Well, it looks like it is time to move to New Zealand. Not because of our current government administration or even the overload of an another election season (although, a case could be made for both), but because it is the only country in the world that allows home distilling. Yes, you read that correctly. I am unsure if New Zealand is big enough for all of us distilling wanna-be’s, but they had best start ramping up their infrastructure for the influx. The poor Kiwis are not going to know what the hell hit them. My advice is that we invade slowly, before they catch on to the real reason for the influx, and repeal their laws, too.
Sadly, I wish I weren’t half-joking about this. Over the last decade, this country has seen an incredible explosion in the number of home brewers making their own brews, to suit their own particular tastes and desires. This has evolved into a second, and even more noticeable explosion in the form of the craft and micro-brew industry that is turning the beverage industry on its head. Beer drinkers have been the beneficiaries of this tremendous increase of available styles and differing versions of those styles.
Twenty-five to Thirty years ago, only a small group of beer geeks had even heard of an IPA; now any bar or craft brewery that is worth its hops has a selection of them. This is because being able to home brew serves as a type of training ground or minor league for aspiring craft brewers. This allows them to learn how the brewing process and equipment work, plus being able to experiment inexpensively, finding methods that work for them, and the styles and recipes that best fit what they are trying to produce. This is a necessary part of the learning curve. The same is true for distilling, maybe even more so, because the investments involved are even greater.
Being able to distill legally on even the smallest level involves a lengthy and very involved permitting process, which then requires that all production be performed in a permitted facility that can NOT be on residential property. (Under 26 U.S.C. 5178(a)(1)(B), a distilled spirits plant may not be located in a residence or in sheds, yards, or enclosures connected to a residence.) So even if you choose to go through the permitting process and try to be above board, it is still illegal to distill at home.
Very few people have the personal resources to allow them to complete the permitting process, establish a licensed facility, and invest in suitable distilling equipment, all for the ability to make vodka, gin, rum, whiskey or any other distilled spirit you may choose for your personal use. No wonder we see such limited creativity in modern liquors. The major distilleries are parts of multi-national corporate conglomerates which operate under a business model that stifles true creativity. That leaves craft distilleries to fill the vast creative void. In fairness, even they can only go so far based on the scales by which they must operate. This is where home and hobby distilling fit in. When able to try something in such small scales as allowed with small home-sized stills and reasonable production times, creativity is encouraged. The worst that can happen if something doesn’t work, you toss it, or mix with something that makes it palatable, nothing lost.
The age-old American values of independence and freedom to do what you enjoy, plus some exceptional creativity, have changed the world of brewing forever. Now it is time to allow the same opportunities in the spirits industry.
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing one of the single best justifications for home distilling that I could ever imagine. While at RE: FIND Distillery in Paso Robles, CA, sampling some of their fine products, I had the pleasure of having a healthy conversation with Monica Villicana, one of the owners. She shared with me how they got involved in the distilling business as a matter of sustainability for their winery and as a way to utilize the saignee (free-run juice) that is a by-product of their winemaking process. They are now taking what was previously thrown away and distilling it into some exceptional vodkas and gin. They additionally take advantage of their location in the Central Coast and its prime farm land to utilize fresh produce items such as cucumbers, kumquats, citrus, aromatics and others to create a product that truly expresses the tastes and unique terroir of the area.
To expand on this, they have even recently begun utilizing their vineyard during its dormant season to begin growing grains for the production of whiskey. This not only gives them more efficient use of their land, but is also highly beneficial to the soil, through the return of the nutrients that are produced, so that they, and we win in multiple ways. This results in improved quality of the land and aids in reducing erosion, but also provides an improved quality to their wine grapes, the liquors they produce, and the grains that they grow for distillation into whiskey.
Let’s take this a step further and imagine small businesses like theirs all around the country being able to not only be more productive, but to be able to create offerings that truly highlight the unique characteristics of their region. Think of enjoying a wonderful dinner in a small restaurant that utilizes all locally sourced meats, produce, dairy, herbs and other ingredients in combination with locally sourced wine, craft beer, and liquors, all of which integrate to create a truly unique and local experience highlighting the special flavors of the region. This sort of thing is only possible through home distillers being able to practice and perfect their craft on a small scale before attempting to wrangle with the high-wire act that is involved with licensing a distillery and being comfortable with the recipes and techniques required to produce a quality product.
This brings us back to the original question. Why in this day and age is it illegal to make your own distilled spirits in this country? George Washington did it, quite successfully I might add, as did Thomas Jefferson, amongst many others throughout early American history. The ability to make your own was a significant part of early America. Don’t think for a second that the crew of the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic without a brewer and winemaker and a distiller in the house to assure that they could have a relaxing beverage after a hard day’s efforts. Don’t believe all that you read about the dominance of the early Puritans. There was drink on board during the trip and production began right after they landed to keep the morale up and to avoid desertions and mutiny.
The production and consumption of beer, wine, and distilled spirits has been an integral part of our history, the grand experiment included, such that do deny it seems very fundamentally wrong. If you agree, please support the Hobby Distillers Association and their efforts to get these laws changed and bring some common sense to legal home distillation.