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Should NH allow hobby distilling of liquor?

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Many Granite Staters have tried brewing their own beer or making wine at home. It’s fun, tasty, and less expensive than buying from a brewery or vineyard. A natural progression for these backyard brew masters might be to “graduate” to making hard liquor like whiskey or brandy, but this is where it gets more complicated. You can’t distill your own liquor at home the way you can with beer or wine—but there’s a bill before the Legislature, HB 416, to change that.

What’s in the bill?

HB 416, proposed by Rep. Scott Wallace, adds “liquor produced from beer or wine” to the current law allowing home brewing and winemaking. You would have to be 21 years old or older to make alcohol, and you can only make it for personal or family use. In other words, you can’t sell your homemade moonshine. Current law only allows you to make 100 gallons of beer or wine per year if you are the only one in your house making the alcohol or 200 gallons if you have helpers living with you. This new bill builds off of these limits, saying that you can’t distill more than those amounts of beer or wine into hard alcohol.

How does distilling work, and what makes it different?

Even though both processes result in the creation of alcohol, there is a lot more to distilling hard liquor than there is to making beer. The first step in distilling, as a matter of fact, is to create what is essentially a beer or wine. Then, the liquid is heated in a still to extract the alcohol from it, resulting in a more potent alcoholic beverage—what we think of as “moonshine” or fortified wine.

State vs. Federal law

What makes all this even more complicated is that federal law already prohibits home distilling. This means that if New Hampshire makes hobby distilling legal, our state law will clash with federal law. That’s not unheard of, though—in recent history, states have made their own laws that contradict federal law on issues like marijuana legalization and gay marriage. In fact, some might argue that such state laws are what help turn the tide on these issues. If nothing else, this would make New Hampshire ready for a change in federal law.

While it’s certainly not the only reason home distilling is illegal on the federal level, taxation no doubt plays a role. The federal government receives $2.14 per 750ml bottle of 80-proof liquor compared to a mere $0.05 cents per 12oz beer can - or $0.30 for a six-pack. Since you can’t sell homemade alcohol, the federal government could stand to lose serious money if enough people started making their liquor at home rather than buying it from the liquor store. This might make a federal change less likely.

A promising opportunity

Those in favor of hobby distilling in New Hampshire see a bright future ahead. They point to the flourishing of craft beer since homebrewing was legalized. In 1978, Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337 which legalized homebrewing on the federal level for the first time since prohibition. At the time there were just 89 American breweries. Now there are over 8,000. While there is already a craft distilling renaissance underway, legalizing home distilling would certainly benefit the growing movement. It might even lead to more craft distilleries in the Granite State, someday.

This brings up another point: in 2005, there were just 50 craft distilleries in the US. Now there are more than 2,000. How did so many people learn how to distill? In all likelihood, there is already quite a bit of home distilling happening anyway. In that sense, this law would bring it out in the open.

Too risky for amateurs

Unlike beer- and winemaking, the consequences of incorrectly distilling liquor can be deadly. The distillation process brings alcohol vapor and heat into close proximity, which can be explosive if you’re not careful. It’s also crucial to use the right equipment—the metal of the still needs to be rated for food grade alcohol contact. If it isn’t, heavy metals from the still could leech out into the alcohol. It’s also possible to accidentally turn your corn mash into methanol, which can cause blindness and even death.

Those who oppose this measure also point out that federal law is nothing to fool with. Such opponents argue that those who want to see hobby distilling made legal should focus on getting a bill through Congress first.

Attempts to legalize hobby distilling on the federal level

A group called the Hobby Distiller’s Association had been lobbying to legalize hobby distilling on the federal level, but they appear to have run out of funding. There have been efforts like HR 2903 (Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2015) and S 1562 which would have, among other things, legalized home distilling. There was fairly strong bipartisan support but both bills failed to make it out of committee.

State of the bill

In a recent public hearing on this proposal, bill sponsor Rep. Scott Wallace testified in favor of the bill. Some of the other representatives on the committee raised concerns about home distillers poisoning themselves with methanol. Rep. Wallace explained that, since home brewers are not running businesses selling their liquor, they can afford to be picky; he said hobby distillers are cautioned by recipe books to play it safe and dispose of all but the “heart” of the distillation batch, which should be free from toxic chemicals. A representative of the NH Liquor Commission also spoke at the hearing, stating that the Commission was “neutral” on whether or not the bill passes.

The full New Hampshire House will vote on HB 416 in the coming weeks.

Update 3/9/21: The House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee voted to "retain" HB 416, which means they can do more work on the bill over the summer.  The House will likely vote on HB 416 in early 2022.

You can follow the fate of the bill along with other legislation regarding beer, wine, and liquor on our website, here.

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