Why Can You Brew Your Own Beer, But Not Moonshine?

Slate investigates, and the short answer is, because the government stands to lose too much money on lost sales of spirits, which are taxed far higher than beer: the U.S. “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.”

The article provides a lot of other useful information for the DIY liquor-store-enthusiast. For instance, it was illegal under federal law to brew your own beer or wine until 1978, but now a household with two adults can brew up to 200 gallons each of wine and beer, unless you live in a state that says you can’t. Also, moonshine drinkers tend to have lots of lead poisoning, which is why ’round these parts we call it “Chinese Import Tea.”

“Why Is Moonshine Against the Law?” [Slate]

Laws for Homebrewing [Beertown]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. InThrees says:

    So basically you can’t create with the sweat of your own brow, but must pay sales tax for the sweat of someone else’s brow?

    Nice, nice.

  2. timmus says:

    I wish the taxes and licenses weren’t so damn draconian. As a homebrewer I can’t even consider selling my great brew, and I prefer not to risk experimenting with a still. I hope prohibition ends before I’m in a nursing home.

  3. JayXJ says:

    Home brew moonshine is like drinking lighter fluid and chasing it with a match. I’ll stick with Jim Beam, thanks.

  4. “Why Can You Brew Your Own Beer, But Not Moonshine?”

    1. Taxes, as mentioned in TFA.

    2. If you don’t do it right, you’ll make ethanol, not methanol. Ethanol is very poisonous. If you’re lucky, you’ll just go blind.

    3. Beer tastes good, whereas moonshine taskes like razor blades.

    4. Beer is a lot easier to make than moonshine. Good beer is lot harder to make than beer.

    Timmus: you may want to look into a business-savvy attorney who can help you incorporate in order to sell your tasty wares. I suggest winning several awards for your brew and participating in many beer fairs before investing in a beer-based business, though.

  5. hc5duke says:

    @CaliforniaCajun: um, i’m guessing you mixed up ethanol with methanol in step 2? you WANT to drink ethanol (tho it still is toxic), not methanol

  6. hc5duke says:

    tried this once and the comment didn’t show up…
    @CaliforniaCajun: I’m guessing you switched ethanol and methanol in #2? Ethanol is what you want to drink (though still poisonous), not methanol (definitely poisonous)

  7. Trowble (XBL/PSN) says:

    Sure Moonshine is 90% alcohol (180 proof) and feels like it’s burning a hole in your esophagus, but if the government won’t legalize it due to tax levies is just nonsense. To me it sounds, from what I heard, the government made it illegal for the same reasons as weed. The government has a knack for making things that disorient and make people feel good.

  8. Illusio26 says:

    Reminds me of a big reason why they will never legalize pot. Because the company’s won’t make any money off it because anyone can just grow their own. Why would you ever need to buy it?

  9. mtaylor924 says:

    @CaliforniaCajun: You got #2 backwards. Ethanol is what gets you drunk. Methanol is toxic and will make you extremely ill, even in small doses.

    Well, technically ethanol is toxic too, that’s why it messes you up…but in a better way :)

  10. dsean says:

    @californiaCajun – I think you have your alcohols in #2 backwards. Ethanol is what you drink. Methanol is wood alcohol (used in naptha, antifreeze, etc.).

    Also, there’s no danger in producing methanol from grains. The way the starches breakdown sugars only produces ethanol, not methanol.

    Making whiskey is about the same as making beer (at least in the first few steps). The difference come in when you boil the mash to separate out the ethanol from the water.

  11. Shuft says:

    If that was the only reason moonshine and pot (per darkjedi26’s comment) were illegal, then growing your own tobacco would be illegal too.

    IMO it is more of the perceived danger from going blind or getting the reefer madness.

  12. liquisoft says:


    Are you sure it’s Ethanol and not Ethyl?

  13. hc5duke says:

    @liquisoft: ethanol = ethyl alcohol

  14. Bourque77 says:

    @CaliforniaCajun: I think it isnt safe because its illegal. I mean some of the big operations are safe but theres not a big development for moonshine stills since it is illegal. If a big company could get into moonshine the safety issue would go right out the window.

  15. erockO says:

    why dont we just try refining our own crude oil while we’re at it?

  16. jawacg says:

    @CaliforniaCajun & BOURQUE77

    Good moonshine is just as smooth as any other liquor nor is it dangerous. The problem you run into with moonshine is just like anything else. When people try to make it cheaply with disregard to someone’s health or they just don’t know how. Of course, I do live in Tennessee so moonshiners here might be a little better at it. LOL

  17. darkclawsofchaos says:

    ethanol is CH3CH3OH, methanol is CH3OH, the former is deadly in small concentrated amounts like moonshine (say one shot), methanol is deadly ina few concentrated drops
    or to solve the problem of which is better, go get some isopentyl acetate, don’t know what it is, look it up, I just made some for a lab a few weeks ago, it smells exactly like the natural source even though you synthesized it in a lab

  18. Toof_75_75 says:


    Or you can go with Everclear (95% Alcohol, 190 Proof). Only problem is that if you live in one of the many states that ban the sale of Everclear, you have to have a friend in the military who can buy it at the Duty-Free. For the Effects/Money ratio, it doesn’t get much better. It really ends up being the most efficient approach overall.

  19. bohemian says:

    This annoys me to no end. I did beer and wine a few years ago and had some really good results. But I want to try whiskey. There are people in other countries doing home small batch distilling. They are treating it like better home brewers do beer. As an art and striving for a unique good quality product, not cheap rot gut.

    It would be nice to do this as a hobby. I hear of people doing it on the sly but that is such a huge risk. Since the feds would come down on you like you were David Koresh.

  20. bohemian says:

    Your not missing anything on Everclear. Other than a massive headache and maybe some vomiting. The only people who buy it are high school kids and frat boys.

  21. Hambriq says:

    If you don’t do it right, you’ll make ethanol, not methanol. Ethanol is very poisonous. If you’re lucky, you’ll just go blind.


    This is untrue on so many levels.

  22. Buran says:

    @bohemian: I have used it in the past for preventing swimmer’s ear — a large bottle of the stuff is cheaper in the long run than what you pay for those little bottles of eardrops. This highly amused a friend of mine who has a backyard pool and a bar … he wondered what the heck I was doing with his everclear, then when I explained he raised his eyebrows and said “you know, you’re onto something …”

  23. MrEvil says:

    Farmers can get an Experimental permit to distill their own alcohol as fuel. At least I still beleive that’s in effect. Distillation Apparatus are legal, brewing your own beer or wine is legal (in most states) but putting your legal beer and wine in your legal distillation apparatus is illegal.

    Bootlegging is still surprisingly rampant in the Southeast, they raid thousand gallon stills quite often.

  24. Hambriq says:


    I’ve always been curious about this. I’ve been asked this by patients on more than one occasion, and I never know how to respond. I’ve talked to a few doctors about this and the response is always mixed. Some of them swear by it, some of them think it’s dangerous to put alcohol in the ear, some of them think it’s just holistic quackery.

    Do any doctors want to chime in on this?

  25. Trowble (XBL/PSN) says:

    @Toof_75_75: I only heard of Everclear, never tried it, but since it outshines Moonshine I never will. Absinthe is another outlawed drink that wouldn’t be so bad legalizing, but I believe its hallucinogenic related, not sure about tax.

  26. Baz says:

    Lack of “taxability” is also a major reason the feds want to keep marijuana illegal…

  27. TechnoDestructo says:


    Weren’t a lot of the supposed ill effects of absinthe more from the fact that people were taking it with opium?

  28. D’oh! I did switch #1 and #2.

    Whoops. Don’t go drinkin’ any methanol, kids!

  29. CMU_Bueller says:

    @Baz: Yeah, that and there’s really no easy roadside sobriety test for it other than waving your hands in the stoner’s face and laughing as they try to follow them. But that’s probably not all that reliable.

