What Happens if You Get Caught Transporting Moonshine in Tennessee?

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Tennessee alcohol laws are a bit unusual in that they vary significantly by county. In addition to having so-called “dry,” “wet” and “moist” counties, Tennessee also enacted new legislation in 2009 that changed the landscape about distillation. One of the biggest effects of this legislation was an explosion of legal moonshine in the state.

Moonshine and Distilling Laws by State

“Moonshine” is a word with a lot of historical meaning, and it can refer to specific types of alcohol, specific distillation methods or the act of illegal distillation. Historically, in the United States, “moonshine” has referred to clear, unaged whiskey with a high alcohol content, made from corn mash and distilled illicitly at home ‒ generally to avoid taxation.

During Prohibition, moonshine distillation skyrocketed, and while alcohol laws have loosened, distillation without a permit is still illegal at the federal level. Distilling laws by state vary. Nonetheless, strong traditions of making moonshine have persisted in many areas, especially in the American South and Appalachia. Many families have moonshine recipes that have been passed down over generations.

While the term “moonshine” and early versions of the drink originated in the British Isles, in modern usage, moonshine has become a distinctly American product with a powerful place in the American cultural imagination.

2009 Liquor Reform Laws

In 2009, a number of liquor reform laws swept the Southern states. In Tennessee, that year saw an explosion in the number of counties in which distillation was legal with the right permit. Previously permitted only in Lincoln, Moore and Coffee counties, distillation became legal in 41 additional counties in July of 2009, so there was no longer a penalty for making moonshine in most parts of the state.

Since Tennessee has a long and proud history of moonshine-makers and moonshine recipes, many locals took this opportunity to obtain distillation permits and bring their particular recipes to the legal market. While some have debated whether this legal moonshine is truly “moonshine,” those who stick to the traditional, illegal definition of making moonshine face stiff penalties: Distilling without a “distilled spirits” permit is still a federal crime.

While it’s legal to own a still, actually using it to distill alcohol, particularly when there is the intent to avoid taxation, is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both, under 26 U.S.C. 5602. Those contemplating the making of moonshine should look into the home-distilling permit cost before determining whether to proceed down that path.

Moonshine Laws in Tennessee

For those who obtain the proper permit, the opportunities for moonshine production in Tennessee have soared. The boom in “Tennessee whiskey” (a legally specific term), moonshine and other types of whiskey particular to Tennessee has even seen some distilleries challenge the dominance of Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. With the rise of microdistilleries has come a need to understand Tennessee laws as to the distillation and transportation of alcohol.

Taxes and Transportation of Moonshine

The key to most Tennessee moonshine laws is understanding that the laws consider how much is being made, and, has it been properly taxed? Tennessee Code sections 39-17-703 and 57-3-401 cover receiving, possessing and transporting alcohol. According to 39-17-703, receiving, storing or transporting more than 5 gallons of alcohol is assumed to be for the purpose of resale unless it’s accompanied by a receipt or documentation from a licensed entity. In addition, having or moving liquor with the intent to resell or redistribute it is a Class A misdemeanor, unless all appropriate taxes have been paid or the person has been authorized under title 57.

Correspondingly, 57-3-401 stipulates that it is unlawful to transport or cause to transport untaxed alcoholic beverages in excess of 5 gallons. Additionally, excepting situations in which Section 57-3-103(b) authorizes a person to store alcohol for their own personal or social use, it is also illegal to possess more than 5 gallons of untaxed alcohol.

Violations of the Law

Violations are a Class E felony. The burden of proof to show taxes paid applies to anyone transporting alcohol. Finally, it’s illegal to import, ship or deliver any alcoholic beverages on which the proper taxes have not been paid or when such transportation isn’t to a licensed entity.

A violation of this is also a Class E felony. So, despite the relaxation of some laws on distillation, it’s still important to get the proper licenses and permits and make sure all necessary taxes on the alcohol are paid.