass of wine, and a bottle of beer all contain similar amounts of alcohol, so it is inequitable to tax their product at a higher level.

So just why is there this official discrimination against distilled alcoholic beverages? Irrational attitudes are always difficult to deal with, but in order to reform the law we have to deal with it, and this requires that we try to understand the thinking behind it. The drug involved is ethyl alcohol, an acknowledged mood-modifier, but ethyl alcohol itself is not singled out by governments as being the bad actor. The alcohol in beer, wine and gin 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.

There is only one explanation which seems to fit all the facts and this is that governments and their officials fail to make a distinction between concentration and amount. Actually, quite a lot of people have this problem. Just because beer has 5% alcohol and gin has 40% does not mean that the gin-drinker is eight times more likely to over-indulge than the beer drinker. The fact of the matter is that anti-social behaviour such as hooliganism at sporting events is invariably caused by beer drinkers. And many studies of drinking and driving have shown that the vast majority of those pulled over have been drinking beer, not spirits. People drink until they've had enough, or feel in a certain mood, and if this takes five, ten, or even more beers then that is the number which will be drunk. It is the testosterone concentration which causes the problem, not the alcohol concentration.

A few attempts have been made to dig deeper into the reasons behind the official attitude to distillation but it is a frustrating experience. Invariably the person spoken to seems bewildered by the question, almost as though one had asked why it was illegal to murder someone. One individual explained patiently and kindly that it was because the law is the law. Another made the extraordinary statement that distillation was prohibited because it makes alcohol and this is illegal. (Of course distillation does not make alcohol. Alcohol is made by fermentation, not by distillation, and in any case fermentation to make beer and wine for one's own consumption is completely legal).

The above discussion has been argued at some length because a) it is important for the reader to feel comfortable with the "moral" aspects of distillation, and not feel obliged to be furtive about it, and b) in order to illustrate the difficulties which 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. No, 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. The approach could be based upon two issues, both of which are important to many people nowadays. One is the question of health — governments should respond favorably to any suggestion which will lead to more healthy drinking habits (and make no mistake about it, gin and vodka are much less harmful to health than beer and wine). The other concerns our basic rights and freedoms --- it should be an absolute right for anyone to remove the poisonous substances from a legally produced beverage (beer) in order to produce another legal beverage (gin and vodka).

The home production of pure alcohol for use in gin, vodka or any other beverage is a rather technical and equipment-oriented activity. In this respect it differs quite a bit from wine- and beer-making which involve the use of very little specialized equipment but a lot of skill, careful selection of the ingredients used, and rigorous attention to matters of hygiene. Wine and beer making are equivalent to the activities of a gourmet cook. The production of pure alcohol on the other hand is a scientific operation, with no requirement for any special talents or flair but every requirement for using the correct equipment according to established scientific principles and set procedures. Not many people can make a first-class wine but anyone, using the right equipment and following recommended procedures, can easily make alcohol of the highest purity.

Ideally, one would use scientific glass equipment for distillation. Flasks with heating mantles, columns, column packings, still-heads, condensers, thermometers, etc., all made of glass and nicely fitting together with ground-glass joints, are available from scientific supply houses. They come in all sizes from tiny bench-top models to the large equipment used in pilot plants. And the whole thing would be elaborately instrumented. Nice to look at and fun to use. Unfortunately, such equipment is horrendously expensive. Furthermore, even if the prices were reasonable or you were an eccentric millionaire, you would find it difficult to locate and do business with the suppliers. They cater to universities and research institutes and are not geared to supplying the needs of individuals and enthusiastic amateurs.

A relatively inexpensive and convenient solution to this problem is to use domestic appliances wherever possible. They need some modification and adaptation to be sure, and certain items will need to be fabricated, but the task is well within the capabilities of the average handyman. Also, everything you need will be available close to where you live ---- at a hardware store, a supplier of plumbing equipment, or a machine shop. The final cost will be a fraction of what it would have been if scientific equipment had been purchased. Also, in addition to saving a great deal of money, you undoubtedly will be a lot more knowledgeable as a result of putting together something with your own hands. Metal is also a lot more rugged than glass.

A consequence of deciding to use domestic appliances is that one is obliged to operate at a certain level of production. Fortunately, this level, although perhaps a little larger than one might wish for, is not unreasonable and indeed could be just about right for many people.

Specifically, the equipment and procedures to be described in this book are based on the fermentation of 10 kg of sugar to yield 10 to 11 litres of 40% alcohol, either in the form of gin or vodka.

There are four major equipment items. They are the ferm enter, the beer stripper, the high-purity alcohol still with fractionating column, and the little pot still for producing the flavouring ingredient for gin. This last item would be unnecessary if a) only vodka were required, b) if you intended to use unflavoured alcohol for making liqueurs, or c) if you made your flavouring essence by steeping the botanicals rather than by distillation.

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