Feds Take a Sudden Interest in Busting Home Distillers

BrewhausBrewhausLast March investigators with the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) joined agents from the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in a "moonshine operation" that yielded eight arrests and 46 home stills. The TTB explained that "the possession of unregistered stills and the production of distilled spirits without a Federal permit and without payment of tax are Federal felony offenses which may result in the seizure and forfeiture of land and other property associated with the illegal activity." The TTB helpfully added that "persons wishing to distill spirits legally are encouraged to visit the TTB distilled spirits homepage at http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/index.shtml for guidance and to apply for a permit." Amateur distillers are apt to be disappointed by the information on that page, which includes the following:

You may not produce spirits for beverage purposes without paying taxes and without prior approval of paperwork to operate a distilled spirits plant. [See 26 U.S.C. 5601 &5602 for some of the criminal penalties.] There are numerous requirements that must be met that also make it impractical to produce spirits for personal or beverage use. Some of these requirements are filing an extensive application, filing a bond, providing adequate equipment to measure spirits, providing suitable tanks and pipelines, providing a separate building (other than a dwelling) and maintaining detailed records, and filing reports. All of these requirements are listed in 27 CFR Part 19.

In other words, if you want to try your hand at distilling without risking arrest and forfeiture, forget it. Unlike home winemaking and brewing, which have been legal since 1978, home distilling is a federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison (plus five more for tax fraud). But until recently, according to Rick Morris, founder of the Hobby Distiller's Association, the feds did not much care if you turned your homemade wine into brandy or your homemade beer (minus the hops) into whiskey, as long as you didn't make any money in the process. Morris, who owns Brewhaus America, a leading supplier of home distilling equipment that has been serving amateur spirit makers since 1999, says the raids in Florida, which mainly targeted "simple hobbyists," reflect a shift in policy:

In May of 2013, the TTB demanded sales records from major distillation equipment distributors reaching back to 2010, and required the ongoing forfeit of this information for every distiller or major distiller component sold, including the name and address of the purchaser! It now appears that this information is being utilized by the TTB as a target list. Purchasing as little as a simple boiling kettle from one of these companies may well earn you a visit from armed TTB agents.

Morris argues that the ban on home distilling, which merely concentrates the alcohol that people already are allowed to produce through fermentation, is arbitrary and should be repealed by Congress. In the meantime, he wonders why the TTB seems suddenly intent on enforcing that ban:

In their most recent not-so-veiled threat, the TTB sent letters to a large group of distiller owners—again, mostly hobbyists—outlining the law and the associated penalties, and including a copy of their press release about their enforcement action in Florida.

What kind of resources are they devoting to this effort, and what benefit do they expect in return? Hobbyists are normal, law abiding Americans—they aren't criminal organizations, they represent absolutely no threat to public health or safety, are not cheating the government of excise tax revenues from illicit sales, etc. 

What public policy objective are they hoping to advance? I can't think of a good one.

Me neither, but I am not a federal alcohol regulator. As I reported back in 1994, people with that job tend to take stupid rules very seriously.

Reason TV covered the ban on home distilling in 2010:

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  • Almanian!||

    Oh, good!

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Don't worry Al, you can still purify water. Just make sure you save the contaminants in an oak barrel in your basement for safe keeping...feel free to drink the water.

  • Sudden||

    Sudden.... interest... distillers.

    Those words strung together to make sense in consideration of the dram of Lagavulin I had at lunch (to wash down the McDonald's, damn you playa).

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    I went Lebanese instead. I'm still burping up parmesan-feta fries.

  • ||

    Did you make it to the Greek Festival this year? The gyro meat was excellent this year. The herb-parm fries were solid, but not excellent.

  • Sudden||

    Wtf? Why are you getting fries at a Greek festival. Flaming saganaki cheese, jesse. Alternatively, taramazatlata with pita.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    I don't think the one at Saint Nicholas has the cheese. Good gyros and outstanding souvlaki though.

  • ||

    Also, I have no idea what taramazatlata is. One of you is responsible for fixing this. Sort out that responsibility amongst yourselves.

  • Sudden||

    Misspelling on my part, its taramasalata. It's essentially a carp roe spread for pita and crackers. And it's ungodly delicious.

    As for Greek cuisine options, most of my regular places are a travel for you (Malibu, Ventura, and Sherman Oaks). Closest I can vouch for is the one at the Grove. However, as per my googlefu, there's a place in South L.A. called Papa Cristo's with strong reviews and taramasalata available. I will check it out first, but should it pass the test, it may be a reasonable option at some point.

  • ||

    Fair enough. My Greek cuisine knowledge is less than stellar. I've made a decent agvolemono (and utterly destroyed one) and did a passable tsoureki for easter one year, but I've mostly stuck to dishes that are American standard Greek.

    I don't mind travel as long as it's not on a freeway at rush hour.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    Malibu is a perfectly reasonable meeting place, as long as there's parking.

    If I go to the valley, I'm getting chinese.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    The one on Balboa & Plummer in Northridge? Missed it this year. I think it would have been Memorial Day? I was in San Diego this year.

    Sucks, because my grandpa lives a block from there, so I don't have to deal with the parking and shuttle.
    Best souvlaki I've ever had was there.

  • Sudden||

    Next time you make it up to Malibu, I highly recommend stopping in at Taverna Tony (no relation to resident H&R troll, AFAIK). Can be a bit spendy, but the best greek food I've had (omitting my childhood greek escapades in Chicago since I can't reliably judge food as a five year old). If you go greek feast, you'll not be disappointed. And you'll have plenty of left over pastichio, lamb, taramazatlata, etc to last for days.

  • ||

    No, the little Redondo one at Saint Katherine's. The one in Northridge is better, but the food is decent and folks are friendly.

    Also they started doing loukoumathes a year or two ago.

  • PapayaSF||

    Jesse: some years ago I did some diligent searching and found a recipe for making gyro meat at home, without a vertical roaster. Basically, mix equal parts ground lamb and ground beef with the right spices, form into a thin and flat patty, bake until brown, cut into strips. Add plenty of homemade tzatziki sauce (sour cream, yogurt, cucumber, dill), chopped tomatoes and onions, and serve on Trader Joe's flatbread or equivalent.

  • ||

    Plàya made some that way (or similarly) and it was delicious. The meat I had Sunday was spectacular though, juicy, great flavor and a but more tender than I've come to expect.

    I do tzatziki (or near enough) to go with grilled peppers and onions although I go straight yogurt instead of mixing with sour cream and salt it a bit. I've caught people drinking it after they'd run out of veggies so I guess it turns out ok.

  • Hyperion||

    Well, maybe someone will blow themselves and their neighbors up with one of these dangerous homemade stills. I mean, I haven't read a news story in the last ... ok, in the last ..., ok I've never read about anyone blowing up anything with a homemade still. But that has to be the reason , right? Because our government's only concern is protecting us, so there has to a reasonable explanation about why it's necessary to jail and steal the property of anyone who tries distilling something without government permission, right? Right???

  • Dweebston||

    there has to a reasonable explanation

    Mission creep, revenue plying, and FYTW all spring to mind.

  • ||

    I have heard of more than one person being killed or injured in a still explosion.

    However, multiply that number by 2 and you get the number of people I've heard killed by farm accidents that go completely unregulated by the government, multiply it by 10 and you get the number of people I've heard about killed in military training accidents, and multiply it by 2,000 and you get the number of people the government willingly marches to their death anyway.

  • Hyperion||

    I haven't heard of anyone dying in a still explosion, but I hear just about every day about someone dying unnecessarily via cop. Let's ban cops instead of stills. I would feel safer.

  • perlhaqr||

    The cited concern isn't "blowing up a still" it's "poisoning people". Something about copper kettles and lead solder joints and chemical reactions. I'm not a chemist or a distiller, so I don't know if those concerns are "reasonable" or not, but that's the claimed issue.

  • ||

    Nope, open flame and compressed flammable liquids are the main concern.

    You're apparently not a plumber either, houses have been plumbed with lead and copper pipes for centuries.

  • Pathogen||

    It is alleged that lead makes you crazy, and copper/+ ethanol makes you blind... It's a wonder that humanity ever survived.

  • ||

    At the rist of ending up on a watchlist;
    I'm no stranger to distillation and spirits.

    Lead does make you crazy ("mad as a hatter" as it were), but you have to effectively dissolve and ingest sufficient amounts of it first. Passing liquids like water and alcohol through it is generally insufficient.

    Copper and ethanol don't make you go blind, methanol (from incomplete fermentation) will. Copper and ethanol only become a problem if you try to do stupid stuff with a copper still. The products don't make you go blind so much as generally poison /pickle you (acids and aldehydes). If they were a problem, they really should do something about the big copper tanks that distillers all over the world use.

