Paul Goncharoff

The New Year holidays in Russia are a big deal. So much so that they are stretched out from mid-December through mid-January. How do I know this? Try to get a meeting scheduled or a decision made on just about any new business during this time. Of course it is possible, but take it from me, there will be delays – “the new year is coming, what’s so important?”

The official New Year holidays, which includes Orthodox Christmas, are from December 30 through January 8 inclusive; a full 10 days. Nonetheless, many also include the new calendar Christmas on 25 December, and the ‘old’ calendar New Year celebrated on January 14. To do it right, one has to ‘prepare’ in advance, or just be prepared, hence the period from mid-December through mid-January.

One man I know, whom I advise, seems to have been prepping since last New Year’s; he is a manufacturer from the city of Krasnodar. He drove over and descended on me this week in Moscow proudly presenting me with a few pre-holiday gifts he made at home. They were a gallon jug of moonshine, or ‘samogon’ as it is called in Russian, and a bottle each of his very smooth homemade whiskey and his version of Sambuca liquor. We sampled a bit, but as he was making Santa Claus rounds – he had over 150 gallons of home crafted spirits packed away in his Mercedes van, AKA sleigh, he quickly was off again to spread liquid cheer. The making of Samogon in Russia is mostly a guy thing (although that is changing), and the fact that he was driving from Krasnodar in the south up to Moscow, then on to St. Petersburg and Vyborg attests to the deserved pride he takes in his homey liquid creations.

Before the birth of the Russian Federation, any such home distilling was strictly forbidden, it was considered a criminal activity and many were imprisoned during the communist era of the Soviet Union. Today distilling alcohol at home and making spirits for personal use is perfectly legal, and has been since 1997 in Russia. Other countries with similar freedoms are New Zealand, Austria, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine where it is also legal for personal use, but elsewhere on this planet, this is not the case. 

The Russian name for any homemade distilled alcoholic beverage is called samogon, meaning ‘self-distilled’, or more accurately ‘self-run’. Historically, samogon was made from malted grain similar to whiskey, but this method is relatively rare these days, due to the easy availability of more convenient base ingredients, such as table sugar, which modern samogon is often made from. Other common ingredients include beets, potatoes, bread, or various fruit. Samogon of initial distillation is called Pervach, literally translated as ‘the first one’. Known for its high quality (pure alcohol evaporates at the beginning of the process, but impurities do not; over time, impurities evaporate as well, thus making the rest of the batch not as clean). Historically, the production of Samogon throughout the ages, legally or illegally is widespread with many personalized variations. 

Samogon is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the country. It directly competes with vodka, which is more expensive (in part due to taxes on distilled alcohol), but contains fewer impurities. A 2002 study found that, among rural households in central Russia, samogon was the most common alcoholic beverage, its per capita consumption exceeding the consumption of vodka almost 4 to 1. 

Looking at the subject from a worldview – it is perfectly legal to own a still in the US, and you can even use it, as long as you’re not making alcohol – so, you can make essential oils without a permit, or perfume, or distilled water. Unlike home winemaking and brewing, which have been legal in the US since 1978, home distilling of spirits is a federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison (plus five more for tax fraud).

‘The possession of unregistered stills and the production of distilled spirits without a Federal permit and without payment of tax are Federal felony offenses which may result in the seizure and forfeiture of land and other property associated with the illegal activity.’ The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) helpfully adds, ‘Persons wishing to distill spirits legally are encouraged to visit the TTB distilled spirits homepage at http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/index.shtm  for guidance and to apply for a permit.’ Amateur distillers will probably be saddened by the information on that web page, which includes the following: ‘You may not produce spirits for beverage purposes without paying taxes and without prior approval of paperwork to operate a distilled spirits plant. [See 26 U.S.C. 5601 &5602 for some of the criminal penalties.]’

There are numerous requirements that must be met which make it impractical to produce spirits for personal or beverage use. Some of these requirements are filing an extensive application, filing a bond, providing adequate equipment to measure spirits, providing suitable approved tanks and pipelines, providing a separate building (other than a dwelling), maintaining detailed records, and filing reports. All of these requirements are listed in 27 CFR Part 19.

In other words, if you want to try to make your own ‘samogon’ or whiskey without risking arrest and forfeiture, forget it.

In the UK, it is also illegal to use a still without a license. There are very heavy penalties for distilling alcohol in the UK. You can brew as much beer or wine as you like for personal consumption. However, you cannot distill it or sell it without a license.

In Canada, since 1984, laws were passed around the country, which state that it is illegal to concentrate beer or wine without a license. Moonshining, brewing and distilling spirits and alcohol are an illegal business in Canada unless you get a permit, which is similar to the US.

Meanwhile here in the land everyone loves to ‘sanction’ for everything under the sun, the craft and business of distilling your own continues to make modest qualitative inroads. A number of manufacturers and distributorsmake high quality dependable home stills, from stovetop units to larger volume items. The associatedmaterials needed for making high quality whiskies, liquors, and similar are also well represented on the market such as oaken barrelsfor aging, serving (and flavoring) whiskies and brandies.

Barrel making https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFsysvLhEII

Still manufacture https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=94&v=uNjqIjVHRlE

Therefore, when and if you come to visit Russia, preferably for a while and want to try your hand at making your own ‘hair of the dog’ or ‘smooth sippin whiskey’ the opportunities are vast. The cost for a small stovetop distillery made from stainless steel starts from around $50 for very small ones, up to $400 for the fanciest 50-gallon home units. All the additional bells and whistles needed are also available such as premixed mash, flavoring ingredients, bottles, jugs and barrels. All of it available online, courier delivered, with major credit cards accepted or simply pay cash when delivered to your door. Just another reason to come visit.

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