  30. Trowble (XBL/PSN) says:

    @TechnoDestructo: I heard it was hallucinogenic due to one of the ingredients it’s distilled with. I didn’t know about the opium part.

  31. HungryGrrl says:

    There’s no opium in Absinthe.

    Absinthe is basically high proof liquor flavored with herbs, the most notable being the somewhat poisonous/allegedly hallucinogenic her wormwood. There is “Absinthe” that is legal for import to the US now, which has a very limited level of wormwood in it. However, there is some debate on whether the ‘real thing’ actually contains enough wormwood to have a distinct effect before the high alcohol content gets you plain old plastered. Chartreuse is false-Absinthe, invented to replace it when it became illegal.

    The extract of opium in alcohol is known as laudanum. It’s been illegal for a long time… but there are some hacks out there that brew it up at home using dried poppys.

  32. velocipenguin says:


    Methanol is used primarily in stove fuel. Naphtha is a petroleum product and does not contain any methanol. Antifreeze is alcohol-based, but it contains ethylene glycol, not methanol. Using a highly flammable substance in automotive cooling systems would be very, very stupid.


    Marijuana taxes have been on the books in many states for decades. While it is already illegal to sell marijuana in most American jurisdictions, it is especially illegal to sell it without purchasing the appropriate tax stamps for the amount being sold. I believe the intent is to deter drug trafficking by forcing those selling illicit substances without disclosing their activities to the state to run the risk of incurring tax evasion charges.

  33. Candyman says:


    Close; the marijuana tax stamp was actually the first method used to prohibit marijuana. At the time the federal and state governments had no legal power to prohibit drugs; there was no FDA, and no federal precedents for anti-drug laws. So, the feds took an out-of -the-box approach. The couldn’t prohibit it, but they COULD pass a law requiring a tax stamp for possessing it. However, they never made the tax stamp available, so in effect posession became illegal…

    AND, since you had to have the marijuana to get the tax stamp, even if they had been available you were already in violation of the law before you could even apply for the stamp.

    Eventually the tax stamp prohibition scheme was thrown out by the courts, but by then the federal political climate had changed and the controlled substance act was pushed through.

    OH, and taxation really doesn’t have any more or less to do with why marijuana is illegal than do the threat of hemp to the synthetic materials industry, anti-mexican racism, or the early 20th century temperance movements. There were MANY threads in that tapestry, and it’s WAY too simplistic to just blame it ALL on just one of them.

  34. sslman says:


    I don’t really buy this reason. I venture to say most Americans can grow their own tomatoes but don’t because it’s far easier to go to grocery and buy them then it is to tend a garden.

  35. IdleHands... says:

    Ah shuud bee frey *hic* t’do waht Ah wa-*hic* waunt! Ah don’ waunt no *hic* dayum tax mayn tehllin’ mae whaut Ah *hic* kin *hic* dew on ma own dadgum prawpertay! Don’ *hic* tred on mae! Nah wher’d jeh go?

    Cletus! *hic* Fetch ma see’n stick!

  36. colflesh says:


    Chartreuse has been around longer than absinthe.


    I have also been interested in trying my hand at making small batch whiskey and an americanized version of whisky. Other than that whole minor illegal factor, the thing that’s stopping me at this point is that I live in an apartment and it would be a pain to move casks of whiskey/whisky. Also, there’s the problem of finding somewhere to store the casks.

  37. HeyThereKiller says:

    so why cant I make meth in my basement?

  38. Saboth says:


    Not really. You can grow small amounts of pot and get the desired effect. Plus, you don’t go around smoking 20 joints a day, like cigarrettes. You can grow your own tobacco, but you’d need 10x more area to feed your addiction.

    Kind of like if an alchohol was invented that gave you .08 BAC from one sip…it would be instantly outlawed because beer and liquer companies would lose all their profits from selling people 12 beers in a night.

  39. MPHinPgh says:

    @Candyman: Close; the marijuana tax stamp was actually the first method used to prohibit marijuana.

    Somebody’s been watching the History Channel. I saw that particular show (Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way – if I recall correctly). Very interesting.