    IANAL, the ATF may tack these issues on to keep their jobs, but they aren't reasonable dangers of distillation.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I thought methanol was from not properly controlling the distillation temperature. If it is from incomplete fermentation, why is it not a risk in homebrewing?

  • robc||

    incomplete distillation, not fermentation.

  • ||

    I thought methanol was from not properly controlling the distillation temperature.

    It is. Methanol is wood alcohol. All fruits and veggies have both wood and sugar. Get the temperature high enough and you'll ferment everything and get plenty of methanol with your ethanol.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Methanol is NOT a problem from home distillation.

    Methanol poisoning WAS a Prohibition-era problem, but only because bad bootleggers used cheap methanol to adulterate moonshine and because methanol was used to denature industrial ethanol.

  • Pathogen||

    "but you have to effectively dissolve and ingest sufficient amounts of it first. Passing liquids like water and alcohol through it is generally insufficient."

    Lead acetate is the impurity that they piss and moan about, the pewter roman wine decanters are alleged to have driven the emperors mad. Apparently, inbreeding, paranoia, and sociopathy aren't as clear cut problems as once figured.

    " The products don't make you go blind so much as generally poison /pickle you (acids and aldehydes)."

    Yeah, ketones and aldehydes (pyridine), that they use to denaturalize ethanol, to remove the taxes on it... ironic.

  • Sudden||

    Predictable but unintended consequences created by a meddlesome tax structure? Can't be....

  • JD the elder||

    Argh. Everybody just shut up for a minute.

    Firstly: Yes, methanol is dangerous. But distillation does not magically cause ethanol to turn into methanol. If there was no methanol in your wine/beer/other source, it will not magically appear in the distillate, and methanol does not magically appear in your source. Did you put wine yeast into grape juice? Or beer yeast into wort? Congratulations, you don't have methanol. The scare stories about methanol mostly stem from Prohibition when people were trying to pass off methanol as ethanol, or trying to chemically scrub the methanol from denatured alcohol.

    Secondly: Yes, copper salts are toxic and are bad for you. But the answer is simple: don't use copper tubing in your still.

  • CatoTheElder||

    The fermentation of pure sugar yields zero methanol. Fermentation of a grain mash yields insignificant MeOH.

    The fermentation of fruit, apples in particular, does yield a small amount of methanol. If I remember correctly, it's a function of pectin content, so wine also has a small amount of MeOH.

    Reasonably good distillation practice eliminates any possibility of methanol poisoning.

    Like you said, methanol poisoning is not a distillation problem; it's an adulteration problem.

  • DC_36||

    Old-school hatters used mercury to waterproof hats - that what drove them crazy and originationed the "mad as a hatter" term. Not lead.

  • Pathogen||

    Mercuric nitrate was used in a process called carroting, in which animals furs were separated from their skins and matted together, an orange-colored solution containing mercuric nitrate was used as a smoothing agent. The resulting felt was then repeatedly shaped into large cones, shrunk in boiling water and dried.In treated felts, a slow reaction released volatile free mercury. Hatters (or milliners) who came into contact with vapors from the impregnated felt often worked in confined areas.
  • GroundTruth||

    The problem is in the distillation. No fermentation proceeds without making a variety of other substance in addition to ethanol. The trick, and the art, of distillation is at both ends of the process. Numerous lighter materials come off prior to the ethanol and must be discarded. Other heavier substances remain in the pot after most of the ethanol is boiled off. If you are cheap and try to get too much ethanol you can run into issues with some nasty stuff at either end. Get it right, and you get some great stuff, get it wrong, and you get a headache. (Anyone considering avoiding those problems by going the applejack route - freezing out the water to increase the EtOH concentration - risks at least a really bad hangover since only the water is removed, and the nasties are in fact concentrated in the remaining liquid phase.) Not that any of this had to do with why the Feds want to control this; at the end of the day, it was always just about revenue - read up on the Whiskey Rebellion which was one of Washington's post revolution crises.

    I may not play an analytical chemist in a TV show, but for reasons I can't fathom, I get paid to do that sort of work for a significant portion of my time.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Good distillation practice separates methanol from the distillate.

