How Moonshine Works

By: Ed Grabianowski & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Ritz Brothers, Kentucky Moonshine
The Ritz Brothers star in the 1938 film "Kentucky Moonshine." These actors depict the stereotypes most people have of moonshiners. 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Rotgut, white lightning, bathtub gin, popskull, panther's breath, corn liquor or just plain old shine. It has many names, but a couple of things are always true about moonshine alcohol: It's not considered real shine by purists unless it's made in secret, and it's illegal to distill for your private consumption.

But in reality, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau doesn't have a specific definition for it, putting moonshine in the "specialty spirit" category.

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Moonshining is tied to the history of the United States in many ways, and it's tied to the character of the American people just as strongly. From the Prohibition Era distillers to the backwoods stills of Appalachia, historians agree on one thing — moonshine will always be around in one form or another. In this article, we'll find out how moonshine is made, why it exists and what makes it different from store-bought alcohol.

What Is Moonshine?

Casey Jones Distillery
Casey Jones Distillery, which makes legal moonshine, displays Total Eclipse Moonshine, which was distilled to commemorate the upcoming solar eclipse in 2017. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Moonshine is generally considered to be a clear, unaged whiskey with a corn base and a high alcohol content that is made at home. For much of its history, moonshine was produced in secret to avoid high taxes or outright bans on alcoholic drinks. The term moonshine has been around since at least the early 15th century. But it wasn't until the late 18th century that it was used (in England) to describe illicit or smuggled liquor, due to the fact that it was made and smuggled during the night.

From moonshine came the term moonshiners – the people who make the alcohol. Bootleggers are the smugglers who transport it and sell it. This term was popularized in the 1880s, and came from the practice of concealing illegal liquor in boot tops when going to distribute or trade it. Bootleggers in the 1930s, '40s and '50s transported their moonshine at night to avoid detection by the local police, racing along backcountry roads. Their mechanical skills developed as they learned to drastically increase the horsepower of their vehicles to outrun the authorities. They also began racing against each other on the side for fun, and to test their skills. This created a culture of car-lovers in the southern United States that eventually grew into the popular NASCAR racing series. In fact, the winner of the first NASCAR race, Red Byron, had once been a moonshine runner.

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Related to moonshiners and bootleggers are rumrunners. Rumrunners are basically bootleggers who smuggle their goods by sea, using fast ships with hidden cargo holds. The term is also used for smuggling liquor over borders.

What Is Moonshine Made Of?

The recipe for classic moonshine is simple:

  • Cracked corn
  • Water
  • Malted barley
  • Yeast

While alcohol can actually be distilled from almost any kind of grain — the earliest American moonshiners used rye or barley – much of the moonshine made in the United States for the last 150 years has been made with corn.

So, what makes moonshine different from the whiskey you find on the shelf at a liquor store? Aside from the obvious differences between something made in a sanitized production facility and something made at night in the woods, the primary difference is aging. When whisky comes out of the still, it's so clear it looks like water. Moonshiners bottle it and sell it just like that. Commercial alcohols have an amber or golden color to them because they are aged for several years in oak barrels that are sometimes charred. The aging process gives them color and mellows the harsh taste. There's no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such a kick.

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How Is Moonshine Made?

Alcohol is distilled from mash.
Alcohol is distilled from mash.
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Making alcohol revolves around two processes: fermentation and distillation. Fermentation is a chemical reaction that occurs when the yeast breaks down the sugar. One result of that reaction is alcohol. Distillation is the process of evaporating the alcohol (which boils at a lower temperature than water) and collecting the steam before condensing it back into liquid form.

Here's the whole process used by early moonshiners, step by step:

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  1. The corn is ground into meal. Traditional recipes take cracked, dry yellow corn (aka field corn) and create a coarse grind. You can also use chicken or horse feed.
  2. The corn meal is soaked in hot water. Sometimes sugar is added (or even used instead of grain), but traditional moonshiners added malted barley to convert the starch in the corn meal into sugar. Then the yeast is put in, which starts the fermentation process. This mixture, called mash, is stirred thoroughly and heated for a set amount of time in the still. The still and all the metal piping used are made of copper, which conducts heat well and doesn't leech into the alcohol.
  3. The stone furnace beneath the still is brought up to about 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 C). Wood, coal and even steam have been used in the past to heat the still, but most moonshiners started using propane decades ago.
  4. The alcohol evaporates. As pressure builds in the still, the alcohol steam is forced through the cap arm, a pipe that leads out of the top of the still.
  5. Some moonshiners use a thump keg, which is simply a heated barrel into which the steam is forced. The distilled alcohol condenses in the bottom of the thump keg, and it's the sound of the vapor and alcohol periodically bursting out of the pipe that gave the thump keg its name. The hot vapor distills the alcohol a second time, which results in a higher-proof moonshine. If a moonshiner wants to make their alcohol extra potent, they might charge the thump keg, which is adding undistilled mash or a few gallons of alcohol into the keg so the steam picks up extra alcohol vapor on its way to the worm box.
  6. The steam travels into the worm, a coiled length of pipe that winds down the inside of the worm box. The worm box is a crate or barrel that has cold water, usually diverted from a nearby creek, flowing into the top and then back out the bottom. This keeps the worm bathed in constantly circulating cold water, which condenses the alcohol steam into liquid.
  7. A spout, tap or hose leads from the end of the worm into a bucket, usually through one last filter. (The XXX you sometimes see on bottles of moonshine mean it's been filtered three times.)
  8. The resulting clear liquid is ready to be bottled and sold.

