Is Moonshine Illegal?

Is Moonshine Illegal?

Many changes in pop culture have people wondering, is moonshine against the law? 


Moonshining was once viewed as an illicit activity that can only be practiced under the veil of darkness, but it seems like this may be changing. Today stills to make quality moonshine are readily available online. Shows like Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners showcase the world of home brewing and some commercial spirits even bear the name ‘moonshine’. So is making moonshine illegal or not?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but... 

 

is moonshine illegal?

Is Moonshining Illegal? 

In the United States owning a still of any size is legal. This is because stills can make much more than just moonshine. Stills can easily be used to make essential oils, distilled water, perfume as well as fuel. Many falsely believe that owning a small still is legal, but larger stills are not. This is simply not true. The government is more concerned about how you plan to use your still. 

It is illegal to use your still to distill alcohol without first having a ‘distilled spirits permit’ or a ‘federal fuel alcohol permit.’ It does not matter if the spirits you are making are only for personal use and not for sale. 

 

How to Legally Distill Spirits at Home

 

 

There are ways to legally distill spirits at home in the United States. In fact, there are two different permit options available to ensure that you can make your own spirits at home without worrying about trouble with the law. 

The first option is to obtain a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit. This is basically a permit saying that you would like to start your own business making spirits. This is the same permit that the big spirit companies like Jack Daniels would have in hand. As you can imagine, they are very hard to get. 

In fact, unless you are actually planning to open a distillery and sell your product to the public there is no point in applying for this permit. It is an expensive and complicated process that is not designed to help a homebrewer avoid any legal ramifications. 

What you can do is get a fuel alcohol permit. This option is actually free and easy to get. In fact, by getting this permit all you are saying to the government is that you plan on putting the alcohol you make into your lawnmower and not into your body. 


Of course, it is important to remember that this permit will not protect you if it is found that you are distilling spirits for the purpose of consumption or distribution. The only way this permit will protect you is if you are making ethanol for the purpose of running your gas mower. 

 

Apply for your fuel alcohol permit here. 

If you are purchasing a still without the intention of making alcohol, you do not require a permit. You can legally use your still to make perfumes, essential oils, and distilled water. You only need to look into these options if you are planning to use your still to make spirits. In fact, when doing some legally, you are not really making moonshine since it really only refers to the illicit production, transportation, and distribution of spirits. Put a permit in your hands and you are now a distiller. 

 

moonshine laws in your area

What are the Moonshining Laws in my Area? 

While it is essential to know what the laws are governing moonshine, it is also important to look at the laws in your area. Many states have specific laws around distillation. Unfortunately, Federal law will always trump them. However, many states have laws that would theoretically make moonshining legal, if it wasn’t a federal offense. 


 It is important to know what is and isn’t legal in your area.  In some states owning a still is legal but distillation will result in a small fine which is the case in Colorado. In Missouri, you can theoretically manufacture 100 gallons of liquor per year.  Other states that theoretically allow moonshining are Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island.


Check out this link that breaks down the distilling laws by state. 


Still Registration and Reporting


The Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations state that still manufacturers need to keep their customer’s information. This is required as the information could be requested by the  Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. 



Click here to read the actual federal laws on the subject of distillation.

 

is moonshine illegal

Why is Making Moonshine Illegal? 

Making moonshine was not always illegal. In fact, in many areas of the world making moonshine is perfectly legal. New Zealand was the first country to make distilling moonshine for personal consumption legal in 1996. In 1997 Russia tiered down the penalty for making moonshine from a criminal offense to a misdemeanor. As of 2002, it is no longer even considered a misdemeanor.


However, it seems the good old United States of America is holding strong onto its moonshining laws. While the government often leans strongly on health concerns and safety issues, the origins lie in money. 

 

A Drink Rich in History

 

history of moonshine

 

Moonshining was not only legal, but it was a way of life for many early American pioneers. Farmers soon discovered that fermenting their excess grains was a way to not only avoid waste but also make money. After all, a farmer could get far more money for selling whiskey than they could from selling corn. In fact, it was actually common for whiskey to be used as a form of currency during this era. 

 

Check out our Delicious Corn Whiskey Recipe


The trouble began largely when Alexander Hamilton, the founding father now famous for his tenacity and song lyrics, figured out a way to deal with the debt associated with the American Revolution. He decided that placing taxes on alcohol would be a good way to pay off the debt accumulated from the war. 

Of course, all of the farmers were not on board. After all, they had just finished fighting against the British tax tariffs. This tension exploded with the Whiskey rebellion. This crackdown on moonshining was led by George Washington and resulted in a large loss of life. 


Making moonshine officially became illegal when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) passed the 1862 Revenue Act. This Act imposed taxes on alcohol (along with many other items) and was written to collect taxes on imported distilled spirits, but also included the homemade variety. It has been illegal to make spirits in American homes ever since.


Is it Illegal to Brew Beer and Wine at Home? 