    Methanol and water are not azeotropic, and methanol has a boiling point of about 65 C. So, distillation of methanol is simple. One simply starts collecting the liquor when the ferment is over 76 C in the first run. In subsequent runs, cut at 76.7 C to remove methanol.

    It's simple distillation. If one tries to squeeze out too much ethanol by cutting at a lower temperatures, then they're going to get some methanol. Not enough to kill the consumer, but enough to give a nasty hangover. Moonshine is generally cut back with water to less than 50% EtOH for safe storage and delivery. Consumers usually mix it with cola or some other diluent before drinking such that the methanol content is not too much higher than the original ferment. Distillation does not synthesize methanol.

  • perlhaqr||

    I dunno about your house, but I don't have open flames under my pipes...

  • Hyperion||

    Oh, I see, that's why jailing people and stealing their property is a really good solution, instead of educating them and making it easy to test their experimental product without threat of all the aforementioned, and in the best interest of the people, who government is supposed to represent.

    Makes sense, if you are a shameless member of the criminal gang running this country.

  • perlhaqr||

    I didn't say I agreed with it. Just that I had heard that was the concern. Which is even apparently wrong. *shrug*

  • Robert||

    Their concern is the tax revenue, pure & simple. They figure home distillers would otherwise be buying taxed liquor.

    The paperwork would not be worth their while (nor the hobbyist's) for hobbyists—too few $ for too much checking—so they just don't have a hobby exemption.

  • Dweebston||

    What public policy objective are they hoping to advance? I can't think of a good one.

    You mean "harshing folks' buzz" isn't somewhere in the Constitution?

  • Hyperion||

    I think it's under one of those amendments, either 'For the Children', or 'FYTW'.

  • perlhaqr||

    Fuck the ATF.

  • Brandon||

    Totally, but this is a completely different 100%-unnecessay government agency. TTB.

  • Brandon||

    *unnecessary.

  • Libertymike||

    Aren't they all!

  • Brandon||

    No. There are some necessary agencies, like...umm, and then there's....give me a minute.

  • Pathogen||

    TTB took the BATF(E)'s place when they jumped their mandate, and merged with the DOJ..
    I think.

  • Brandon||

    Nope. Different agency, different department. ATF is "Justice." TTB is Treasury.

  • Pathogen||

    Yeah, that was what I was stating, the BATFE was once part of the treasury dept., and administered/enforced the tax stamps for firearms, and their IOI's would visit and inspect bars, liquor stores, and gun shops.. among other venues. As chronic and habitual fuck-ups, they have been without an actual department head for over a decade. They were merged with the DOJ a few years back. I figured that the TTB was doing the job that the utterly useless BATFE used to do at the treasury after the BATFE jumped mandated and merged with the DOJ....

  • Brandon||

    TTB is doing that job, but ATF still exists and is still actively terrorizing citizens.

  • perlhaqr||

    This is why I was confused, apparently. I thought ATF was part of Treasury.

    But apparently they just split, like some sort of horrible amoeba.

  • Libertymike||

    How many more hundreds of millions of specific examples manifesting outrageous violations of the NAP by the state, inevitably resulting in the aggressed being caged, deprived of their property, raped or murdered do you miniarchists need to see before you get the picture?

  • LynchPin1477||

    Just one more. I swear.

  • Pathogen||

    They only beat us because they love us.. and can't express it like other people can..

  • Another Phil||

    How many times does someone have to answer this same question before you will stop repeating it over and over?

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    The beatings will continue until morale improves!

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    Morris argues that the ban on home distilling, which merely concentrates the alcohol that people already are allowed to produce through fermentation, is arbitrary and should be repealed by Congress.

    Sounds like a dangerous scofflaw who flouts the rules of democratic society.

    What kind of resources are they devoting to this effort, and what benefit do they expect in return?

    1) Someone else's
    2) The opportunity to expand their budget while defending the sacred principle of lawnorder

  • Pathogen||

    Ahhh... to see the heads of the ATF tried, and convicted under their own precious RICO act for shit like this... I can still dream.

  • Libertymike||

    Yeah, keep dreaming. At least you can pretend that you don't live in a filthy, nasty police state that cages more people than any other.

  • Brandon||

    Not ATF. TTB. Different alphabet soup, same uselessness.

  • Pathogen||

    Right hand, left hand... same body. I don't care which arm the government is hitting us with, they need to stop.. and quietly go fuck themselves in a corner somewhere..

