I am very surprised to find, on an internet search, that many Americans are under the impression that it is legal to distil liquors (spirits) like whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, etc. for your own personal use at home, as long as you don’t sell it.
This is absolutely FALSE!
Yes, it is true that homebrewing, for personal use, of beer and wine became legalized in 1978. But you can never distil alcohol from a liquid containing alcohol without meeting numerous federal requirements, which include, of course, payment of taxes.
Although there are home kits being sold for the production of ethanol as a gasoline alternative for personal use, this too, is illegal and subject to the same kinds of requirements, although this ethanol for fuel purposes is not subject to alcoholic beverage taxes.
First, what is the federal government’s definition of distilling? According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (formerly the ATF) website:
You cannot produce spirits for beverage purposes without paying taxes and without prior approval of paperwork to operate a distilled spirits plant. [See 26 U.S.C. 5601 & 5602 for some of the criminal penalties.] There are numerous requirements that must be met that make it impractical to produce spirits for personal or beverage use. Some of these requirements are paying a special tax, filing an extensive application, filing a bond, providing suitable tanks and pipelines, providing a separate building (other than a dwelling) and maintaining detailed records, and filing reports. All of these requirements are listed in 27 CFR Part 19. Spirits may be produced for non-beverage purposes for fuel use only without payment of tax, but you also must file an application, receive TTB’s approval, and follow requirements, such as construction, use, records, and reports.1
As you can see, it is completely and utterly impractical to meet the legal requirements for distilling ethanol (alcohol) only for personal use in small quantities. And despite the advertising language used by retailers of stills, there is no allowance for “hobbyists.” As well, you can see why small-scale illegal moonshiners don’t often try to go legal. It is a pain in the butt! Unless you are going to produce huge amounts and make a huge profit, it is not very practical at all for small businesses, although, of course, it is possible.
Can I Own A Still and Use it For Distilling Essential Oils or Distilled Water?
Again, According to the TTB’s website:
Under Federal rules administered by ATF, the legality depends on how you use a still. You may not produce alcohol unless you qualify as a distilled spirits plant (see ATF FAQ’s page at their website.) However, owning a small still and using it for other purposes is allowed. You should also check with your State and local authorities – their rules may differ.
A still is defined as apparatus capable of being used to separate ethyl alcohol from a mixture that contains alcohol. Small stills (with a cubic distilling capacity of a gallon or less) that are used for laboratory purposes or for distilling water or other non-alcoholic materials are exempt from our rules. If you buy a small still and use it to distill water or extract essential oils by steam or water extraction methods, you are not subject to ATF requirements. If you produce essential oils by a solvent method and you get alcohol as a by-product of your process, ATF considers that distilling. Even though you are using and recovering purchased alcohol, you are separating the alcohol from a mixture -distilling.2
You can find stills that are larger than a gallon and sold to general consumers. Even on Amazon. Lest you think you can purchase these without the government ever knowing it, realize that the TTB can require still manufacturers to give them the name and address of each of their customers. That may not be likely to ever happen and people who want to sell you “still kits” will tell you all sorts of confusing things to get you to think that there are gray areas that allow you to own an unregistered still and operate it under the radar. The question is, really, can you own an unregistered still that you do not intend to use to distill alcohol? Well, that is where the “rules” come in, that I bolded above.
CFR Title 27 Part 19 (Distilled Spirits Plants), Subpart D (Registration of a Distilled Spirits Plant and Obtaining a Permit), §19.79 (Registry of stills), states:
Section 29.55 of this chapter requires that every person having possession, custody, or control of a still or distilling apparatus must register the still or distilling apparatus. When a person lists a still or distilling apparatus with the application for registration as required by §19.75(b) and receives approval of the registration, that person has fulfilled the requirement to register the still or distilling apparatus. See §29.55 of this chapter for additional provisions regarding stills and distilling apparatus.
The pertinent Section 29.55 mentioned in that sections is:
§29.55 Registry of stills and distilling apparatus.
(a) General. Every person having possession, custody, or control of any still or distilling apparatus set up shall, immediately on its being set up, register the still or distilling apparatus, except that a still or distilling apparatus not used or intended for use in the distillation, redistillation, or recovery of distilled spirits is not required to be registered. Registration may be accomplished by describing the still or distilling apparatus on the registration or permit application prescribed in this chapter for qualification under 26 U.S.C. chapter 51 or, if qualification is not required under 26 U.S.C. chapter 51, on a letter application, and filing the application with the appropriate TTB officer. Approval of the application by the appropriate TTB officer will constitute registration of the still or distilling apparatus.
(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. This rule is intended merely as an illustration and should not be construed as covering all types of stills or condensers requiring registration.
(c) Change in location or ownership. Where any distilling apparatus registered under this section is to be removed to another location, sold or otherwise disposed of, the registrant shall, prior to the removal or disposition, file a letter notice with the appropriate TTB officer. The letter notice will show the intended method of disposition (sale, destruction, or otherwise), the name and complete address of the person to whom disposition will be made, and the purpose for which the apparatus will be used. After removal, sale, or other disposal, the person having possession, custody, or control of any distilling apparatus intended for use in distilling shall immediately register the still or distilling apparatus on its being set up or, if already set up, immediately on obtaining possession, custody, or control. The registrant shall also comply with the procedures prescribed in this chapter for amendment of the registration or permit application.
And the Section 19.75(b) on registration:
§19.75 Major equipment.
As required by §19.73(a)(9), the application for registration must include a list of the major plant equipment. If the equipment is set up and used for the production, storage, or processing of distilled spirits, wine, denatured spirits, or articles, the list must provide the following information:
(a) The serial number and capacity of each tank in the plant. The list does not need to include any bulk containers having a capacity of less than 101 wine gallons on the plant premises if those containers do not meet the criteria of a tank under §19.182 (perks, small totes, etc.);
(b) The serial number, kind, capacity, and intended use of each still in the plant. The capacity is the estimated maximum proof gallons of spirits capable of being produced every 24 hours, or for column stills a statement of the diameter of the base and number of plates; and
(c) The serial number of each condenser.
You’d probably want a lawyer to pour through and interpret all the stuff in these regulations, but this seems to be the low-down. If you SET UP a still for use (and regardless of the intended use) of more than a gallon, you must register it. You can use a still with a capacity of a gallon or less to distill nonalcoholic substances without registration. This means that there is nothing stopping you from owning a still for decorative or other purposes as long as it is not set up for use, and you do not have to register such a still. This does not mean, however, that such stills cannot be tracked according to the manufacturer, although this is not likely to occur very often. Despite what you may be told by people wanting to sell you boxes of copper, however, registering a still does not allow you to operate a distilling plant and there are many hoops to jump through, as stated above. Retailers of moonshine stills that lead you, the consumer, to believe that it is legal to produce small amounts of alcohol for your own use are lying to you. So, the bottom line is, no, you can’t do home distilling legally in any practical sense. Moonshine is illegal. Didn’t you get the notice?
But It’s Still Legal to Distill Alcohol to Use as Fuel, Right?
Wrong! A lot of people seem to think this is true. They probably have read this in some article written by someone who wants them to buy a still. They say, sure, you can distill it as long as its not for consumption. Just use it in your lawnmower! Read carefully the laws I gave you above. Do you see any loopholes? Do you see anything that says it’s EVER legal to operate an unregistered still? No, there is nothing in the law that says you can distill alcohol for fuel. You cannot legally operate an unregistered still, period.