When people think ‘bourbon whiskey’ they think of Kentucky. No other part of the country is as closely associated with such a uniquely American drink. That’s something Kentuckians should be proud of, and most of us are. Today, the stories of our state’s original distillers have become the stuff of Kentucky legend. This makes it all the more ironic that if Elijah Craig were to break into the bourbon world today the way that he did in the late 1700’s, he’d likely be breaking the law.
Despite its growing popularity, home distilling remains illegal in Kentucky and the United States at large. This prohibition makes little sense, given that it’s perfectly legal to purchase a still along with all the ingredients needed to make bourbon. It’s actually following through to turn those ingredients into alcohol that makes you a criminal.
Obviously, the commercial market for distilled spirits is alive and well, and even growing. Recent reforms in liquor regulations have ensured that smaller entrepreneurs can create their favorite drinks and compete with the larger players in the industry. In 2021, for example, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act was made permanent, ensuring that those in the craft beverage industry would maintain a tax relief originally made in 2017. This prevented a nearly 400% tax rate increase — an increase that would have almost certainly put the final nail in the coffin for many businesses.
Reforms like these have gone a long way in helping craft distilleries flourish in the marketplace and play a crucial role as a disruptive force in the commercial industry. As of August 2019, for instance, craft spirits producers increased by 11.5% over a year. Every year, more independent craft distillers break into the industry with growing rates of success.
Home distilleries are illegal
Yet personal distilleries are still totally illegal. Enthusiasts who want to try their hand at crafting their own bourbon, even if it’s purely for personal consumption, are out of luck. Making bourbon without a license is a criminal offense.
The prohibition on home distilling creates an artificial barrier to entry to budding entrepreneurs who want to perfect their distilling skills at home. It also turns everyday citizens into felons simply for engaging in an activity that is lawful for industry titans, but not for them.
Fortunately, the craft beer industry provides a policy template that home distillers ought to be allowed to use moving forward. After prohibition ended in 1933, home brewing, much like home distilling, remained illegal. Only those permitted to operate could make and sell beer. This was the case until October 14, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill legalizing the practice of home brewing. Many breweries that are now established institutions got their start in basements or garages, experimenting with unique techniques and flavors, thanks to the legalization of homebrewing. The craft spirits industry could find itself in a similar situation if proper reforms were made.
A trigger law for bourbon
Obviously, there is only so much that Kentucky can do until federal law is changed, but that doesn’t mean it should stick to the status quo. As many as eight states currently have adopted laws that would legalize the practice the moment the federal ban was lifted. Kentucky isn’t one of them. If the federal government finally decides to allow enthusiasts to distill their own spirits for personal consumption, the practice would still be criminalized in the land of bourbon itself. That shouldn’t sit well with any proud Kentuckian.
Home distillers should not be criminalized and driven underground to engage in an activity that is commercially permissible. Kentucky bourbon is a staple of the commonwealth. Enthusiasts who want to engage in the activity should be permitted and encouraged to do so. Kentucky should take the appropriate steps to ensure that the creation of bourbon is accessible to anyone eager to participate.
Caleb Franz is the Program Manager at Young Voices. He is also the host of the history podcast Profiles in Liberty and lives in Louisville, KY. You can follow him on Twitter: @ CalebFranz