Is It Legal to Make Whiskey at Home?
The answer to the question of is it legal to make whiskey at home is yes and no, if you live in the USA, but there are ways to legally make whiskey at home.
So, is it legal to make whiskey at home or not, in the USA? Why is the answer yes and no? Well, technically it is illegal to make whiskey at home. However, it is not illegal to own and use a still for the purpose of, say, distilling essential oils. It is also legal to distil ethanol for use as home fuel, though you'll need a permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Ethanol, though, is simply the chemical name for alcohol. So, it is actually legal to make alcohol at home, which you could then turn into whiskey, gin or some other spirit. It only becomes illegal if you drink it.
Why Is It Not Legal to Make Whiskey at Home?
One argument in favor of keeping it illegal to make whiskey at home in the USA is for safety reasons. Spirits are flammable, unlike beer and wine, and you need to be careful and know what you're doing. In addition, if you make a mistake you can potentially produce a spirit that can kill you, or make you blind, or at least seriously ill.
The main argument, though, is financial. The very first tax introduced by the US government in 1790 was a tax on home-made whiskey. It was taxed at 9 cents a gallon. In 1794 when the tax was raised to 25 cents a gallon it resulted in an armed insurrection which became known as The Whiskey Rebellion.
If people are allowed to make whiskey at home then the government will lose out on tax revenue, unless they monitor every home that has a still. Owning and using a still is not illegal, as stills can be used for other purposes than making spirits, like in producing essential oils.
Where Is It Legal to Make Whiskey at Home?
In some countries, such as New Zealand, it is legal to make whiskey at home. In 1996 the law in New Zealand changed and put spirits on an equal footing with wine and beer. In some other countries it's legal by virtue of the fact that no laws have been passed making it illegal.
Incidentally, since New Zealand made the production of spirits legal, there have been no reported cases of any injuries caused either by explosion or ingestion of spirits in the home. It's also notable that the rates for alcohol use disorders are lower in New Zealand than in either the USA or Canada (where making whiskey at home is also illegal).
The Legal Way to Make Whiskey at Home
There are, however, two ways in which it is legal to make whiskey at home. The first way is to turn yourself into a bona fide distillery and obtain a DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant Permit). This, however, is both expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare. Ask any distiller what the hardest thing was about opening a distillery and they invariably say 'the paperwork'.
The easier and much cheaper way to have the fun experience of making whiskey at home is to buy a Whiskey Making Kit. Whiskey is, after all, nothing more than a neutral spirit that has been aged in a barrel. If you want to annoy a gin distiller, for example, point out that gin is really just flavored vodka. Any distiller who produces a dark spirit will tell you that 60-80% of the flavor comes from the barrel.
If that is the case, who not buy your own barrel, buy some neutral spirit (i.e. vodka), and put the vodka in the barrel and see what happens? A Whiskey Making Kit includes a new American white oak barrel, exactly the same kind of barrel that has to be used if you're making bourbon. The barrel is naturally smaller than the large barrels that commercial distilleries use, but this puts the home user at an advantage. More of the spirit comes in contact with the wood, extracting its flavors and aromas, and so spirits mature more quickly in a small barrel.
You can monitor progress by drawing off spirit at regular intervals and tasting it, till it reaches the flavor profile that you prefer. You have now discovered the easiest legal way to make whiskey at home.
This information is correct at the time of writing but if you are interested in making whiskey at home you're advised to seek up-to-date advice on regulations in the state in which you live.