All homemade booze should be legal
During VICE’s town hall on weed with Justin Trudeau last month, the prime minster was asked what his plan B was if Canadians continued buying cannabis from the black market. Trudeau naturally migrated towards the familiar example of booze: “currently, there is no black market for alcohol.”
While it’s true that most people won’t get solicited in the street by bootleggers in stained trench coats, an underground market does exist. There are plenty of ways to buy liquor outside the purview of our provincial monopolies if you know where to look. As just one example, there’s an active Facebook page for ordering illegal alcohol outside of the SAQ’s hours of operation at a hefty markup; it has over 61,000 members. The Quebec government estimates that it loses $90 million per year in revenue from people buying their liquor outside of its control, either illegally or otherwise.
But the next thought that came out of Trudeau’s mouth is more interesting: “you can make [alcohol] at home if you want”, Trudeau said, but added that most choose to buy it from established sources.
Hipsters can and do indeed brew beer and make wine from the comfort of their own homes, but provincial legislation across Canada prohibits the unlicensed distillation of alcohol, as does the federal Excise Act. You can ferment whatever the hell you want, as long as you don’t try to heat the inebriating substance and turn the vapours into something more potent.
Moonshining typically draws up images of blind hillbillies concocting bathtub hooch in the woods, yet the anachronism isn’t appropriate for the twenty-first century. Contemporary technology removes much of the worry over homemade liquor – you can easily test for the presence of methanol and other non-potable compounds and operate an alembic safely. And far from a rickety concoction of home-welded tanks and pipes, modern distilling equipment is carefully crafted scientific equipment. Is it foolproof? Nothing is, but stills are no more dangerous – and likely safer – than pressure cookers and deep fryers, already omnipresent in the nation’s kitchens.
While having one less available hobby might not seem like the end of the world, the biggest consequence of prohibiting homemade 80-proof is on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Take for example the explosion of microbreweries in recent years. There were only 88 licensed breweries in Canada in 2006. The number catapulted to 640 in 2015 and continues to grow exponentially. Ask almost any of these new guys and gals how they started, and they will tell you it was with a stovetop kettle in their tiny apartment. Their love of brewing started off as a pastime and eventually evolved into a business passion.
That’s a luxury aspiring distillers don’t legally have. There were only 38 licensed distilleries in Canada in 2012, most of them transforming industrial amounts of ethanol for multinational corporations. While the craft industry has taken off since then, the growth for vodka, gin, brandy and whisky been slower and the barriers of entry much higher than with beer.
You can easily buy a hobby still in Canada, retailed for purifying water and making essential oils – the same way a bong might be sold as a water pipe. Many professionals privately admit to having tested out their recipes this way before opening their distilleries. How else would they learn their trade? Yet if caught by the feds, this rational experimentation would be an offense punishable by a five-figure fine and a year in the slammer.
In the United States, the Hobby Distiller’s Association has formed to lobby the government to change the rules on home-distillation. While there is no formal arrangement in Canada, an underground community of distillers do exist – whether they’re aspiring professionals or immigrants bringing their rich traditions overseas with them.
Like Canada’s other archaic liquor laws, the rules on home-distilling need to change. With the Liberal government set to allow Canadians to grow their own cannabis at home, it’s worth pointing out these areas where review is needed.
Photo credit: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla Follow / Flickr