How Can I Legally Distill at Home?
Photo courtesy of Clear Water Distilling
At StillDragon, we get a lot of questions about the best ways to legally distill spirits at home. Home distilling is an issue that can be both confusing and straightforward at the same time. We are not lawyers by any stretch of the imagination, and we are definitely not licensed to give legal advice, so nothing in this article is intended to replace the advice of a licensed legal professional. The short answer is that distilling spirits without a license is illegal at the federal level and that supersedes any statutes in your state.
Several states have home distilling laws worded in such a way that if it were legal federally, then it would be legal there… but some states would still ban distilling spirits at home regardless of federal legality. Some local enforcement agencies turn a blind eye on small stills for personal use, since the laws were put into place primarily to ensure that taxes are collected. However, unless you have a license, you can be penalized for distilling spirits at home. Please do your own research on home distilling laws and/or seek legal counsel before distilling any spirits or even purchasing any distilling equipment, because in some states it’s illegal to even own a still.
At the federal level, things are pretty cut and dry when it comes to distilling spirits at home. The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau‘s (TTB) website states that “while individuals of legal drinking age may produce wine or beer at home for personal or family use, federal law strictly prohibits individuals from producing distilled spirits at home (see 26 United States Code (U.S.C.) 5042(a)(2) and 5053(e)).”
In other words, beer and wine are fine to produce at home but the distillation of spirits requires a license. This seems pretty straightforward, albeit hypocritical. (If you’d like to know more about how to navigate the licensing process, we’ve got a great blog about it here.)
In addition to the federal requirements for distilling permits, each state has its own home distilling laws and some are more distiller-friendly than others.
Florida Home Distilling Laws
For example, the laws in our home state of Florida explicitly state in Title XXXIV: Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco 561.17 that a license is required:
License and registration applications; approved person. (1) Any person, before engaging in the business of manufacturing, bottling, distributing, selling, or in any way dealing in alcoholic beverages, shall file, with the district licensing personnel of the district of the division in which the place of business for which a license is sought is located, a sworn application in the format prescribed by the division.
If you don’t have a license, any property or raw materials used in the manufacture and sale of materials for the purpose of “evading tax” by producing untaxed spirits can be confiscated. In fact, it is a felony in Florida to have one gallon or more of illegally produced spirits. Under a gallon is considered a misdemeanor by the state of Florida but the seizure of property can still be enforced. Another Florida quirk is that it’s illegal to even own a still without a license here, so you technically couldn’t even legally distill water if you wanted to.
In contrast to Florida, some state’s home distilling laws allow “legal” moonshining, even though it’s considered illegal federally. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Federal law does supersede state law, but since we’re not lawyers, it is up to you to research your options for distilling spirits at home. Each state really is very different. Here is a great resource to check your state’s laws regarding distilling.
Options to Distill Spirits at Home
So, if you happen to live in a place with friendlier laws and are curious about getting started (and haven’t been scared off yet!), there are a couple of options for home distillers. For those who get a license and are new to distilling or for those who live in a state that allows home distillation of “water”, a relatively inexpensive option is to start with a milk can kettle and either a copper helmet or a small column. These are great systems to learn on since they are customizable, and you can tailor each system to your needs.
The type of equipment you choose is going to depend on what you want to make. As a general rule, plated columns will give a better separation of the different components. They will also give you a purer product than running through a copper helmet. The more plates there are in the system, the better the separation will be. This is why most systems that produce vodka have somewhere between 12 and 30 plates.
There’s a seemingly endless debate about how much copper is the right amount on a still, and while there are a lot of advantages, the law of diminishing returns applies as well. You can create wonderful products on stills made of glass, stainless steel, or copper so it’s up to you to decide how much you’d like to budget for equipment. A good rule of thumb is that glass is cheaper than stainless steel, and stainless steel is cheaper than copper. Ultimately, whatever material you choose, make sure that you’re properly cleaning your equipment.
Hopefully you now understand a bit more about home distilling laws and what you need to get started distilling spirits at home. If you have any questions about the equipment you’ll need, please give us a call at (561) 903-4689. If you have any questions about the laws in your area or the consequences of home distilling, please call a local lawyer, as they’ll be able to help you much more than we can!