Moonshine is a very special American drink with a rich history, but making it the old-fashioned way in California can land you in jail.
In this article, we’ll look at the legal status of making moonshine in California.
What is Moonshine and Why is it called Moonshine?
Moonshine is clear grain alcohol made from corn mash that has been distilled to a high-proof spirit.
It gets its name from prohibition-era bootleggers, who would make moonshine under the light of the moon to avoid law enforcement, who would track them based on the smoke trails that rise from the fires used to heat the stills.
Today, moonshine is available for purchase as a lower-proof spirit, and it is possible to legally distill your liquor in California – but not without some special permits and licenses.
Is Making Moonshine Illegal in California (and why)?
It is illegal to make moonshine in California without a federal permit and a state license.
Ever since the prohibition era, there have been federal laws to prevent private citizens from distilling their liquor at home. Although these laws are outdated, they are still on the books, and if you don’t obey them you risk hefty fines or jail time.
It is against federal law to distill spirits without a federal distilled spirits permit.
These are issued by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
To get a federal permit, you need to submit an extensive background check and answer questions about how you will protect your still from fire and theft.
If you are a felon or have a criminal history, you could be denied a permit.
Even if you have a federal permit, you need a state license to distill spirits in California.
You can apply for a Non-Retail ABC 04 license for alcohol manufacturers who don’t intend to sell anything, through the California Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Remember that even if you have both a federal permit and a state license, you could still be subject to local zoning restrictions, and you might need to convince local fire and water marshals and zoning officials that your micro-distillery is safe and above-board.
Alcohol Excise Taxes
The federal excise tax for liquor is $13.50 per proof gallon (gallon at 50% ABV).
The California state excise tax for spirits is an additional $3.50 per gallon.
All liquor sales are subject to a 6% California sales tax.
What’s the Penalty for Distilling in California?
Although the laws preventing home distillation date back to prohibition, they are still enforced.
Federal law prohibits home distillation in 26 United States Code (U.S.C.) 5042(a)(2) and 5053(e). Each offense entails a potential penalty of $10,000, 5 years in jail, or both.
If you are selling any of the alcohol you produce, the penalties are worse since you are also defrauding the IRS.
When a Sacramento man was arrested for producing and selling moonshine, he was prosecuted based on the federal statutes.
Is it Legal to own a Still in California?
It is legal to own a still in California, and people are not prosecuted for owning stills for decorative purposes, or distilling water and essential oils.
However, there are laws on the books in California that permit authorities to seize unlicensed stills – even though a still license should technically not be required unless you are a commercial producer.
According to California Code 25352, officials can seize any property in and around an unlicensed still.
If you buy a still and don’t produce alcohol with it, you are unlikely to run into trouble.
If you are producing alcohol and you get caught with unlicensed stills, you could potentially face more charges.
Is Homebrewing Beer and Wine Illegal in California?
Yes, it is legal to brew beer and wine at home in California, without a license.
However, if you want to sell the products you make, you will need a commercial producer’s license.
How to Get a Distilling Permit in California?
You can apply through the TTB for a federal distilled spirits permit online.
You can apply for a Non-Retail ABC-04 license through the California Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control.