  • Brandon||

    Yep. But pointing out that there are two abusive agencies with the same pointless jurisdiction is an excellent way to expose the utter absurdity of the federal government.

  • Pathogen||

    Yeah, right on. That's how the leviathan grows...

  • croaker||

    Lime pits don't care.

  • ||

    Don't buy this as a decorative item for your home!

  • Pathogen||

    This works them up into a lathered frenzy, as well..

  • LynchPin1477||

    What public policy objective are they hoping to advance?

    I'm trying to imagine what a TTB/ATF/WTF agent would actually say to this, and my guess is something about public health and rule of law. Some people really believe rules have to be followed simply because they are rules, and whether or not they are good rules doesn't matter. I don't have much respect for those types of people.

    I'm not sure if this makes me want to distill more or less. I was already interested in trying it, but is having my own shitty liquor really worth the risk of paying a bunch of fines or going to jail? No. But I do love this little acts of defiance as a way of illustrating what consent of the governed truly means. If only there was someone upstairs to actually get the damn message.

  • Robert||

    No, the objective is money. That's all it's been since before the country's founding. See Whiskey Rebellion, for instance.

  • sarcasmic||

    Did they ask permission? Are they obeying orders? No? Well, then. They're not free.

  • sarcasmic||

    Seriously though, a while back I looked into this to see if there was a legal way to do it as a hobby. There wasn't. But people sold the equipment anyway. Kind of. You had to sign a paper promising to never distil alcohol, and authorize federal agents search the place at any time, just to be sure. So much for that.

  • DC_36||

    "You had to sign a paper promising to never distil alcohol, and [i]authorize federal agents search the place at any time[/i], just to be sure. So much for that."

    Is that even legal to require, or binding?

  • sarcasmic||

    It was a federal license to own distilling equipment for the purpose of distilling something other than alcohol, or something. I don't know. It was like ten years ago.

  • GroundTruth||

    The distillation gear they sell (mostly knockoffs from college chem 101 organic synth labs) is sold with a disclaimer something like "for display purposes only, not to be used for actual distillation".

  • sarcasmic||

    I was looking at things that were a step or three above toy.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Traveling around Laos and China, I have seen about a dozen home-based distilleries, and purchased the wares of most of them.

    That's COMMUNIST Laos and China ... and I'm certain that the proprietors of the distilleries didn't have to comply with onerous regulations. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a few shared some of their production with the local constabulary, but I doubt they paid much in taxes either.

    Makes me proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The thing is, if people get used to tne idea of growing their own weed, brewing their own beer, distilling their own booze, without asking leave of The Authorities, then the Status Quo could get seriously seasick. I mean, the little people might start to tell their Betters to go climb a tree.

    And the loong loooooong effort to keep employing all those redundent Prohibition Agents would finally fail.

    Not before time.

  • DWC||

    Cue Lee Greenwood.

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    My grandmother distilled her own gin, during Prohibition. I might have to take up an interest myself!

  • GroundTruth||

    Supposedly my great grandparents (immigrant Swedes) made their own beer, but I never heard of trying to set up a still, only about beer bottles exploding every now and then.

  • GroundTruth||

    Supposedly my great grandparents (immigrant Swedes) made their own beer, but I never heard of trying to set up a still, only about beer bottles exploding every now and then.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    You all complain too much.

    The federal gov just wants to ensure that you're free to exploit the wealth-creating nature of the division of labor by purchasing your spirits from approved vendors. Don't libertarians support the division of labor and wealth?

  • CatoTheElder||

    Only when it is voluntary!

  • sarcasmic||

    To pay Revolutionary War debt, one of the very first acts of Congress was to tax distilled liquor. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion. And for more than a century that's how the federal government got something like three quarters of its revenue. That's how the income tax came along. It was preparation for Prohibition, since the government was planning to outlaw its most significant source of revenue. Of course the income tax didn't go away with Prohibition. And this shit is just an excuse to fuck with people and steal their property.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    I have a friend who sells cigars on the side and recently started reloading mass quantities of ammo for sale. He mentioned that he was thinking about starting distilling and selling shine. At that point he had A, T and F all covered.

    ... Hobbit

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    Note to above: He has no interest in "E" (since they renamed the agency).

    Also, for the NSA: I don't really have this friend. Really. Promise.

    BH

  • SIV||

    "Socially liberal"

  • croaker||

    By the way, this also prohibits medieval methods such as freeze distilling.

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