Outlaw spirit

Despite being illegal, home distilling is on the rise

Is that moonshine made from a batch of homebrew?

Is that moonshine made from a batch of homebrew?

photo by simon cousins (via flickr)

Distilling alcohol for consumption at home is against federal law, yet making moonshine is a hobby on the rise. Homebrew shops, especially, seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the trend, since making beer and wine often serves as the gateway to the art of distilling. At the Chico Home Brew Shop, owner Dawn Letner says that for several years she has received more and more inquiries from customers interested in making their own hard alcohol.

“There are some people who really don’t know it’s illegal,” Letner said. “They’ll ask me how many gallons they can legally make per year at home, and I’ll say, ‘Well, you can’t make any.’”

Which is generally true—making booze at home with a still for home consumption is illegal in the eyes of federal law. A permit, however, can be acquired from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for making ethanol for fuel use, and those who wish to go into the business of selling spirits can get a commercial permit from the same agency.

Distillation does not actually produce alcohol. Fermentation, via yeasts, is what turns sugars into ethanol, the type of alcohol on which people have gotten buzzed for millennia, whether via sake, wine, beer or cider. Distillation, on the other hand, is a method of separating the alcohol from the rest of the liquid (beer, wine or any already fermented drink). To do this, a distiller heats a still to at least 173 degrees, at which point alcohol begins to boil and then condense on the ceiling of the still and emerge from the spigot tube in clear-liquid form. Like so, one can turn a 5 percent cider into fiery hot applejack, a gentle wine into brandy, and fermented potato mash into vodka.

As in the United States, home distilling is generally illegal in Europe, yet traditions of making booze—including brandy, chacha, rakia, cognac and tsipouro—thrive in most nations. Forest Ranch winemaker Phil LaRocca’s family brought brandy- and grappa-making traditions with them when they moved to San Francisco from Sicily.

“My dad made wine, and he would give the grape must to my uncle, who had a still,” LaRocca said. Grappa is distilled from the gunk left at the bottom of a wine-fermenting tank, while brandy is made from straight wine.

Several years ago, LaRocca shipped a thousand gallons of zinfandel to a custom distillery in Ashland, Ore. “That got me 50 gallons of 190-proof brandy,” he said. At 95 percent alcohol, such a formidable liquor must be watered down to be made palatable.

A quick Google search reveals that distilling equipment can be purchased at many brewing shops and specialty stores throughout the country. Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky is one of the more reputed of the suppliers. The equipment, after all, is not illegal to own or sell. Moreover, even people who haven’t acquired a fuel permit or a commercial distiller’s license may be undertaking perfectly legal business with their gear, which looks something like a beer keg with a tube exiting the top. They may be distilling water or—like Bayliss Ranch in Biggs—making scented distillates from aromatic herbs for use in foods, drinks, lotions and oils.

The reason home hooch-making is federally prohibited may be because it’s potentially dangerous. Distilling can produce methanol, the sort of alcohol that can kill a person. Methanol and ethanol are extremely flammable, too, and home distillers can be injured or killed in explosions.

Money may also be a factor in the federal prohibition on home moonshining. That is, the federal liquor tax of $13.50 per gallon is bypassed by those who engage in their own booze-making.

The distillation boom is not just occurring at home. Hundreds of commercial craft distilleries have opened in the past decade, and small-batch brands of whiskey, gin, rum, vodka and other spirits have taken to retail shelves. Many bear familiar names—those of breweries like Rogue, Anchor and Ballast Point which are distilling beer into the hard stuff. Some breweries have even sold off batches of tainted beer to distilleries, since the process of removing the alcohol from a wine or beer tends to leave behind flaws in the original product.

Then again, a common saying among distillers goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” LaRocca attests to the same: “The best brandy is made from the best wine.”

Making a good home hooch, in fact, can be very difficult—so difficult that it may not even be worth it.

And anyway, it’s illegal.