Backwoods moonshiners aren’t the only Americans distilling hard liquor at home. A growing number of “Hobby Distillers” are quietly making their own high-end whiskies, vodkas and gins. They are also breaking the law and facing an increasing amount of pressure from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Small-batch distilling may be the coming trend in liquor, but the government wants to put a stop to it right now.
Rick Morris, the owner of Brewhaus, a Dallas-based company that manufactures and sells commercial and home distillery supplies, explains that many of his customers are homebrewers and winemakers looking for the next challenge.
"They want to do it just for enjoyment," he says. "Just like a home brewer or home wine maker that puts that bottle on the table, and their friend sits down and tastes it and goes, 'This is good.'…It's the same for that person who is handcrafting their whiskey at home."
Except it isn’t. Home distilling is illegal in every state except Missouri. That means that most of the 200,000 unlicensed distillers Morris estimates are creating two million gallons of quality liquor annually are technically criminals. The numbers are hard to pin down - “These are people who are trying to stay in the shadows,” Morris points out – but that’s a lot of law breakers.
But 26 U.S. Code 5601remains an easy law to break. Anyone looking to get started as a hobby distiller can do so for just a few hundred dollars. For that amount, Morris can hook them up with the three main parts of a still: a kettle (for brewing the mash), a column (for the separation into vapor) and the condenser, where the vapor cools and turns back into drinkable alcohol. Prices of a still can reach into the thousands depending on its size and how advanced it is, but for the beginner, he says even the low-end still will make a "quality product."
One hobby distiller, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of prosecution, echoes Morris' sentiment as to what motivates hobby distillers.
"It just seemed like something that would be fun to do," the distiller told Maxim. "I would like to try to make something that is as good or better than I can buy in the liquor store…but that's as far as it goes."
The Richmond, VA resident adds that over the four years he's been a hobby distiller, he's made 40 to 50 gallons of whiskey, vodka and rum. He believes that - thanks to a fair amount of practice and his $1,200 still - he's created a pretty decent product. "The whiskey I made, I would put on a par or…better than, Jack Daniel's," he says matter of factly. "It's really pretty darn good stuff."
As for any concerns about poisoning or fire, the supposed risks of hobby distilling, he brushes them off entirely. He points out that the Prohibition-era practices of adding anti-freeze or methanol were an attempt increase the amount of alcohol bootleggers could sell. He adds that fires, which can result from units leaking vapor in a poorly-ventilated space or distiller failing to turn on the condensing unit, are products of carelessness.
"It's no more dangerous than cooking an egg on a stove," he says of his technique. "The chance of fire is slim to none as long as I'm careful. The whole business about poisoning yourself is just a lot of crap."
The Government clearly doesn’t agree. In 2013, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) demanded that equipment suppliers like Morris provide lists of their customers going back three years. As part of that program, the Feds now receive quarterly updates on still-related purchases.
Using this data, the TTB, in conjunction with the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, arrested eight people for possession of stills and illegal production of distilled spirits in March. In the last few weeks, the TTB sent notifications to suspected distillers reminding them that “unlawful production of distilled spirits is a criminal offense” and, if caught, they can be punished with a $500,000 fine and up to five years in jail.
Morris calls the letter "a scare tactic” and says it’s part of the reason he founded the Hobby Distiller's Association, a group dedicated to changing federal law and giving home booze makers the same rights as brewers and vintners. Morris claims he has some senators on his side - though he’s unwilling to name them. The movement is unexpectedly controversial.
As for the Virginian, he eagerly awaits the day that he'll be able to share his product openly. "I don't want to have to have a permit, or a license,” he says. “I don't want to have to report it to anybody.”
Photos by Associated Press