Posted by Jason Sheehan on November 1st, 2011
Distilling your own alcohol is complicated, dangerous and completely illegal. Here is why you should do it anyway.
Making whiskey is like magic. A little grain, a little water, a little heat, a few feet of copper pipe, and what comes out the far end is the essence of human civilization and the reason the Irish don’t rule the world.
The prohibition against making your own whiskey (or vodka, gin, brandy or plain ol’ backwoods ruckus juice) is the exact opposite of magic—a purely human contrivance designed (some would argue) to stop dim-witted hillbillies from blowing themselves up and going blind from drinking pure methanol. Or (others contend) to keep a heavily taxed and eminently desirable product completely under the control of the various governments who make their nickels off man’s taste for stiff intoxicants.
And though we are certainly not the first to say so, after months spent drinking our way through Philly’s best and worst bars, we have come to the conclusion that it is time either for this prohibition against home distilling to come to a legal end or, failing that, for the people of Philadelphia to engage in a bit of time-honored and historic civil disobedience and start making their own.
But wait … we’re not really telling you to violate federal law and risk fines and imprisonment just for the sake of a few ounces of homemade oh-be-joyful, are we?
Yes. We are. And we’ve got some very good reasons.
First, Pennsylvania has a long and noble history of moonshinin’ and bootleggin’, going all the way back to 1794 and the Whiskey Rebellion, when thousands of Pennsylvanians—pissed off about President George Washington’s tax on grain whiskey produced by farmers making the best use of their leftover crop—took up arms, gathered in a field, and came this close to civil war over their right to make and sell all the damn hooch they wanted.
Second, the prohibition against home distilling (a final loathsome vestige of the 1919 Volstead Act) is nonsensical, since it makes distilled spirits and liquors a completely different class of intoxicants—a “bad” alcohol, set off against the “good” alcohols like wine and beer (which has been legal to brew at home since 1978).
And finally, it was precisely this legalization of home-brewing that led to the explosion in American craft-brewing we’re enjoying today. It wasn’t the big multinational corporations that introduced all the ales, bitters, bocks and lambics being drunk in American brewpubs, but a bunch of half-loaded mad scientists with barrels of stout and lager fermenting away in their garages.
So yes, we’re saying that the hour has come for American home-and-craft-distillery. We’re saying it’s time to bring the modern moonshiners out of the darkness and into the light. We’re saying to be careful, certainly. To claim, if the ATF comes a-knocking, that you’re making ethanol for your hybrid (which is legal, provided you have the right paperwork). But mostly, we’re asking you to think about what a few smart fellas with some water, hops, barley, yeast and too much time on their hands have done for American beer drinkers.
And what could result if that same wild talent and passion were loosed on the world of hard liquor.
Illustration by Steve Sanford
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