Homebrewing of beer was a federal offense until the law was officially changed in 1978. However, it wasn’t until 2013 that homebrewers were allowed to make their own beer in all 50 states. 


Since the regulation of alcohol is largely left to each individual state, those living in Alabama and Mississippi were the last to benefit from the removal of this law. The rules around brewing wine are somewhat ambiguous, but this law does not include the production of spirits. 


Many may wonder why there is a distinction between the two different types of brewing. Considering that the process of brewing both types of alcohol are similar. However, there are two probable reasons: taxes and health concerns. 

 

Copper moonshine still



How Much is Moonshine Worth? 


When you look at the amount of money each type of liquor is worth, spirits far outweigh beer or wine in the eyes of the United States Government. 


The U.S. government has an excise tax of $2.14 for each 750-milliliter bottle of 80-proof spirits, compared with 21 cents for a bottle of wine (of 14 percent alcohol or less) and 5 cents for a can of beer. 


While the exact figure the government stands to lose to moonshining is not known, it is enough to warrant investigation. For example, an ATF investigation in 2000 busted a Virginia store that sold enough raw materials to make 1.4 million gallons of liquor with a potential loss of $19.6 billion in tax revenue. 


With this in mind, it is probable that tax revenue is a good motivator for the United States government to go after moonshiners for the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also some major health and safety concerns as well. 

 

Is Making Moonshine Safe? 

Just like any practice, there is a safe way to make moonshine as well as an unsafe way. The act of making moonshine is a three-step process that requires the maker to pay close attention to detail. Making moonshine is very similar to performing a high school science experiment. You are working with heat and flammable materials. The maker needs to pay close attention to time, temperature, and ingredients. It is also important to use quality equipment. 


So while the process of making moonshine is fairly straightforward, it is time-consuming and needs to be done properly. 


One of the biggest concerns with making moonshine comes with not using proper equipment. Moonshine needs to be made with clean equipment that uses food grade materials. Many early concerns with the safety of moonshine involved making moonshine with unsafe and unsanitary parts. 


Of course, failing to follow proper procedure can lead to dangerous situations. For example, if you are not doing open-air fermentation and fail to add an airlock can cause a build-up of carbon dioxide. This can lead to a dangerous situation. 


Making moonshine can also lead to burns. This is the case whenever you are working with heat. However, moonshine involves a large amount of liquids that are heated to high temperatures. Failing to take caution can lead to dangerous situations. 


Finally, the process of distilling moonshine leads to a large amount of alcohol. Alcohol is highly flammable. It is important to take every precaution when handling alcohol. 


In addition, moonshine is alcohol with a high ABV (alcohol by volume). It is recommended to dilute your moonshine before consumption and to sip with caution. 

 

Is Drinking Moonshine Safe? 

 

 

Much of the worry associated with making moonshine lies in the consumption of it. This makes sense since when homebrewing beer or wine you are making a product that will likely have an alcohol volume between 5% and 14%. When making moonshine, you can often get yields that are more than 50% (100 proof). 


In addition to the risks associated with drinking high-proof alcohol, there are also risks associated with the potential of ingesting methanol. 


When producing moonshine from a grain mash you are not only going to yield consumable alcohol (ethanol) you are also going to produce a whole bunch of nasty by-products that you need to avoid. 


When distilling moonshine, your output will change depending on the temperature of your still. It is important to fractionate your yield based on temperature so that you are able to isolate the ethanol that you are able to consume. 


Consuming large amounts of methanol is hazardous to your health. It is important to fractionate your yield for this reason. For more information on how to fractionate moonshine, check out our How to Make Moonshine guide. ith



Output 

Temperature 

Fraction

Keep or Toss?

Acetone

134°F or 56.5°C

Foreshots

TOSS

Methanol

147°F or 64°C

Heads

TOSS

Ethyl Acetate 

171°F or 77.1°C

Heads

Keep for a second distillation or toss

Ethanol

172°F or 78°C

HEARTS

KEEP

2-Propanol

207°F or 82°C

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

1-Propanol 

207°F or 97°C

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

Water

212°F or 100°C

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

Butanol 

241°F 116°C

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

Amyl alcohol

280°F or 137.8°F

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

Furfural

322°F or 161°C

Tails

Keep for a second distillation or toss

 


 

Making spirits at home with plans to drink it is against federal law. Only with the right permits may a person make ethanol, either for use strictly as fuel, or as part of a commercial endeavor — like launching a craft spirits company, of which hundreds have opened nationwide in recent years.

Besides the legal issues involved, there are also health concerns to worry about. Moonshine can become tainted with toxic liquids, especially methanol, the form of alcohol reputed to cause blindness and death. Making moonshine also poses obvious risks of fire or explosion.

While most states prohibit home moonshining, state laws sometimes conflict with federal law. In Missouri, for example, a person 21 or over may produce up to 100 gallons of spirits per year for personal consumption without a permit.

But federal law trumps state law, and to the feds, distilling at home for personal consumption is illegal, period.