In the beginning, there was homebrew. The ancient Egyptians cultivated grapes and made wine [source: Cornell University]. The ancient Sumerians had a deity, Ninkasi, known as the goddess of beer. As early as 1587 in colonial Virginia, Europeans made homebrew from corn. By 1620, the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock had hopped off their boats and started brewing beer. Many of the United States' founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were homebrewers [source: Homebrewers Association].
This notion of brew and sip, right in your own backyard, went well until 1919 when Prohibition in the U.S. outlawed the production of alcohol. This caused all kinds of creative efforts to keep the booze flowing, spurring the popularity of a tradition that had been occurring since the 1800s. Moonshine (whiskey made illegally at home) was distilled in hidden backwoods and spawned an entire generation of bootleggers bent on outrunning the law [source: Sanburn].
Although Prohibition ended in 1933, it didn't really resolve the troubles hobby beer brewers faced. Because of a clerical error, "and beer" was omitted from the statute that legalized home winemaking. It wasn't until 1978 that President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which created a tax exemption for beer brewed at home for personal use [source: American Homebrewers Association].
Since then, more than 2 million people in the U.S. have tried their hands at making their own beer or wine (also known as homebrewing) [sources: American Homebrewers Association, Dinkelspiel]. The number of moonshiners is unknown because the activity remains illegal. Read on for more differences between homebrew and moonshine.
One of the biggest differences between moonshine and homebrew lies in their creation. All rely on sugar and yeast for fermenting but not in the same way. To make beer, you boil malt extract, hops and grains in water, before straining the mixture and allowing it to ferment with yeast for about 10 days. At this point, you add a boiled sugar/water solution into the yeast mixture, pour it into bottles and let it sit for a few weeks [source: American Homebrewers Association].
For homemade wine, you use grapes or berries, as well as water, sugar, wine yeast, the juice of a lemon, and a smidge of ascorbic acid to prevent the wine from changing color when exposed to air or light. After boiling, making a series of container transfers and bottling the concoction, your wine will be ready to drink after a few months of aging [source: McNeill].
Moonshine, on the other hand, requires distillation, though it starts with yeast breaking down a cornmeal and water mixture, called mash, to which sugar is sometimes added. The mixture is boiled in a still, and the resulting alcohol is evaporated at 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 degrees Celsius), collected as steam and then condensed back into liquid form, usually through a series of copper tubes. Moonshine got its name from the fact that the whiskey stills were set up in backwoods by the light of the moon and away from the prying eyes of law enforcement [source: Smith].
While homemade beer or wine tops at about 5 to 15 percent alcohol by volume, moonshine can reach more than 80 percent alcohol by volume [source: California State University, Homebrewing, Moonshine Heritage]. That's an enormous kick.
Regardless of what you're brewing, you determine the alcohol level with a hydrometer. This gadget gauges alcohol content through a series of readings taken during production. It measures the difference in density between pure water and water heavy with yeast converting sugar to alcohol. It's most often used in homebrewing but can be used to monitor distillation, too [source: Palmer].
However, experienced moonshiners may simply give a jar of moonshine the shake test, gauging the density by the size of the bubbles and how fast they pop. The larger the bubbles and the faster they pop, the higher the alcohol content [source: Moonshine Heritage].
The Tax Issue
The main reason you can't legally make liquor at home in the U.S. is because of taxes. Typically, for each 750-milliliter bottle of 80-proof liquor, the federal government charges an excise tax of $2.14. In addition, state governments charge an excise tax (in Alaska, it's nearly $13 a gallon). This means that for each gallon (4 liters) of moonshine, the government is losing out on up to $25. (The beer tax is only 5 cents per can, and the wine tax is 21 cents per bottle for wine with alcohol content under 14 percent) [source: Snider].
The lost revenue can add up. In 2000, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents uncovered one store in Virginia selling enough raw moonshine materials to produce 1.4 million gallons (5.2 million liters) of liquor worth nearly $20 million in lost tax revenue [source: Tsai].
To make moonshine (also known as white whiskey, hooch, rotgut, corn liquor or white lightnin') legally, you need federal permits and licenses. To obtain these, you need to cover the startup costs of operating a distillery that meets the federal government's standards, and this can range into the millions, even before you get your license [source: Yeldell].
Then you'll need to contend with those who say that legal moonshine, by definition, can't really be moonshine at all.
Let's say you decide to convert the closet in your guest bedroom into a pale ale production zone. In the eyes of the law, it's no problem. Federal law states that two adults in a single household can make up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of beer or wine each year, unless prohibited by the state [source: Tsai].
Although your guests may wonder why you thought beer takes precedence over their convenience, you don't have to worry that Johnny Law is going to bust down your door.
Making moonshine, however, presents a different set of issues. ATF agents frown upon such operations because of a little ol' statute known as 26 U.S.C. § 5602, which levies up to five years in federal prison (yikes!) and up to $10,000 in fines for illegal distilling.
Some states will allow hobby distilleries for personal consumption of moonshine, but in many cases you'll still need federal permits and licenses and to pay federal occupational taxes of $500 per year [source: Snider]. This allowance, and the fact that some commercial producers have added moonshine to their lineup, is why you can sometimes purchase hooch in a liquor store or bar [source: Tsai].
