Homemade Hooch Lands Banning Man in Jail

Whiskey-making is gaining popularity among chefs and do-it-yourselfers, but it's illegal to distill it without a license.

still materials
Courtesy Banning Police Department

At a time when top chefs are making their own whiskey and you can learn how to do it online, a California man learned the hard way that distilling alcohol at home is actually illegal.

James Jonathan Collins was hauled in by Banning police after they discovered a small homemade still in his garage.

It’s so rare to arrest someone for making whiskey in California that officers actually had to call state regulators to see if it was really against the law.

“When they actually encountered it they even had to call the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to get guidance,” said Leonard Purvis, Banning’s chief of police.

They learned that you need a federal license to make your own hooch, Purvis said. And Collins, whose still consisted of a re-purposed beer keg sitting on top of two dusty milk crates, didn’t have one.

The art of making whiskey is taking its place alongside the creative crafting of beer and wine in the annals of American gastronomic hobbies.

Online articles offer recipes, social media groups share tips on how to make it, and the Discovery channel has a reality TV show about those who make and sell the homemade whiskey known as moonshine.

But although state and federal laws in recent years have been changed to allow people to make beer and wine at home, Prohibition-era rules against making bathtub gin are still on the books.

To get a federal license, would-be distillers have to go through a lengthy application process, which includes proving that the whiskey will not be made at home, and promising to pay taxes on any that it sold.

It is perfectly legal to distill corn-based alcohol to make the fuel ethanol without a license. But not the stuff you drink.

Even so, cases like Collins are extremely rare, experts said.

Unlike Prohibition days, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms doesn’t even handle hooch-related cases any more, spokesman Chris Hoffman said. The Treasury Department hands out the licenses, but mostly in order to collect tax on any whiskey that is sold.

At the state level, the department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is more concerned with rooting out liquor stores selling to minors and other community issues than looking for backyard distillers, said spokesman John Carr.

“We regulate locations that serve or sell alcohol,” Carr said. “We don’t regulate what happens in the home.”

Even the Riverside District Attorney's office isn't sure what to do about the case.

Before deciding whether to charge Collins, pictured left, for operating the still, D.A. Paul E. Zellerbach  sent Banning police back out to do more investigating.

Purvis, the Banning police chief, said home stills are dangerous, because the alcohol is very flammable.

It also can be poisonous, particularly if makers put in additives to boost the alcohol content.

His officers had come to Collins’ house to arrest him on a bench warrant, after the 47-year-old failed to show up for a hearing on a DUI case, Purvis said.

They smelled the still, and initially thought it might be a meth lab, he said.

“There is a danger factor to it and that’s what our main concern was,” Purvis said. “It’s highly flammable and not only is it dangerous to the occupants of the house but it could also be dangerous to neighbors.”

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