Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Regardless of whether it's true, it's still a great story

I knew that New Zealand is a bit of a freedom-loving outlier in allowing home alcohol distillation. But I didn't know how that came to pass. I can't vouch for the story below, but it rings true. Hat tip to @LyndonHood. I've tidied some of the formatting and fixed copious typos; check the original if you want it without that.
How did it become legal in NZ ? Ray and Des explain ...
Tom : The story of how distilling became legal in New Zealand is rather interesting. It all dates back to the last Labour Government in the mid 80's when they decided in their wisdom that Government Departments would be sold off to private enterprise, turned into State owned enterprises (companies) or in the case of Departments like Customs which couldn't really do either, be run like businesses and make a profit where ever possible.
During the redrafting of our liquor laws 1989/90 the Customs Department put it to the Government that if they were supposed to be business like why did they have to check on all licensed stills in the Country where they only collected revenue from the ones that made alcohol. The solution to the problem? Make the ownership of a still no longer illegal which they did by simply removing that section from the act.
Very shortly after this became the case two bright sparks by the name of Peter Wheeler and Malcolm Wheeler (yes the same ones that wrote the book and own Spirits Unlimited) decided that if the ownership of a still was no longer illegal then they would start selling them to the general public. This created a beautiful Catch-22 for Customs, under the Customs Act if you distilled alcohol you had to have a licence and pay excise tax, but the thought of policing home stills for small amounts of alcohol filled them with horror so they made an internal policy that although there was nothing to stop them licencing home stills that they wouldn't do it.
This left them in another no win situation, the maximum fine under the act was $500 and confiscation of the offending alcohol, the cost of a prosecution several thousand dollars so they didn't deem that to be an efficient use of their money either so they largely turned a blind eye to it all. After many submissions to Government (myself included) when the liquor laws where changed again in October 1996 sanity prevailed and the customs act was changed and the word spirits added into the part about brewing beer, wine or the growing of tobacco for your own use was free of excise tax. This is a pretty unique set of circumstances which are unlikely to be replicated overseas I would have thought although I believe that there is a lot of pressure for Australia to follow and we are watching with great interest to see if it happens.

Des : The situation to some extent got too big for the government to control and as the product being produced could not be faulted on health grounds (yes it was tested by "the powers that be") there was really no other choice but to legalise it. In about September 1995 it was estimated that there were close to 2000 stills, capable of producing alcohol, being used as 'ornaments' in the Auckland city alone. A number of us interested parties made submissions to our local members of parliament and the governing bodies in support of the law change.
There have really been no problems and so long as it stays that way other governments may eventually see the light. However it must be remembered that alcohol production is a good, easy, and inexpensive source of tax revenue to any government. For this reason I urge all NZers to 'play the game' and abide by the rules. We have something unique to be cherished.
I really don't know whether this is anywhere near accurate. But it's not far from the story at the Spirits Unlimited website, where they sell stills, supplies, flavourings, and home tobacco growing kits - $18.75 gets you the supplies for growing 100 tobacco plants; the curing kit is another $18.45. They also note which products are too large for shipping overseas.

I don't grow my own tomatoes or distill my own spirits, preferring to trust to the division of labour and specialisation. But I like that I could.

I wonder whether anybody's measuring the elasticity of still sales and distillation supplies with respect to the alcohol excise tax.

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