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Home Whiskey Distilling And The Fight To Legalize It

Americans have had something of a love/hate relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, we seem to adore the stuff; at least according to popular culture and the big business of alcohol sales ($170 billion last year). On the other hand, however, according to the CDC, only about 51% of adults (18 or over) admit to regular drinking habits. This disparity has created rifts throughout our history, most notably during the prohibition era. In 1920, the same year that women were given the right to vote, the US decided that alcohol should be banned within our nation’s borders. For thirteen years, alcohol production and sales plummeted as we decided it would be best to do without. Currently though, while liquor is widely available, there are some states that still continue to ban the substance, mostly on moral grounds.

In part because of our checkered history with alcoholic substances, there is one arena where the battle of legality and prohibition is still raging: home distillation. Nowadays, any Tom Dick or Jane can brew low alcohol content beverages, such as beer and wine. While this may not be the case everywhere in the country, there is no Federal ban on the production of these substances for “personal” use. Many of us probably have that one friend who has tried their hand at making beer, and after the first batch, realized why they shouldn’t be professional brewmasters. But regardless, the legal permissions for such homebrewing does not extend to the production of distilled spirits. But why is this the case? For answers, we turned to a group of dedicated individuals who are fighting to make hobby distillation legal.

Whiskey Still
How home distilling is often seen today as – the HDA hopes to change that (image via Dave/flicker)

For the last year or so, the Hobby Distiller’s Association has been trying to repeal the antiquated laws of Prohibition to allow for home distillation in the same way that brewing beer and wine is legal. Since the days of Prohibition, home distilling has been seen as something a bit more “criminal” than just brewing beer and or wine. A large part of this was the prevalence of bootleggers making moonshine, hence the name “Moonshiners”. The HDA is clear to make the distinction that those people are distilling hard spirits purely for financial gain, whereas hobbyists are in it just for the pleasure of making their own brews, such as whiskey. It’s also a core part of their campaign.

We spoke with Rick Morris, head of the HDA and its sponsor, Brewhaus. Brewhaus is a company that manufactures materials that are used in home distillation, so it made sense that it would help spearhead the Association’s campaign. We asked Rick what got the ball rolling, why the HDA is fighting this fight, and what they hope to achieve.

According to Rick, Missouri is the only state that allows for personal distilling, but there are still no laws at the federal level. What spurred the group to take action, however, was a series of raids in Florida last year. Outraged at the fact that a group of hobbyists were arrested for doing something ultimately harmless became the driving force behind the HDA. According to Rick, “The true hobbyist should be free to enjoy this rewarding hobby without fear of prosecution, and having to constantly stay in the shadows and/or be looking over their shoulder.” While it seems that the current state of penalization for hobby distilling isn’t quite at “1984” levels, it is still a major risk.

Thus far, the Association has met with officials from the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the Department of the Treasury, and the Senate Finance committee to discuss changes to the antiquated laws that are still in effect. As a result, they have drafted a bill that they hope will gain traction in the coming months. Their hope is that hobby distillers will be able to craft whatever spirit that lifts their spirit. Or in the words of Morris: “Our goal is not to see any restriction on what a person can distill.”

So is hobby distillation so bad? Thus far, the Association has had positive feedback from politicians and lawmakers, so it certainly seems like the winds of change are blowing in their favor. As far as we’re concerned, the ability to craft our own whiskey without having to worry about John Law deeming us as rebel rousing rum runners is something we can get behind. While it may not be the most important issue on Capitol Hill, it certainly is one of the most delicious.

How Jim Beam Survived Prohibition

This is the fascinating story of Prohibition’s impact and Jim Beam’s subsequent recovery, revitalizing America’s bourbon industry. 

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