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Banned Booze: A look at moonshining in Michigan and the effort to legalize home distilling

Posted at 11:25 PM, Jan 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-27 15:26:05-05

When you hear the words "illegal alcohol in Detroit” images of history, the infamous Purple Gang and prohibition come to mind.  Yet today, there is still Illegal alcohol in thousands of homes across metro-Detroit.  

Michigan moonshiners are easy to find, but moonshiners willing to go on camera are not.

“I think it is crazy,” said one moonshiner who agreed to speak anonymously.

"Families actually will do this every year,” he said.  

For his family it is a once a year tradition to  get together for the hours long process of turning homemade wine into moonshine, a felony punishable by 5 years in prison.

So why does he take the risk?  It is about tradition and quality.

“I think a lot of people do it for their own personal satisfaction and knowing what they are getting,” he said.

We went to the legal Motor City Gas Distillery in Royal Oak to get a look at what the distilling process involves.  It produces small batches of craft whiskeys and bourbons that you can only get there.

The distillery's owner Rich Lockwood starts by making beer.  He then puts the beer in a still. The still heats up the beer, sending alcohol vapors into a column.  

“Then we condense the alcohol back into a liquid,” said Lockwood.

So why is it illegal for you to do at home?

During the Prohibition Era, when the law was passed, people were poisoned by methanol.  Methanol is the extremely high proof alcohol that comes out of the still at the beginning of the process.

“It is easy to keep methanol out of the product,” said the anonymous moonshiner. “You just get rid of the first bit of liquid that comes out of the still.”

Lockwood says he believes methanol is more likely to be a problem when you have people selling alcohol illegally that they purposefully made extra potent.

Seven Action News called local emergency rooms. They’ve seen no recent cases of such poisoning.

There is another reason often given for the ban.  As the Royal Oak Fire Department’s Acting Chief Jim Cook warns, the alcohol and its vapors are highly flammable.

“If it gets out there and it hits an open flame, it is instant,” said Cook.

He says people should not take up distilling without knowledge of what can go wrong.  Ventilation is key.

“They better know what they are doing. They better have fire extinguishers and it better be outside,” said Cook.

Moonshiners say the risk of fire is low because stills today are safer than stills made in the 1920s and 1930s.  

There are valves to release pressure and prevent fires.  There are also ways to easily measure the density of the alcohol as it comes out of the still, and therefore determine whether it is methanol or the desired ethanol.

Cook says it is hard to say whether it is because of the law or risk, but in his 28-years as a firefighter he has never seen a fire caused by a still being used illegally.

“I wish that some of these laws would keep up with the times,” said Rich WeinKauf, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Schoolcraft College.

The college has a Brewing and Distillation Technology Program. Students make beer, but Federal laws make it hard for them to get experience in distilling.  Weinkauf says market research done by Schoolcraft College shows it is experience that is in demand in the job market. That is why he is a member of the Hobby Distillers Association, which is lobbying for the passage of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act.

“That would be a big help for boosting the craft distilling business in Michigan,” said Weinkauf.

The bill would allow people to distill limited amounts of spirits for personal use.

“If they go after those people for trying to make a profit from it, I understand because they are not paying their taxes,” said the anonymous moonshiner who spoke to us. “If I am just making it for myself, I don’t understand.  It shouldn’t be illegal.”

“It is crazy,” said Lockwood. “You hear more about legalizing marijuana than you do distilling, which is one of the oldest crafts this country has.”