Is it legal to make my own?
Beer and wine, yes. Whiskey? No. Federal law permits an individual
to make 100 gallons each of wine and beer for personal use. A
two-adult household may make 200 gallons of each. No permits
or records are required, but you must not sell or barter it.
It is prohibited to distill your own spirits or even possess
a still for distilling alcohol without a permit. There are exceptions
for the distillation of water with a home still. See
State and local laws may be at variance with the above, especially if you live in a dry region. It is highly advisable that you check federal, state and local laws in your area as well, no matter what you may read on some web sites on the Internet.
What does it cost to get started?
From a couple of dollars to several hundreds of dollars. Most home brewing supply firms sell starter kits of equipment and ingredients, most of which you can probably scrounge for practically nothing. Food grade plastic containers ranging from milk jugs to plastic buckets, work great for fermenting beer and wine. The "pore-boy" chapter in my book shows you how to make everything you need to get started, but it is best to buy certain things like bottle caps, proper yeast and malt extracts. Then your first efforts will be rewarding and as your skill and interest grows, you can buy what you need to tailor your product to your own tastes.
I made a batch and it was awful. Where did I go wrong?
Poor sanitation is the chief cause of poor results. Everything that comes in contact with your beer or wine should be sterilized and the fermented liquid must be protected from airborne contamination. Sterilize your equipment with diluted bleach and rinse well. To exclude air, a disposable latex glove or a plastic sheet stretched over the mouth of your container and secured with rubber bands will exclude air, but let the CO2 produced by fermentation escape. I cover a variety of homemade, or store bought devices that serve the same purpose in my book.
It's a matter of yeast, sugar and timing. Some folks use common bakers' yeast and it works, but doesn't settle well, so it's easy to stir up and cloud your beverage. Beer and wine yeast settles well and produces about 10% and 14% alcohol respectively before they die. Bottle too early when there's lots of active yeast and sugar to feed it and you'll have excessive natural carbonation and yeast deposits in the bottle which causes blown up bottles geysering and murky beverage. Let your beer or wine work until no more bubbles are rising and it's beginning to clarify and it will be safe to bottle, but will be non-carbonated. To get naturally carbonated beer or sparkling wine, add ¼ teaspoon of sugar to each 12 oz. Bottle (¼ cup per gallon.) There are other tricks and tools for improving your beverages in my book, but this covers the most common pitfalls.
What are the dangers? Can I poison my friends or myself?
Yes, but not likely if you have a shred of common sense. As long as you use nontoxic food grade equipment and wholesome ingredients, you'll be okay. There are dangers though. Certain metals, berries, blossoms and plants can do you in. Chemically treated seed grain (for malting) and using containers that may have held toxic stuff, also pose dangers. I cover safety thoroughly in the book, but beer and wine making are really not dangerous.
Whisky making is another story though. Since it's illegal, the most obvious danger is going to jail. Death, blindness paralysis and brain damage were common during Prohibition. This was usually due to lead solder being used in still fabrication or attempts to turn some type of industrial spirits into drinkable whisky. Historically, our old time moonshiners used only lead solder in their stills, so any antique still found in the barn is probably a death trap.
Other distilling hazards include explosion and scalding from pressure build up and fire, as well as explosion from ignition of liquid alcohol or vapors. It's about like gasoline in volatility and explosive energy.