Undercover distillers may become legal

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In many parts of the Czech Republic particularly in Moravia people have been distilling their own brandy for centuries. They have continued to do so despite a law which says they could be sentenced to 12 months in prison for tax evasion. Now an amendment to the penal code could change that.

Undercover distillers are down in the dumps. 2005 was a particularly bad year. The fruit harvest was almost non existent and the lack of plums, apples and apricots means a shortage of the ever popular home made brandies. A shot is believed to be the best recipe for longevity and locals firmly believe it cures everything from a bad cold to rheumatism. Although home made brandy will be in short supply this year, there is some good news for private distillers: according to an amendment to the penal code approved by Parliament last week it should no longer be a criminal offence to make your own brandy. According to supreme court judge Pavel Samal, who worked on the new penal code, the absolute ban on home distilling was a relic of the communist regime. Due to the ban there is now a dense network of distilleries where people can have their fruit distilled officially - but in many parts of the country people continue to distil their alcohol at home - in their cellars. In the vast majority of cases the police turn a blind eye. In Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, they say every second household has its own private distillery.

According to official estimates a quarter of the alcoholic beverages consumed in the Czech Republic -particularly wine and brandy - are home produced. Jiri Novak who owns an official distillery is not happy about the fact that the level of home production could now rise even higher:

"If this amendment really becomes law then of course all of us, official distillers, will be affected. We will get less work. Moreover the state is likely to lose 300-400 millions crowns in taxes as a result. And even big liqueur and brandy producers are likely to feel the pinch. In Austria where people are allowed to distil their own alcohol -up to a certain limit - the big producers have been badly affected."

Under the new penal code people would be able to produce up to 300 litres of their own alcoholic beverages a year. If they overstep that amount they could be charged with tax evasion. Those who produce greater volumes of alcohol and sell them illegally would face much stricter sentences than at present- up to ten years in prison.

So how do the thousands of undercover brewers feel about the chance of coming out into the open with their home made wine and brandy. Some say that nothing much will change since all their neighbours know about it anyway. Others say it was high time - and poor as this years plum harvest was - they are planning to open a bottle of home made firewater in celebration of the event.