  40. hoosier45678 says:

    @bohemian: Everclear is also very useful for making liqueurs and infusions (limoncello, etc). You get a much more intense flavor extraction than you do with vodka.

  41. wadewood says:

    Moonshine is basically home made vodka. All vodkas per US law are defined as grain neutral spirits and are distilled to 190 proof. This is just like moonshine or Everclear. This difference is vodka is watered back down to 80 proof before you buy it.

    The grain neutral spirit definition means that is odorless and tasteless. Once you reach 190 proof, you create a spirit that you cannot tell what it was made from (wheat, corn, banana peels, etc.). This means the difference in different brands of vodka, despite all the marketing hype, is the water they use to dilute back down to 80 proof!

    So you can make your own Vodka/Moonshine illegally. But, it will taste about the same as the cheapest vodka. You can buy some 1.75l vodkas for very cheap, so I don’t see the point.

    Other spirits, such as good Bourbon, Whiskey, Rum, Tequila, are distilled to lower proofs (around 140 proof). At this proof, the spirit retains some of the properties of the grain (corn, Agave Cactus, Sugarcain, etc.) that is was made from. These spirits are also generally aged in some type of wood barrels.

    You can buy some 2-5 gallon wood barrels and do your own aging. Buy some cheap whiskey, like Jim Beam White, and age it 5 more years. Knob Creek bourbon is a high end “small batch” product. It is made by Jim Beam and distilled using same recipe, the only difference is t is aged to 9 years and in a different warehouse location.

  42. Project Thanatos says:

    This same draconian mentality is also one of the main reasons tobacco is legal ad marijuana is not.

    Marijuana is a much easier crop to grow and harvest require simple conditions. Tobacco can only be grown in certain regions/climates. The taxation on Tobacco brings in tremendous amounts of revenue. While taxing marijuana would be near impossible due to its incredibly easy growth and maintenance. Any kid with a couple of lamps and some aluminum foil could produce a good strain. You just can’t do that with tobacco.

    Hence… taxation and prohibition.

    In the end it all comes down to how much money can be siphoned.

  43. Cap'n Jack says:

    Guys, people die from making their own moonshine. Nobody ever died from making their own beer.

  44. hapless says:


    Growing your own tobacco is illegal in many states, specifically because it’s difficult to tax.

  45. lim says:

    No spirits of any kind are welcome in my parents house. The deed states that they are not allowed to moonshine or hold seances on the property. Is this common or would it be related to the fact that it was built as a company house over 100 years ago?

  46. no.no.notorious says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the picture

  47. PaperBoy says:

    I’ve read the the problem with moonshine isn’t that home-distilled alcohol is dangerous, but doing it on the cheap is. Specifically, that enterprising hillfolk use old car radiators as evaporators, which allows lead and other contaminants to leach into the alcohol and cause heavy metal poisoning.

  48. Crazytree says:

    @Hambriq: no it’s not. this is common in a lot of third world countries… where they usually use a car radiator as an evaporator.

  49. mattarse says:

    I live in the Czeh Republic, where both mooonshine (Slivovice made from plums being the most popular) and Absinthe are legal.

    Slivovice from the home here can be from 40% to 90% with the lower percentage what is normal. Why would you have to make only 90% Vodka?

    As for Absinthe, it’s sold almost entirely to tourists and considered a joke.

    Course this is also the country where the previous president every year would release from prison anyone arrested for any marijuana offence that didn’t include violence or smuggling.

    I’ve never understood why it was illegal to make your own alcohol in the states, but the tax reasons make sense. Even here you are supposed topay tax on the homemade alcohol, and it often is paid by the people distilling. Not always, i think it depends on how much they make whether they bother.

  50. nardo218 says:

    Maybe because you can go blind from homemmade rotgut.

  51. mattarse says:

    Course if it’s legal to make yourself the distillers will have access to better equipment, and could buy non poisonous equipment without having to worry about the purchase being flagged.

    Course with all the recalls lately……Store bought stuff may not be so safe either.