26 October 2012

Mechanics of the Whiskey Tax

The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hodgeland, 2006, Excerpts

A federal tax on whiskey was hardly, to the small distillers who made up the majority that would pay it, the mere luxury-tax-with-concomitant-health-benefit that Hamilton had described to a Congress eager to be swayed.

The poorest people, hired hands paid in kind, experienced the whiskey excise as a tax on income: if community distillers had to pay the tax, they’d have to compensate themselves by taking a larger share of whiskey from people who brought their grain salaries in for conversion. Growers too felt the pain. There was no tax on grain, but westerners who raised grain were forced to convert grain to whiskey in order to transport it eastward. The tax thus imposed a federal tax on western farmers while leaving farmers in more convenient and prosperous places untaxed.

The duty would be collected by federal officers, in coin, at the point of production, often a log stillhouse on a small farm. Having collected the duty or secured the bond, the deputy then issues a certificate stamped with a Treasury Department seal. The certificate is the prize. It travels with the whiskey, proving to buyers that the duty has been paid. Certification makes the product legal.

It wasn’t clear where cash for the payment would come from, and failure to pay would make the product non-transportable. Not registering a still was punishable by a cash fine. Assets – the whiskey and the still itself – could be seized.

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