Originally posted June 10, 2008
It is illegal in the United States to operate a private still for the manufacture of distilled spirits. In order to operate a still, you need to have a permit, a bond, a separate building that is not a house in order to do it in, to pay excise tax (separate from any taxes on SELLING the stuff) and all sorts of other things.
The Department of the Treasury is responsible for the enforcement of this, which is why "revinooers" are the natural enemy of "moonshiners". The collection of taxes on the stuff is AMONG their duties. But the reasons it is illegal are not limited to simple taxation reasons. They also have to do with general safety.
See, when you are distilling, you produce ethyl alcohol, which is the stuff you drink. But you ALSO produce methyl alcohol, aka "wood alcohol," which is a poison which can cause eye damage. And you produce propanol, which can cause brain damage. It takes some know-how to know how to extract the ethyl alcohol without the other two.
(Actually, that's where the word "spirit" comes from. Methyl distills at a lower temperature. It's the "head" of the distillation, and comes off first. Propanol distills at a higher temperature, is the "tail" of the distillation, and comes off last. The "spirit," the ethyl, comes in the middle. Okay, it's ALSO because alcohol gives off alcohol vapor . . . "spiritous" is a synonym for "vaporous".)
So, given that improper manufacture of this stuff can cause health problems or even death, the government has a reason to want to restrict its manufacture to people who actually know how to do it.
And there's another reason, as well, a reason which police nowadays have to deal with in crystal meth manufacture, as well. The production of alcohol, like the production of crystal meth, involves the creation of large amounts of highly volatile gasses. By cracking down on the manufacture of these things, through things like tracking who buys Sudafed, the police have largely stopped the small-scale manufacture of crystal meth, in apartments in cities. The same amount of crystal meth is being made, but it's being made offshore, or, at least, in more deserted areas.
This is a good thing. The crystal meth can still kill people, but at least the meth lab exploding won't kill as many innocent bystanders, and won't leave as many people homeless.
The Treasury department does the same thing. If you're going to operate an illegal still, it's going to have to be somewhere farther away from people. And that means, if -- and when -- it blows up, it's not going to kill folks, or burn down houses.
Now, I do have a freedom-loving rebellious streak in me that wants to know why I CAN'T do these things if I want to. But, I have to admit, the answer, "Because you'll start fires that will harm not only you, but also other people," is a pretty good answer.
That's why distilling is illegal.
But there's another way to concentrate alcohol, one which ISN'T illegal, DOESN'T form compounds that cause brain damage and blindness, and WON'T blow up. It's called "jacking", and it almost certainly predates the invention of distilling.
Alcohol, of course, vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, which is the fact upon which distilling depends -- you can raise a mixture to a temperature that alcohol boils off, and collects somewhere else, but not so high that the water also boils.
But it also FREEZES at a lower temperature than water.
Which means that you can bring the temperature of a mixture containing water and alcohol to a LOWER temperature, such that the water freezes, but the alcohol doesn't. And then you can pull out chunks of water ice, concentrating the alcohol in the remaining mixture.
This is most likely how the earliest brandies were made -- wait for winter, and let the weather concentrate your booze for you. And this process is generally called "jacking".
"Applejack" was originally a cider which went through this process, but modern liquors which go by that name are distilled apple brandies.
I want to make some original-style applejack, and see how it differs.