Two Georgia men pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges of operating a moonshine still in the Chattahoochee National Forest. One of the bootleggers faces up to 35 years in prison for his crimes: making the brew, selling it, and not paying taxes on the proceeds. Back in college, the Explainer had friends who brewed their own beer, and that wasn’t against the law. So why is moonshine still illegal?
Because the liquor is worth more to the government than beer or wine. Uncle Sam takes an excise tax of $2.14 for each 750-milliliter bottle of 80-proof spirits, compared with 21 cents for a bottle of wine (of 14 percent alcohol or less) and 5 cents for a can of beer. No one knows exactly how much money changes hands in the moonshine trade, but it’s certainly enough for the missing taxes to make a difference: In 2000, an ATF investigation busted one Virginia store that sold enough raw materials to moonshiners to make 1.4 million gallons of liquor, worth an estimated $19.6 million in lost government revenue. In 2005, almost $5 billion of federal excise taxes on alcohol came from legally produced spirits.
Until 1978, it was illegal to home-brew liquour or beer—and the rules on wine-making were somewhat ambiguous. *But a growing number of oenophiles and beer connoisseurs wanted to make their own, and they helped pressure Congress to decriminalize home-brews across the country. Today, federal rules say a household with two adults can brew up to 200 gallons of wine and the same amount of beer each year. (A few states have their own laws prohibiting the practice.) The 1978 law didn’t legalize moonshining, though; you still can’t brew spirits for private consumption. It is kosher, however, to own a still and process alcohol—but only if you’re using the alcohol as fuel and you have a permit from the ATF. (In some states, you can purchase a legal version of moonshine from commercial distillers.)
Despite the Appalachian stereotypes, not everyone swigs moonshine just for fast, cheap intoxication. Some folks are accustomed to the taste of unaged whiskey, and they prefer the buzz that comes with it. These days, moonshine is even going upscale, as a new breed of amateur distillers in California, New England, and the Northwest are taking an artisanal approach to the hobby.
Government prosecutors point out that moonshine poses serious health risks, including heavy-metal toxicity. So, how dangerous is it? There’s no inspection of the manufacturing process, so quality—and levels of contamination—vary. (There are some informal and imprecise ways to test the purity of hooch: You can light some on fire and check for a blue flame or shake the pint and look for clear liquid drops that dissipate quickly.) Aside from drinking too much and doing something dumb—oh, like attacking somebody with a chain saw and fire extinguisher— the biggest risk is lead poisoning, since a homemade still might consist of car radiators or pipes that were dangerously soldered together. One study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in September 2003 found that more than half of moonshine drinkers have enough lead in their bloodstream to exceed what the CDC calls a “level of concern.”
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Explainer thanks Michael Birdwell of Tennessee Technological University; Brent Morgan of the Georgia Poison Center; Art Resnick of the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau; and Matthew Rowley, author of Moonshine.
Correction, Oct. 26, 2007: The original version stated that it was illegal to brew any alcoholic beverage at home. Before 1978, wine-making was effectively permitted by the government. (Return to the corrected sentence.)