If you have a still for producing alcohol at your home and no permit from the US federal government, then, yes, making moonshine is illegal. That is the easiest answer to what often becomes a complicated question.
Having a still at your home is not illegal, in fact. So as ironic as it is, if you have a business you can have moonshine stills for sale but you cannot have moonshine itself for sale (without a permit to do so).
If you are distilling water, the federal government does not care. They are not interested in the small amount of chemicals that you may be able to distill from your water. A still can also be used for natural oils and extracts. Remember those essential oil home businesses? They have stills. But no permits are required. There are no legal hoops to jump through. However, when even a drop of alcohol is involved in the process, legal obstacles start popping up.
What if you are only using a still for educational purposes? Perhaps you just want to know how distilling alcohol works. Sorry, if it’s for alcohol, it’s still illegal without a permit. But there is a special permit for this “experimental use.” There is also a permit for using the distilled alcohol as fuel. Those that are making alcohol for fuels, with the proper permit, don’t even have to pay taxes. But the permit is the key. It is required to legally operate a still that makes alcohol, no matter what you are using the still to make: fuel, experiments or moonshine. Some permits are just easier to get than others. For example, it’s easier to get a fuel or experimental permit than one for creating alcohol to sell.
But, maybe you want to open your own distillery? To do that legally, you’ll need a permit. This permit is a bit more onerous than the permit for experimental and fuel use. You’ll have to demonstrate that your facility meets a bevy of safety requirements, including location, construction, equipment and qualifications of people operating the distillery. Also, if you’re looking to sell the alcohol that you have created, you’ll probably want to check with your state laws as well. Liquor licenses are required in many states.
Why all the legal obstacles to distilling simple moonshine? While there are many reasons, an easy one to point to is taxes. The federal and state governments make a lot of money from alcohol purchases. Also, operating a still is inherently a bit more dangerous than bubbling some beer on the stovetop. Therefore, legal moonshine distilleries need to show that they’ve met a bunch of safety requirements.
Yes, distilling moonshine without a permit is illegal, according to the U.S. federal government. But there are permits available for those who want to experiment, make fuel or even start their own distilleries.