Distilling Spirits at Home

Salon takes a look at the growing practice of home distilling (a.k.a. “moonshine”).

While home-brewing beer and wine is legal, within generous limits, all home distillation of hard liquor is illegal in the United States. But that isn’t stopping some folks, who, for fun or to avoid the taxes, rig up a cheap kettle still and make their own fire-water.

The laws against moonshine might be a vestige of Prohibition, but the most likely explanation for the government’s recalcitrance is taxes: It collects $2.14 per 750 milliliter bottle of 80 proof alcohol, versus only 21 cents for the same size bottle of standard wine and a paltry 5 cents per can of beer. Getting a distilling license can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and requires so much hassle and paperwork that few individual distillers find it worth the effort — after all, they just want to drink the stuff, not sell it (which would turn them into bootleggers). So instead, they just make ’shine.

Home distillation information is easy to find on-line, and enforcement seems to be very lax. I’ve seen above-ground brew supply stores openly selling home distillation equipment, and you can also order working stills on-line (“sold as art decor only” of course).

If your eudaimonia is so dependent on arbitrary accidents of fate (as Aristotle noted in section eight of the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics), is it really a question of ethics at all, or is it more a matter of luck? (Is this a secular version of the grace or works argument from Christianity?) You’re walking down the street, engaged in your uncommonly virtuous life, and a roof tile blows off a building and falls on your head and wham, there goes your eudaimonia.

In section nine, Aristotle tries to preserve eudaimonia as a proper end of deliberate action, against this potential attack.

For one thing, even if eudaimonia is partially just a matter of luck, the part that isn’t a matter of luck is still worth looking at. That part might indeed be the greater part, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Luck might provide us with more or less of the raw material and opportunity with which we construct our eudaimonia, but the genuine article itself requires deliberate action on our part: eudaimonia is expressed in “activity of the soul” and so is a dynamic thing we do, and not just the passive reception of fortunate circumstances.

Animals and children can’t be said to attain eudaimonia, since they aren’t capable of this sort of virtuous activity of the soul. (This again shows off the weakness of “happiness” as a translation for eudaimonia — it seems ridiculous to say that we can’t call a child “happy.”)

For another thing, Aristotle says, eudaimonia is, or ought to be, a judgment applied to a person’s life as a whole, not just some particular moment in time. It’s really only in retrospect that you can say, ah, there was a life of eudaimonia.

Wait a minute… isn’t that contradictory? Is eudaimonia something that’s expressed in an activity of the soul (which seems instantaneous and very much within a life), or an evaluation that takes place from outside of a person posthumously (much the opposite)?

I think he’ll try to clear that up in the next section.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics