The three major concerns of people who might be interested in setting up a still at home are;
1) the question of legality,
2) the possibility of getting poisoned, specifically of going blind, and
3) the danger of blowing oneself up. These are serious concerns and people take them very seriously. We have dealt with the legal question elsewhere so here we will concentrate on health matters.
Poisoning oneself. Distillation doesn't produce anything so there can be nothing in a distilled spirit which was not in the original fermented liquor. Moreover, the whole purpose of distillation is to remove noxious substances and this it does by separating from the ethanol the more harmful substances such as methanol and fusel oil and discarding them. This is easy to do because they have a very pungent smell, a bit like paint remover.
So, to poison oneself it would be necessary to separate out the noxious substances from the liquor, pour the sweet-smelling ethanol down the drain, and drink the paint remover. This is about as likely as plucking a chicken, throwing away the meat and eating the feathers. It's ridiculous.
Headaches & hangovers. Some of the well-known consequences of drinking too much are headaches, halitosis, fatigue, dizziness and diarrhea, to name the best known ---- a hangover in other words. These unfortunate consequences are discussed in the book "Making Gin & Vodka" and evidence provided, based on clinical trials, that the alcohol does not produce the effects per se. They are caused by the impurities, the congeners!
Many people find this hard to believe, but the congeners include methanol and amyl alcohol, both of which are quite poisonous. If a different poison were involved, e.g. arsenic, it wouldn't be a bit surprising to find that a 3% solution in water gave you an upset tummy. One conclusion to be drawn from this is that, if you wish to drink alcohol without any side-effects, the best thing to do is remove all the impurities with a fractionating still to produce pure alcohol and then dilute it with water to 40% to give vodka. Then add flavoring.
Explosions. Although a boiler is used for distilling fermented liquor to spirits, there is no pressure in it. The boiler is completely open to the atmosphere at all times so pressure build-up is impossible. It is no more dangerous, therefore, than a tea-kettle.
Here in the united states it is currently illegal for anyone to own or operate a still for the production of spirits. These laws are based off of prohibition fears and bad science. The documented cases of people going blind is few and far between. Steps to carefully produce your own liquors at home safely is widely available on the internet including safe equipment usage, equipment distribution companies, and hygienic precautions used in safe distillation.
The legalization of home distillation can only benefit the American hobbyist. I believe by legalization that the American spirit industry will be given a new life, leading to a boom in the spirit industry. This boom will bring about new jobs in the form of microbreweries, craft spirits, and various other business created by home hobbyists. The boom will also lead to artisan craft production, which will further the production and sale of spirits leading to an increase in sales and taxes there of.
Since legalization in New Zealand in 1996, there has been no serious health issues discovered. If anything the New Zealand government made money off of legalization due to a public interest in the craft. There is few cases of people going blind or suffering from any negative consequences due to legalization. There has been no cases of people blowing themselves up. There has been no cases of any deaths due to the act of distilling spirits.
Distilling does not produce alcohol, the production of alcohol comes from fermentation enjoyed by thousands if not millions of home brewers who currently produce beer and wine. Fermentation of alcohol is the natural process in which yeast settles on fruits, honey, grains and other brewing ingredients. This yeast feeds on the sugars, breaking them down and produces ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Natural fermentation ends when the alcohol reaches a potency of 14 to 15% and then ends due to the yeast not being able to survive the pressures generated.
Distillation of alcohol increases it's potency. The process was developed about 800 A.D and it involves the collecting of steam from boiled alcoholic mash. The mash maybe wine, fruit, grains, hops or various other ingredients. The steam is captured. The steam has a higher alcoholic content and is then collected and cooled. The resulting liquid has a higher alcohol content and a lower water volume.
People believe that spirit consumption leads to unruly behavior. The fact is 85% of people pulled over for drinking and driving have been drinking beer, not spirits. The same goes for sporting events in Europe that turn violent. The fans are drinking beer at 5% alcohol by volume, drinking can after can leading up to a large amount of alcohol. The strength of the alcohol it's self does not lead to the problems associated with drinking, it's the amount of alcohol consumed.
As soon as amateurs were free to distill their own spirits there was an immediate rise in commercial sales, and a rise in tax revenues. The reason is the upsurge of interest in spirits which occurred as soon as it became a hobby. It was no longer an outlawed, remote taboo commercial enterprise, but a fun loving hobby for youths and hobbyists to get into and experiment with for fun leading to the realization that beer-making and wine-making are no more dangerous then home distillation and thus should be afforded exactly the same rights and freedoms without fear of prosecution.
We the undersigned feel that despite New Zealand's example and bold new steps, change has been too slow to come. We hereby petition the united states legislative branch to legalize home distillation. The benefits of legalization of such a craft can only lead to strengthen the American economy during these hard times. We urge you to legalize home distilling for the American people with the stipulation that a safety course and basic operation of a still is mandated before being able to legally own and operate a still for the purpose of home distillation of spirits for home consumption. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.