Amateur distillation

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 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? And why, commercially, should a distilled spirit attract a higher tax per unit of alcohol? At the risk of being tediously repetitious it is worth reminding ourselves again that distillation is one of the most innocuous activities imaginable. Unlike beer- and wine-making 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. Strange really that the purification of a legal drug by removing the poisons is illegal. 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 that justified in demanding the right to do so.

Governments surely wouldn't do something without reason would they!! There must be a reason for the ban on amateur distillation. Surely! In attempting to find this reason the first thing which comes to mind is the potential loss of tax revenue. After all, if everyone started making their own spirits at home the loss of revenue might be considerable. However, 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 distilling is based on the following reasoning. Home-made beer and wine are often a bit inferior to a good commercial product, and their preparation takes quite a bit of time, so only the most enthusiastic amateurs will go to all that trouble. 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, and could make it in quantity in a short time. 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 (several hundred dollars) 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 either gin or vodka and it is only these two which can be made by amateurs with a quality approaching that of commercial brands. 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 such 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 spirits is much higher than it is on beer and wine. A third restriction on spirits can be seen in the alcoholic beverage section in the supermarkets of some countries — beer and wine may be sold, and possibly fortified wines such as vermouth, but raise the alcohol concentration to 40% and the ancient shibboleth of 'hard spirits' comes into play. This is grossly unfair discrimination and naturally of great concern to distillers. As they point out over and over again, in advertisements and representations to governments, a glass of gin & 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 why is there this blatant discrimination on the part of governments which pride themselves on being non-discriminatory when it comes to race, religion, colour, gender, age and so on and so forth? 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, C2H5OH, an acknowledged mood-modifier, and it is this drug which governments seek to control, but the alcohol in beer, wine and gin are identical and imbibed in similar quantities will have identical effects in terms of mood modification. So why are they taxed differently?

The only explanation which seems to fit the facts is that governments and their officials cannot understand the difference between concentration and amount. As a matter of fact quite a lot of people have this difficulty. Just because beer contains 5% alcohol whereas spirits contain 40% does not mean that the gin-drinker is 8 times more likely to over-indulge than the beer-drinker. To believe this is to be naive. The fact of the matter is that antisocial behaviour such as hooliganism at sporting events is almost 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. Usually they are young men who happen to prefer beer to a vodka martini with a twist of lemon. And after the first beer they'll have another, and another, always drinking 5% alcohol but increasing the amount with each can. The 5% alcohol content is comparatively low but this is irrelevant when you drink one can after another. It is not the alcohol concentration which is the issue here, it is the amount of alcohol.

An attempt has been made by the author to bring this rather simple point to the attention of officials in the Customs & Excise Branch but the argument falls on deaf ears. We pointed out that alcohol is made by fermentation and that amateurs are allowed to make as much as they like within reason for their own use. So why not allow them to distil it? We pointed out that distillation doesn't make alcohol, it merely purifies it. Ah, is the reply, but it makes it stronger. So we're back into the confusion surrounding concentration and amount. When all else fails, the hoary old argument about amateurs poisoning themselves and going blind is trotted out. Really!

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 with the supposed dangers to health. There is no need for him to be furtive about it or feel like some sort of back alley abortionist. The so-called "offence" has no moral dimension to it. It is not sinful. But it is necessary 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 may be 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 (vodka).

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