You Can't Use Beer in a Gas Tank
If you feel like channeling your inner-Bill Nye, you could experiment by pouring homebrew into your vehicle's gas tank. We hypothesize, however, that the results will be disastrous -- to both the engine and your theory.
Moonshine, however, could quite possibly be used as a fuel source. In fact, alcohol has fueled cars for decades beginning with Henry Ford's Model T. When you fill your vehicle's tank with gasoline, about 10 percent of the fuel mix is ethanol. Ethanol, a fuel derived from corn, is essentially alcohol. Not coincidentally, moonshine is distilled from corn, too. E85 fuel, which some cars are built to run on, is 85 percent ethanol [source: Harris].
You can get a free permit from the ATF to distill alcohol at home to use only as fuel. Distilling alcohol at home for drinking is another matter entirely, one that requires a different and costly set of permits and licenses from state and federal governments [source: Tsai].
Moonshine Can Steal Your Eyesight
Unlike beer or wine, batches of moonshine have been known to cause blindness -- and there are multiple reasons why.
During distillation, a byproduct of alcohol forms. This byproduct, known as methanol, is concentrated in the first ounces of each round of moonshine. Scrupulous moonshiners discard these ounces, but if you happen to drink a bad batch, methanol directly affects the optic nerve and the body as a whole. It's a lightning-quick buzz, more effective than even the most potent alcohol, but just 10 milliliters (0.02 pint) of methanol can cause permanent blindness. Drink more than your body can metabolize, and it could kill you.
The scary truth is that some 'shiners have been known to sell methanol-tainted moonshine. In 2011, 168 people died in India after drinking methanol-laced alcohol. It all depends on the distillation process and the care of the person doling out the homemade hooch. Some have been known to trade copper tubing for truck radiators in the distillation process, which leach lead and glycol into the mix [source: Dillow].
Moonshiners Make Money
Moonshiners typically control their product from still to store, with the "store" being anyone who will secretly buy their spirits – unless they have the necessary federal and state permits, of course.
And, moonshiners can make bank. They can haul in more than $100,000 a year in a legal operation [source: Harvison]. And probably make even more when it's an illegal operation. One moonshine bust in Tennessee netted 1,000 jugs of moonshine thought to have a street value of $50,000 [source: Young].
Of course, you could try to make some money by selling homebrew -- even though it is illegal to sell it, too [source: Homebrewers Association]. But good luck finding buyers who will empty their pockets for your beer. And selling homemade wine? Well, you may have to pay your friends to drink it.
Moonshine Is Not Aged
Good wine takes time. It will take about six months to turn the raw ingredients into something drinkable. Beer will be ready faster but even though you only spend about two hours brewing it, it still requires some rest time. You need two weeks to ferment it, one hour to bottle it and two to four more weeks for resting so the beer can carbonate [sources: Homebrew It, Homebrewers Association].
Moonshine, on the other hand, is more of a "distill-and-done" operation. There's no "aging" necessary, unless you need to squirrel it away from the law for a while. You'll spend several days allowing the mash to ferment. Distilling the liquid will take a further few hours [source: Ingliss-Arkel]. But then you're done.
When moonshine exits the still for the last time, it should look as clear as fresh water. And the taste? Some say it tastes like corn; others compare it to rubbing alcohol. It probably depends on the maker. Some distillers add fruit flavors to the moonshine to make it smoother and easier to drink.
Beer and Wine Don't Need XXXs
Sure, moonshine is strong. But back in the "old days," if you really wanted to get ahold of the high-octane stuff, you needed to look for the XXX symbol. Until modern moonshiners began putting their hooch into glass canning jars, moonshine was divvied into clay jugs. These clay jugs were marked with an "X" each time the moonshine was run through the still. The XXX symbol meant the hooch was run three times through the still, making it the strongest possible white whiskey [source: Flask]. Essentially, the XXX served as a warning about the jug's content. Moonshine outfitted with three Xs was probably 150-proof, which is about 75 percent alcohol [source: Hanson].
Today, some distillers claim they can make moonshine that ranges near 100 percent alcohol. But you'll either need to distill the moonshine yourself -- or take the distiller's word for it -- to really know how strong it is.
One Inspired NASCAR
Are you a NASCAR fan? You have moonshiners to thank for it. During Prohibition in the 1920s, bootleggers selling illegal moonshine discovered a frequent need to outrun the federal tax agents. This resulted in vehicles with increasingly souped-up engines -- and informal races for bragging rights.
As the 1940s came into view, these races became organized events, and cars were raced on tracks. By 1947, Big Bill France called drivers, owners and mechanics to a Daytona Beach, Fla., hotel to hammer out some standard rules for racing. The result? The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was born [sources: Levinson, Flask].
While many people enjoy a beer while watching a game, we don't know of any sport that was inspired directly by either beer or wine. Score one for moonshine.
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Author's Note: 10 Differences Between Moonshining and Homebrewing
I come from a long line of teetotalers, but some family histories have an impressive lineage of homebrewers, moonshiners and bootleggers. I have a friend who, while mapping out her genealogy, discovered that during Prohibition her ancestors made their living distilling and selling hooch. They were German immigrants who lived on an isolated patch of land and set up stills with little fear of inspection. Just to be sure, though, they'd send one family member to serve as lookout where the farm's lane intersected with the county road.
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