The Thing About DIY Liquor

Although the general process for making moonshine doesn't differ too much from the way it's produced in today's commercial distilleries, there are a few reasons why drinking illegal liquor can be a gamble.

The whole point of making homemade moonshine is to escape laws, taxes and regulations. That means that there aren't any FDA inspectors stopping by the backwoods still to make sure all the moonshiners wear hairnets and wash their hands, and no one is there to ensure that all the ingredients are safe. Moonshiners weren't known for their careful maintenance or sanitary conditions. It was not uncommon for insects or small animals to fall into the mash while it was fermenting, for example.

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That's pretty gross, but it probably wouldn't kill you. You might have heard stories about people drinking moonshine and going blind, or even dying. These stories aren't urban legends — they're true. During Prohibition, when moonshine was made and sold in speakeasies across the United States, thousands of people died from drinking bad moonshine.

There isn't anything inherently dangerous about moonshine — at least no more dangerous than any other alcoholic drink. When made properly, it is simply very strong alcohol with a very hard taste, or kick, because it hasn't been aged. It is usually very potent, as high as 150 proof (and sometimes stronger), which is about 75 percent alcohol. That high alcohol content can be pretty dangerous in itself; but again, the biggest problem is that there aren't any regulations to make sure that it's made properly.

Some distillers realized that part of moonshine's appeal was that kick. So, they experimented with different ingredients to increase the kick, including manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner. Many of these ingredients are extremely poisonous, and many people died from drinking it.

Besides poisonous ingredients, there are at least three manufacturing mistakes that can lead to a dangerous batch of moonshine.

  • Not enough distillation. It usually takes two or three passes through the still to remove all the impurities from the alcohol. One pass may not be enough to create a safe batch.
  • Too-hot still. If the still is too hot, more than alcohol can boil off and ultimately condense. So the finished product might contain dangerous ingredients, such as methanol (methyl alcohol), which is toxic.
  • Lead poisoning. Using any lead-based product in the process, such as a pipe or radiator, can causing lead poisoning.

If the moonshiner is careless, any of these problems can result in a poisonous drink.

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The History of Moonshine

revenue agents examine boiler
Revenue agents in West Virginia examine the boiler of a still used to manufacture illegal moonshine. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

There has to be a good reason to go to all the trouble of making moonshine. Actually, there have been several reasons, but they all boil down to one thing: government control of the alcohol trade.

Moonshining began very early in American history. Shortly after the Revolution, the United States found itself struggling to pay for the expense of fighting a long war. The solution was to place a federal tax on liquors and spirits. The American people, who had just fought a war to get out from under oppressive British taxes (among other reasons), were not particularly pleased. So they decided to just keep on making their own whiskey, completely ignoring the federal tax.

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For these early moonshiners, making and selling alcohol wasn't a hobby or a way to make extra cash — it was how they survived. Farmers could survive a bad year by turning their corn into profitable whiskey, and the extra income made a harsh frontier existence almost bearable. To them, paying the tax meant they wouldn't be able to feed their families. Federal agents (called revenuers) were attacked when they came around to collect the tax, and several were tarred and feathered.

All this resentment finally exploded in 1794, when several hundred angry citizens took over the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. President George Washington called for a gathering of militiamen under federal authority. Thirteen thousand troops dispersed the mob and captured its leaders. This Whiskey Rebellion was the first major test of federal authority for the young government.

Despite the failure of the rebellion, moonshining continued throughout the United States, especially in Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas and other Southern states. Excise taxes on alcohol didn't go away, so moonshiners always had an incentive to avoid the law. Gunfights between moonshiners and revenuers became the stuff of legend.

These battles escalated in the 1860s, as the government tried to collect on the excise tax to fund the Civil War. Moonshiners and Ku Klux Klansmen joined forces, and many pitched battles were fought. The tactics of the moonshiners grew more desperate and brutal, intimidating locals who might give away the locations of stills and attacking IRS officials and their families. The tide of public sentiment began to turn against the moonshiners. The temperance movement, which sought to ban alcohol, gathered steam as the United States headed into the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, states began passing laws that banned alcohol sales and consumption. In 1920, nationwide Prohibition went into effect. It was the greatest thing the moonshiners could have asked for.

Suddenly, there was no legal alcohol available. The demand for moonshine shot up like a rocket. Moonshiners couldn't keep up with the demand, which led to cheaper, sugar-based moonshine, as well as watered-down moonshine. The distillers would do anything to increase their profit. Organized crime blossomed as speakeasies opened in every city — those secret saloons that had hidden doors, passwords and escape routes in case the Feds ever showed up to conduct a raid.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the market for moonshine plummeted. And while moonshine production continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and '70s, today, very few illegal alcohol cases are heard in the courts.

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Moonshine Production Today

Total Eclipse Moonshine
Workers collect moonshine as it runs from the still at Casey Jones Distillery on Aug. 16, 2017, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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.

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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.

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Originally Published: Nov 11, 2004

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