Whiskey Rebellion Redux

By Posted on Nov 09 2015 | By

Moon shining brightly on legal & illegal distilling 

In 2005, there were some 70 craft distilleries in the United States. Today, over 700 are in operation and a few years hence it’s projected over 1,000 of the watering holes will grace the Nation’s landscape.

Craft distilleries generally produce less than 10,000 bottles annually; often much less. By comparison, bourbon producer Jim Beam churns out 90 million bottles a year. The $70 billion distilled spirits industry is dominated by the major producers. Small distilleries generate less than 1 percent of sales.

Home pot still

Home pot still

On the amateur side, some industry observers believe there are over 50,000 home nano-distillers who are operating without a license; not a risk-free endeavor for scoring a few bottles of liquor considering the severe penalties for firing up an unregistered still.

Here in Virginia, there are 21 holders of distilling licenses; many of them producing less than 5,000 gallons annually. The most recent entrant is Old House Vineyards and Distillery in Culpeper; sales began in June 2015.

So what’s driving the resurgence in booze?

The demand for hand-crafted, artisanal beverages and the creative urge to produce such libations, coupled with the reduction of licensing fees to operate smaller distilleries.

The cost of obtaining a legal license in Virginia is modest; $450 for producing less than 5,000 gallons annually. But it takes serious money to buy the stills and other related equipment; putting a $200,000 dent in the checkbook is not uncommon.

The days of moonshining in mountain hideaways may be fading just as urban hobbyists and professional distillers are gaining traction in the world of upscale social lubricants.

Fauquier County
Over two dozen wineries and one brewery are currently operating in Fauquier County but no distillery has yet opened its doors. Knowledgeable sources think it won’t be long before the county will be able to boast a trifecta of libation production; beer, wine and whiskey.

If the prediction comes to pass, look for the product to be hand-crafted and of superior quality. Our current alcohol alchemists have a reputation for excellence; creating highly rated “water of life” would likely be no exception.FullSizeRender (3)

As for the traditional moonshine trade in Virginia, in 1941, the ABC Division of Enforcement seized an all-time high of 1,771 illegal stills.

In 2011, a collaborative four-day air and ground operation between the ABC and Virginia State Police resulted in the discovery and destruction of just 25 inactive but operational stills in Franklin, Pittsylvania and Carroll counties. Clearly, things have settled down since the heyday of the professional moonshiners.

While few county amateurs are ready to crow about their home operation, it’s certain to be happening based on similar activity around the country.

Home nano-distillers are able to fly under the radar because selling their product is not in their “business plan”. Home distillers often eschew the moonshiner tag, largely considering it an insult. Their only goal is to enjoy crafting a beverage in extremely limited qualities, often as few as 3 or 4 bottles at a time.

As one home distiller of wine explained, “I purchased a small stove top distiller in Portugal 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve distilled wine into brandy more than 50 times and aged it in a 5 liter oak cask. As it’s consumed, I distill a new batch. And truthfully, while my brandy is good I can buy higher quality stuff. The fun is in the doing.” 

It’s the law
A misconception held by many is that producing distilled spirits at home is legal; just don’t try to sell the hooch. And while backyard distillation of a bottle of alcohol seems innocent enough, both federal law and the Virginia ABC takes a decidedly different view. In response to an inquiry to the ABC, their response read:

Producing ANY amount of a distilled spirit (even a single bottle for one’s own consumption) is a Class 6 felony with a penalty of 1-5 years imprisonment or jail up to 12 months and up to a $2500 fine, either or both. Simply possessing a still or distilling apparatus without a license from the ABC is a Class 1 misdemeanor, if convicted.

Wannabe moonshiners beware.

Published in the Fall 2015 edition of inFauquier  magazine.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES