Distilling the home brewers dilemma….

Governor Bob Riley

Back last May, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law the bill that turned thousands of Alabamians from criminals to connoisseurs.  With the passage of HB9, The Alabama Homebrew Bill, Alabamians now have the legal ability to brew small batches of beer in their homes from raw ingredients.  I’ve done this, and it was great fun!  (I lived in Tennessee… where it was legal at the time).  It’s pretty fun trying to turn raw materials into a finished mug of perfectly brewed beer.

Now, with home brewing legal in Alabama, one must ask why it isn’t legal for home distilling?

The simple answer is that the distillation of spirits is controlled exclusively at the federal level, and all home distillery activities are strictly illegal.  After all, we can’t have a moonshine still in every backyard… can we?

Why is distilling linked to home brewing?  Because there is only one step extra added to distilling a spirit than brewing a beer.  Some may believe that it is that specific step that makes distilled liquor contain more alcohol than beer.  And you’d be right.  Sort of.

Distillation does not create alcohol.  Period.  The chemistry behind distillation dictates that it can not!  Distilling happens at high temperatures, well over 170F, is simply too high for yeast to create alcohol.  So distillation does not make alcohol at all.

Spirits are made from distilling a fermented mash.  And making a mash is no different in distilling than it is in making beer.  In fact, you could use a mash from beer making to distill a beer spirit.  It wouldn’t be very good, but you could do it.

So all distilling involves is using heat and cooling to concentrate the alcohol.  But distilling isn’t the only way to do it.  Beer makers use a different method.  Ever had an Ice Beer?  It’s beer that has been concentrated by freezing.  Alcohol doesn’t freeze as quickly as ice, so if you freeze a beer and remove the ice, you have a more concentrated alcohol content in the beer.  But freezing beer isn’t illegal.  So why is distillation?

Because, Prohibition!  Because, Moonshiners!  Because, Drunks!

Let’s be honest.  Because, TAXES!  The same arguments that Alabama Home Brewers fought getting Home Brewing legal, that home brewing will lead to drunkards, loss of tax revenue, and general unlawfulness, are the same ones (only on a national level) that home distillers face.  But just like in home brewing, they just don’t make sense.

Not the Home Brewers Beer

Let’s handle the drunkards issue first.  Just like home brewers, home distillers aren’t cooking up their elixirs for getting drunk.  Being drunk doesn’t allow you to enjoy the flavors, some quite subtle, in your brew or spirit.  So home brewers and home distillers aren’t looking for a quick drunk without paying tax on it.  Because, well… there is nothing quick or cheap about the hobby.  To make five gallons of beer or spirits, typically the size a home brewer can deal with, you’re spending at least double… if not triple… the cost of a cheap beer in the same quantity or a cheap spirit in the same quantity.  And yet, after spending the money you have nothing to drink.  You’ve wurt to make, and mash to ferment.  And a second fermentation if you’re making beer.  Staying with beer, there is bottling and bottle conditioning.  All this takes weeks and weeks.  Distillers may be a shade faster.  They stop at the first fermentation and move on to the distillation.  But sometimes, it must be distilled twice.  And that’s assuming that you’re not aging the distillation any.  Because if you are… you’re talking years.  In either case it is far cheaper and faster to fetch a case of Natty Lite or Burton’s Vodka if all you’re looking for is a quick, cheap drunk.

As to loss of taxes, it’s rubbish.  Home Brewers/Distillers would be paying taxes on all the ingredients that they use in making their liquid.  The only place that the state/feds lose taxes is on the sale of the brew/spirit.  And that’s BS.  One of the rules of all home brewers/distillers is that they can’t sell their brew/spirit.  So there isn’t any loss there.  But what’s the point of being a home brewer/distiller if you can’t prove you’re better than the big boys?  So the home boys compare to the big boys.  So they have to buy the big boy’s products anyways.  And, taxes!  I’ve been to a home brewer’s tasting.  They are all the same.  The brewer pulls out his brew and a selection of the brews he thinks he’s competing with.  Flights are poured.  Beer is tasted.  Everyone applauds the brewmaster for being better than the big boys.  And the brewmaster knows how truthful they were by how eagerly they grab the proffered four packs.  (BTW, the more eager the more truthful.)

Now we come to the rub.  General unlawfulness is harder to argue with distilling than brewing.  Because of the double fermentation process brewers prefer, the cost of setting up for mass quantities of production is prohibited.  Add to it the bottling expense, so it gets even worse.  Beer by the bottle is just cost prohibited.  Plus, the big boys do thing a bit differently, and the difference is not appreciated among the Natty Lite crowd.  So selling large quantities of home brew is hard because there is no demand.

Spirits are different.  Clearly there is a demand, otherwise there wouldn’t be moonshiners.  Preparing a mash isn’t that difficult, and distilling it isn’t either.  Moonshine isn’t aged, so it isn’t that hard to make.  Additionally, it’s barely cut and the bitting taste is desired so its rarely filtered.  The result is that what a hobby distiller would consider a early first step, a moonshiner considers a finished product.  (This isn’t a slam on moonshine.  I’ve tasted some mighty fine moonshine that was obviously crafted with care.  I didn’t pay for it, nor did I think to check on the bona fides of the person offering me a taste.)

So it is possible a moonshiner would try to hide his moonshining under the guise of hobby distilling.  However there are still drawbacks.  Five gallons isn’t exactly a windfall, so the moonshiner is more likely to continue his dead of night distillation in the woods than small batches in his garage.  Also, who cares if the moonshiner hides in the garage?  If the making of it isn’t illegal, the moonshiners is more likely to take greater care in making their product.  I’m serious, have you thought about how clean these backwoods setups truly are?  After all, it’s the sale that’s illegal, not the making (if home distilling was legalized) so catch them there.  Let the sales be the target, since the making is now safer anyway.  And the legalization will allow thousands of hobby distillers create a whole new economy.

Yes, I said economy.  The (not so) recent explosion of  great craft beers is directly linked to the healthy home brew crew.  No big boy brewmaster will take a risk on a new recipe.  But a small to medium brewer will see that boysenberry is selling like crazy at the home brew store and will take the chance.  (I’ve never had a boysenberry flavored beer.  Someone make some, and I will.  Maybe.  I don’t like boysenberry.)  In Tennessee, there is a growing micro-distillary industry.  That micro-distillary industry will only grow faster, sooner, with hobby distillers taking chances the commercial places can’t.  Additionally, the micro-distillary industry is suffering from a lack of experienced distillers.  Bringing back Home Distillation will allow a new crop of future distillers to grow up outside of the big boys influence.

Who knows, in a few years following legalized home distillery, boysenberry infused vodka may be the new, hot cocktail mixer.  Then again, maybe not.

 –I must stress that my discussion of how to make both beer and spirits is intentionally rudimentary.  I actually know a good bit more, but didn’t find the details relevant to the overall discussion of legalizing home distilled spirits.  For example, I alluded to the fact that the big boys don’t bottle condition without explaining what bottle conditioning actually is.  Why home brewers bottle conditions and why the big boys don’t isn’t really relevant here.  But I just know some militant (tongue firmly implanted in check) home brewer would complain that I didn’t explain something correctly.–