As state governments kick off their spring legislative seasons, a bill introduced in the Ohio Senate will attempt to legalize home alcohol distilling. Whether this leads to an uptick in at-home distillers in the Buckeye State is a trickier question, especially since home distilling is currently illegal at the federal level.
To the average person, it may come as a surprise that distilling liquor in your garage remains illegal in 2023, while homebrewing and winemaking have been legal for decades. Limits on the home production of alcohol trace back to Prohibition, and recent attempts to change the status quo at the federal level have failed to gain traction.
To understand the current prohibition on home distilling, it's helpful to look at the history of homebrewing in America over the past few decades. Until President Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing at the federal level in 1978, craft beer was a niche activity. The craft beer boom roughly coincided with Carter's reform, as the number of breweries in America grew from under a hundred in 1978 to over 9,000 by 2021.
Needless to say, Americans did not suddenly learn how to make beer in the late 1970s; in reality, Carter's reform merely brought thousands of secret homebrewers out of their garages and basements and into taprooms. Able to make money off their talents, a wave of homebrewers opened up microbreweries throughout the '80s, '90s, and '00s, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, a similar situation pertains to home distilling—sometimes referred to as hobby distilling. Federal law prohibits home distilling, and anyone violating the law is potentially subject to a felony and five years in prison. Like so many laws in our overcriminalized society, however, there is uncertainty about how rigorously these laws are enforced. Similar to homebrewers in the '70s and '80s, it's likely that some of America's craft distilleries started out as clandestine home distilling operations.
Many hobby distillers buy distilling equipment and claim to only use it to make essential oils, while others even resort to contrivances like obtaining a federal permit to distill gasoline—as Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog, has noted, "it's a tough argument whether or not your fuel smells too good to be running your lawnmower."
In addition to the federal prohibition, numerous states have laws on the books forbidding home distilling. A handful of states—including Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Missouri—allow home distilling for personal consumption. Now, Ohio is the latest state to attempt to remove its ban.
But it's far from clear how the federal government would react in a hypothetical situation where a home distiller makes alcohol that is legal under Ohio law but technically still illegal under federal law. In such a case, some legal observers have speculated that the feds might treat home distilling like it currently does marijuana in states where cannabis is legalized. At the same time, there have been examples of the federal government cracking down on home distillers in recent years, so making your own hooch is not a risk-free proposition.
Regardless, it is worth taking a step back and considering whether home distilling should be considered a felonious activity in modern-day America. On the one hand, distilling carries risks, including fire and explosions, if not handled properly. On the other hand, the same could be said about firearms, firecrackers, and turkey fryers—all of which Americans are allowed to possess and use with varying levels of regulation.
If policy makers are concerned, they could always develop simple, straightforward rules around home distilling, such as requiring a cheap and simple permit that would demonstrate that a home distiller possesses basic competency and understanding of the distilling process.
In the meantime, until the federal government changes its laws, the best hobby distillers can hope for is more state-level reforms like in Ohio—and a murky federal enforcement posture.