On May 17, I had the pleasure of participating in a Skype conference call with Matthew Rowley, Mike McCaw, and Ian Smiley, who will present the Hausgemacht panel at Tales. Hausgemacht, of course, is a German word that simply means “homemade.” Their panel will address the rise of modern nano-distilling–the art of distilling at home. Messrs. Rowley, McCaw, and Smiley were, as you’ll see, eager to talk nano-distilling with me, and so I wound up with a lot of material. With Paul Clarke’s blessing, I’m breaking this into three parts.In part 1, we’ll discuss the cultural perceptions of home-distilling and the current laws on the ground, focusing specifically on Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Belly on up to the computer and we’ll begin! [This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.]
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Michael Dietsch: To begin, Matt mentioned in an e-mail to me that when he’s been interviewed on the radio about his book Moonshine, radio interviewers have played up the sort of cornpone, hillbilly humorous aspects of it, which I think we all think is unfortunate. So I wanted to start by talking about perceptions of home-distilling in other parts of the world.
Mike McCaw: In much of Southern Europe, it’s fully legal and always has been to distill at home. You go to any village in Portugal, Spain, during the spring or summer, Greece, much of Italy, Austria for sure, you’re going to find a stand or a store that’s specializing in hand-hammered copper brandy stills.In Southern Europe, basically what everybody’s doing is making fruit brandies from their excess fruit production. In Scandinavia, it’s widely practiced, but is illegal, and several times I’ve set next to a Swede or a Finn or a Norwegian on an airplane and started talking to them about the book and what I do and then they’ll look at me and they’ll say, “Two things you need to know: first, it’s illegal; second, everybody does it.” And it’s pretty widely tolerated.New Zealand actually is a really interesting story, because it’s been illegal since about the time of the first world war, like in Australia, but in 1996, the government realized that it wasn’t cost-effective to prosecute people for noncommercial home distilling, and they had a right-wing government or a fiscally responsible government or whateveryou want to call it at the time that looked at all of their laws in terms of whether they’re cost-effective and do they do what they’re intended to do. So they legalized it over the protests of the big distilleries. And what’s happened is, in contrast to Southern Europe, where it’s always been legal and it’s a very traditional art and there’s not a lot of innovation, after it suddenly became legal in New Zealand, there was just an explosion of experimenting and tinkering and people trying stuff and trying new things. That’s really the center of development at this time for new processes and new ways of doing home distilling, to be able to make high-quality products across a wide spectrum instead of just one traditional thing.Ian can probably talk to the legal situation in Canada much better than I could. As you know in the States, it’s quite dire. They’re not lookin’ for ya, but they will follow up any leads they get, but if they do catch a home distiller, your house is forfeit.
Ian Smiley: In Canada, it is still technically illegal to home distill, but a lot of my customers have contacted their local law enforcement, to ask about it, just in case, before they bought into anything, and the answers they’re always giving now are that if you’re not selling it, we’re not interested. And I know that my website probably would have been closed down by now if the Canadian government were actively pursuing home distilling. So it’s pretty slack here with respect to that, but I don’t think they have actually legalized it per se. I’ve read the legislation over—it was rewritten in 2002—and they may not have legalized it, but they are very close to having legalized it. It’s almost to the point where maybe lawyers could argue that it is technically legal right now.
McCaw: They made it the lowest priority, right?
Smiley: That’s right.
McCaw: I had a conversation a couple of years back with an ATF officer, who I happened to bump into some place and asked him about that without identifying myself and what he said fits sort of that same pattern. He said, “We’re not interested in people who are only doing it for themselves. You would just about have to go out and tack up flyers around your neighborhood to bring yourself to our attention, but if a disgruntled ex-girlfriend or nosy neighbor turns you in, we will follow it up.”
Smiley: I do know that that has actually happened to a friend of mine and the police literally refused to pursue it. They just said, “Tell me, what is it doing to you?” And the person could not identify any kind of a deleterious effect on the complainer, so they didn’t even follow up on the complaint.
McCaw: The difference there is that the enforcement in the States is at a federal level and it’s in the taxing sphere rather than the law-enforcement sphere. So when it does come to their attention, they do get diligent.
Dietsch: Now, Mike or Matt, either one of you might answer this. You’ve both spoken with home distillers in the States, people who are just doing this for their own home use, are they getting in legal trouble because of it?
