This blog provides information for educational purposes only. Read our complete summary for more info.
The question is, is making moonshine illegal? The answer to this is somewhat complicated and unless the thought of digging ditches with chains around one's ankles is appealing, potential distillers better read on because in this article we're going to summarize whether or not moonshine is illegal.
The first thing you need to know is that there are federal and state laws that pertain to home distilling. Heck, in some cases there are even local laws. To avoid trouble with the federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and officials, distillers need to comply with all laws; federal and state laws, as well as any local laws.
Spoiler alert, depending on where you live, it is generally not legal to make moonshine. So, maybe the best question isn't "is moonshine legal?" Perhaps a better question is, why is moonshine illegal? We'll discuss all this and more below.
When is Home Distilling Legal?
Federal law states that it is legal to own a still of any size. It doesn't matter if an individual has a 1 gallon still or a 100 gallon still. More specifically, it is legal to have a still for decoration, distilling water, distilling essential oils, etc. The still does not need to be registered with anyone and no permits are needed as long as it is being used for the aforementioned purposes.
A common misconception is that only stills 1 gallon and smaller are legal. This is not true. Actual law merely states that stills 1 gallon or less that are not being used to distill alcohol do not need a serial number (see more on this below).
We don’t claim to be lawyers, and our post on the legalities of distilling should NOT be taken as legal advice, however, we've done a lot of digging on this topic and feel that we have a pretty good handle on whether or not possessing a still and making moonshine is illegal.
UPDATE: there has been some debate in the comments regarding which types of stills are allowed according to federal law. Our interpretation is that the federal government does not require registration of stills that are not being used to produce distilled spirits. Here is our reasoning:
First, you must read the section USC Sec. 5179(a), a provision of Internal Revelue code. Pay careful attention to the wording and terminology used, particularly the exceptions made for different distillation use cases as well as the requirements for when a still is actually considered “set up.”
“§5179. Registration of stills
Every person having in his possession or custody, or under his control, any still or distilling apparatus set up, shall register such still or apparatus with the Secretary immediately on its being set up, by subscribing and filing with the Secretary a statement, in writing, setting forth the particular place where such still or distilling apparatus is set up, the kind of still and its capacity, the owner thereof, his place of residence, and the purpose for which said still or distilling apparatus has been or is intended to be used (except that stills or distilling apparatus not used or intended to be used for the distillation, redistillation, or recovery of distilled spirits are not required to be registered under this section).”
Note the exception: “stills or distilling apparatus not used or intended to be used for the distillation, redistillation, or recovery of distilled spirits are not required to be registered under this section.”
Additionally, and somewhat redundantly, a still is not considered “set up” until it meets this definition, as noted in part 29 of title 27 in the US Code of Federal Regulations:
“(b) When still is set up. A still will be regarded as set up and subject to registry when it is in position over a furnace, or connected with a boiler so that heat may be applied, irrespective of whether a condenser is in position.”
Additionally, here is the relevant bit of code that clarifies "offenses," i.e violations of the provision:
26 USC Sec. 5601 classifies the following as “an offense”:
“Any person who has in his possession or custody, or under his control, any still or distilling apparatus set up which is not registered, as required by section 5179(a)”
Our interpretation is that you are technically not required to register a still that is not being used for alcohol production AND even if it is, it does not need to be registered until it is “set up” according to the above mentioned definition.
Is Moonshine Illegal?
Regardless of whether you possess a still that can be legally, according to federal law, operated, be advised it is illegal to distill alcohol without having either a "distilled spirits permit" or a "federal fuel alcohol permit." It does not matter if the alcohol is for personal use only, not for sale, etc.
Federal Distilled Spirits & Federal Fuel Alcohol Permits
If a person wishes to legally distill alcohol, they have two options. The first option is to obtain a Federal Distilled Spirits Permit. This is the permit that industry giants like Jack Daniels and Makers Mark distilleries possess, which makes it legal for them to distill and distribute to the public. As one might imagine, this permit is very difficult to get.
In short, unless an individual is opening a distillery with the intention of selling their product in liquor stores, don't even bother looking into getting a distilled spirits permit; it's way too expensive and complicated for a home distiller to obtain. Instead pursue a fuel alcohol permit (which we'll describe next).
Option two is a Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit (link below). Be advised that the conditions of the permit only allow a distiller to use the alcohol they produce for fuel purposes, not for consumption.
Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit
Here's the link for the federal fuel alcohol permit: http://www.ttb.gov/forms/f511074.pdf For those that happen to build a copper still kit or purchase a stainless distiller from Clawhammer Supply, they'll write "Clawhammer Supply" in the manufacturer line and their order number for the serial number (e.g. "6601") on a sticker that is supplied with the equipment. List the type as a "pot still." The capacity is the size of boiler (i.e. 1 gallon, 5 gallon, 10 gallon, etc...). This will be the identifying information for the still.
Note, those not planning to use their still for alcohol do not need to get a permit or register the still with the federal government. Federal rules state that stills only need to be reported / registered if the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau asks the manufacturer to do so (more on this below). However, for those who are going to use the equipment to distill alcohol, the use your order number (which is also your serial number) on all permit paperwork.
State Distillation Laws
State distilling law is different in every state. Some states have no laws on owning a still, but prohibit the distillation of alcohol (such as Colorado, which charges a small fine if one is caught doing so) while other states prohibit possession of a still unless it's for fuel alcohol (such as North Carolina, which requires a state fuel alcohol permit). Some states may prohibit possession of distillation equipment and distilling altogether. Google state laws to find the rules and regulations in your state. Also, make sure to comply with these rules and regulations.
Still Registration and Reporting
Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations state that still manufacturers need to keep customer info. Additionally, these records may also be requested by the federal TTB and still manufacturers are required to submit them if asked.
How to Stay Out of Trouble
Federal law provides no exemptions for the production of distilled spirits for personal or family use. Under no circumstances should an individual ever distill or sell alcohol without a permit. If an individual chooses to distill alcohol, make sure to obtain all applicable fuel or spirit permits (listed above). Additionally, check state laws and make sure that owning and / or operating a still is permissible. Clawhammer distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only. Read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation. And make sure to hire a legal professional to help you navigate the permitting process because this information on this website is not intended to be relied upon by anyone as the basis for any action or decision whatsoever.
Click here to read the actual federal laws on the subject of distillation.