Despite all that has changed about moonshining in the last 200 years, one thing remains the same — it is still illegal. In some instances, that is.
Alcohol production that's intended for public distribution and sale is regulated by state and federal authorities. Under federal law, anyone can own a still without a permit, but you need a permit to manufacture alcohol for sale and distribution — and these permits are expensive and hard to get. Individuals are not allowed to produce spirits at home for private consumption. You may produce ethanol at home for use as a fuel.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, commercial moonshine production became legal, assuming you obtained a permit and paid taxes. But the demand for it that had skyrocketed during Prohibition, when it was difficult to obtain traditional spirits, fell just as dramatically, as people went back to drinking their standard favorites. So commercial production died out.
But over the decades, people who came from a long line of moonshiners, or from parts of the country where it had a deep history, decided to pursue commercial production out of a sense of pride and nostalgia. It helped that a craft cocktail movement was beginning, too.
"Unlike other spirits, legally produced moonshine can be made with any source material, at any proof, can have coloring and flavoring added – the works. There are no rules for its classification," said Colin Blake, director of spirits education at the Moonshine University website.
In 2005, North Carolina's Piedmont Distillers became the first "legal moonshine" producer in the U.S. By 2010, there were legal moonshine stills in several additional Southern states. Today, moonshine comes in the traditional plain style, plus a wealth of creative flavors such as apple pie, peach, chocolate silk and salted caramel. In a nod to its history, most moonshine is sold in Mason jars; some of the top producers are Ole Smokey Tennessee, Junior Johnson's and Sugarlands.
While commercial moonshine is now legal, individuals are still prohibited from making their own. In contrast, it became legal to produce homebrewed beer and homemade wine in the 1970s, as long as it's done in small quantities. (If you're supplying half the bars in the city with your "homebrew," the government is probably going to get suspicious.) Why the discrepancy?
Unlike crafting your own beer or wine, distilling alcohol is a precise process. It's very easy to make a mistake and create a harmful product. The government wants to make sure any spirits produced are safe. In addition, many of today's old-fashioned moonshiners are making their hooch at home, not in a commercial facility, and selling it to others without obtaining a permit or paying taxes.
In some states, the state law appears to allow for legal distillation of spirits, but since state law is superseded by federal law (which prohibits this), it doesn't really matter. While these moonshiners are rarely arrested or charged with making illegal liquor, they may be charged with tax evasion — the very crime that brought down famous gangster Al Capone. And those arrested could face 10 years in prison, on top of forfeiture of land used for illegal activities.
Originally Published: Nov 11, 2004