Is Distilling and Brewing Legal in the US?

Since the 4th century AD people have been distilling water, essential oils, spirits, and other liquids in their homes. Copper stills were used a long time ago for distillation and these have evolved into the moonshine stills and others that we see today. Wine is produced through fermentation and beer through fermentation followed by the brewing process. Spirits, on the other hand, have to go through fermentation and then distillation and this is what distinguishes them. 

Today, however, while alcoholic beverages are still being distillation (some at home) this space is highly regulated and strict compliance is expected.  

Are distilling and brewing legal?

Yes and no. 

Commercial distilling is legal provided it complies with regulations and one should obtain the necessary licenses and permits. 

On the other hand, it is illegal to distill spirits at home with the intention of consumption. In fact, there are no regulations for home distilling. It is illegal. Plain and simple.

We shall look at regulations later in this article.

Why is it illegal to distill spirits at home for personal consumption?

The level of risk posed by stills is so high that they cannot be left unregulated. Various permits or licenses are available at federal, state, and even local level, for the legal production of alcohol.
  • Lack of regular inspection of the facility or the distilling process. Lack of inspection poses health risks to consumers since the quality of the alcohol is not known and may be compromised. There is a high possibility of drinks being contaminated and/or poisoned particularly with metals like lead whose elements most likely occur on distillation equipment, when it comes to distilling process
  • Risk of blindness and death. Methanol, a very hazardous impurity found in home-distilled alcohol more than in commercially manufactured alcohol is known to cause blindness and eventual death. 
  • Risk of fires and explosions. Ethanol is highly flammable and if utmost care is not taken, it can cause fires and explosions.

Laws on commercial distilling and brewing

There are three levels of laws and regulations that govern owning stills and distillation.

Federal distillation law

According to federal law, it is “legal for anyone to own distilling equipment if it is used for legal purposes”. Legal purposes include ethanol distillation for fuel or distillation of non-alcoholic liquids like water and essential oils. There are other reasons why people may legally own distilling equipment, for instance, if they are using them for aesthetics. You may not need a permit for production non-alcoholic liquids. However, a permit is needed for ethanol distillation. 

On the other hand, it is against Federal Prohibition-era law to distill spirits at home sale and distribution. Some states however have legalized the purchase of distilled spirits from commercial distillers. 

Although not permitted by law in some states, federal law permits a household with at least two adults to brew up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of wine or beer per year. 

Finally, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires that all manufactures still maintaining a detailed record of their customers which they are to submit upon request. 

There are two types of permits provided by the federal government for distillation regulation.

  • The Federal Distilled Spirits Permit. Legally producing spirits for distribution to consumers requires the federal distilled spirits permit. This permit is not only difficult to get, but also involves very strict regulations and is quite costly. Simply put, there is no point for a home distiller to obtain the distilled sprits permit. The process is just not worth it.
  • The Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit. This permit is issued to individuals who intend to produced alcohol-based fuel at home and cannot be used for any other purpose. Obtaining this permit is relatively hassle-free and it attracts no cost.

State law

State law may be lenient or stricter than federal law when it comes to distilling. Nevertheless, at any time, federal law remains superior to all other laws and must be adhered to. For instance, while in states like Missouri it is legal for people aged 21 and above to distill up to 100 gallons of spirit at home for consumption without any permits, federal law does not permit it. In this case, they will need federal permits to distill spirits and not state permits. 

On the other hand, while Florida prohibits owning a still unless one has the required permits, North Carolina completely outlaws it. Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina, on the other hand, have legalized it along with the production of alcohol for distribution purposes but highly regulated with the reason that alcohol distilling holds a special place in America’s cultural history. Others like Colorado have no laws on owning a still and distillation of alcohol is illegal and will attract a small fine. 

Each state has special laws and regulations around distilling and it is vital to check with state legislation before owning distilling equipment and facilities. Of importance to note is that selling alcohol to minors has been outlawed at all levels.

Local law

Even if one has complied fully with state and federal law, local laws are not to be overlooked. Counties, cities, and towns may have statutes with licensing or permit requirements.

Conclusion

While the legalization of home distilling of spirits can be a big break for craft spirits artisans, regulation will play a significant role in keeping it in check while at the same time taking it to another level. There has been a concerted effort from various lobby groups towards the legalization of home distilling. Sooner or later, their determination will bear fruit. Until then, home distilling is illegal.  In the same way, Canada also has some essential rules and laws regarding brewing and distilling process. Lets read about legal process for brewing and distilling in Canada