McCaw: I’ve got some anecdotal information—it’s not first hand, and you can find that same information if you go out and search the archives on the Yahoo distillers group. People do get busted, a few a year, and I don’t know what the follow-up is. I do know what the law states, though, and the law states that they can seize your house if it’s been used for illegal distillation. It’s considered the same in that sense—because it’s run out of the tax laws—as if you had illegal drugs and were running a drug operation where they will seize your house and your car and everything.
Matthew Rowley: And that aligns pretty closely with what I’ve found, as well, that when I was writing my book and also the kinds of distillers I like to talk to are generally not the guys who are cranking out a thousand gallons a week. If they’re firing up their still, it’s only just a few liters or a few gallons at a time. While they’ve certainly had their share of legal troubles, it’s never really been about alcohol. It’s other things not related to that at all. And the impression seems to be that, as long as they’re just sort of keeping a low profile and not telling just everybody what they’re doing, they tend to get left alone these days. But like Mike says, it is technically illegal and, if you come to their attention—the Feds—they’ll bust just as if you were running a meth lab.
Dietsch: So if you go into it, you really need to be aware of the legal risks.
McCaw: Yes, you really do, and it’s surprising how many would-be customers don’t. They just assume that since brewing is legal and winemaking is legal, that distilling is too. Which is a real rational point of view and, politically, it’s a point of view that we in the Amphora Society really like to push, but it’s not the facts on the ground, as of this date. And as somebody who actually sells distillation equipment, we take the point of view—and we’re real straight up front with our customers—that we’re working on the assumption that you have a license. And if you tell us you don’t have a license, we won’t sell to you.
Dietsch: I’ve seen contradictory reports on the Internet as to whether it’s legal to purchase distillation equipment without a license.
McCaw: It absolutely is.
Dietsch: It is legal to purchase it?
McCaw: It’s perfectly legal to own a still, and it’s legal to use it for anything but ethyl alcohol production.
Dietsch: You can use it for distilling water…
McCaw: Oh, absolutely, essential oils, anything like that. And that’s the grounds under which most of them are sold in the States. The government will give you a permit to distill alcohol for fuel. They’ll give it to you and they’ll give it to you eagerly. Once again, you cannot do it in your house. In the United States, distillation in a building in which anybody resides is just flat out illegal. You can do it in your garage if it’s a separate building. And all you have to do to get the federal permit is give them a plan drawing of your proposed facility and then keep scrupulous records on what you produce.Your still is then legally available for inspection at [any] time, but I know a lot of people who have fuel permits, and I don’t anybody who’s ever had a drop-by inspection.
Dietsch: And then of course, the process for becoming a legal distiller of beverage alcohol, from what I understand, takes a considerable time.
McCaw: Many months to a few years. And really that depends upon the particular inspector you draw.
Smiley: There’s one thing I can contribute there. Getting through the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau]—that’s the Federal part of it—is the easy part of it. It’s the state governments that tend to be the most difficult to get past and because you’ve got 50 states it becomes very difficult to get your product into the entire country.
McCaw: Yes, and the same is true also for that fuel permit—that the Fed permit is easy, but every state has its own rules and some don’t permit it and some do and in general that fuel is only really legally useful for off-road use. So farmers [are] really the target market there.The beverage alcohol thing, one of the nasty pieces of that process is, you cannot have your permit in hand, they will not give it to you, until they have physically inspected your plant. So you have to invest all of the capital and labor up front to build your distillation plant and have it ready to go before they will even give you the Federal license. And in general, you can’t even begin pursuing your state license until after you have the Federal license.
Dietsch: So, the irony there, obviously, is that you need to build the equipment to do something that, because you’re not licensed, you can’t legally be doing in the first place.
Dietsch: But then, of course, if you’ve got the equipment ready, you’re going to want to test it in some fashion, I assume, and so the product that you make is then illegal, but you have to have the thing set up before they can come out and inspect.
McCaw: It’s not just the product that’s illegal. That’s the nasty twist to the U.S. Federal laws. It’s the tax. There are two taxes involved. So the product is untaxed alcohol which is illegal to possess. But the tax is on the act of distillation.
Dietsch: So they getcha both ways. That’s interesting. That’s a really messed-up system.
McCaw: Well, it dates back to the Whiskey Rebellion. And basically the U.S. Government caved to the interests of the big distillers and brewers in Philadelphia to squelch the farmers on the west side of the Appalachians who were using whiskey as currency at that time because it was much easier to transport than grain. That’s a fascinating history if you’ve never read it.
Rowley: You can see why a lot of them packed up and moved to the Carolinas and Kentucky.
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That’s it for part 1. Later entries will cover the panelists’ backgrounds and discuss what kinds of people are drawn to home-distilling.