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. So, what is moonshine?
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 discover how moonshine is made, why it exists and what makes it different from store-bought alcohol.
Moonshine isa clear, unaged whiskey with a corn base and a high alcohol content made at home. The term moonshine has been around since at least the early 15th century. But it wasn't until the late 18th century that the English used “moonshine” to describe illicit liquor made and smuggled during the night.
Moonshiners, Bootleggers and Rumrunners
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 for fun and to test their skills.
Bootlegger racing 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.
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.
While you can distill from almost any 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 whiskey 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 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.
It's All in the Mash
Moonshine made from grain, like corn or rye, is whiskey. However, you can make alcohol from many different ingredients.
During Prohibition, profit-hungry moonshiners started using white sugar instead of cornmeal, producing a cheaper product that was technically rum, not whiskey. Some people used fruit instead of grains. Today, moonshiners in Appalachian states still manufacture apple brandy.
How Is Moonshine Made?
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:
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.
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 they put in the yeast, 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.
The stone furnace beneath the still is brought up to about 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 Celsius). In the past, people used wood, coal and even steam to heat the still, but most moonshiners started using propane decades ago.
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.
The alcohol condenses. 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 gives 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 by adding undistilled mash or a few gallons of alcohol so the steam picks up extra alcohol vapor on its way to the worm box.
The steam travels into the worm. The worm is a coiled length of pipe that winds down the inside of the worm box. The worm box is a crate or barrel with cold water, usually diverted from a nearby creek, flowing into the top and back out the bottom. The worm box keeps the worm bathed in constantly circulating cold water, which condenses the alcohol steam into liquid.
The moonshine is filtered. 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 distilled three times.) The resulting clear liquid is ready to be bottled and sold.
The Thing About DIY Liquor
Although the general process for making moonshine at home is similar to how today's commercial distilleries make it, 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 no FDA inspectors stop by the backwoods to ensure 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. For example, it was not uncommon for insects or small animals to fall into the mash while it was fermenting.
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 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 correctly, 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 ensure 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 died from drinking them.
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 condense. Moonshiners must also discard the first bit of distillation to make sure the finished product doesn't contain dangerous ingredients that have lower boiling points than ethanol — 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 cause lead poisoning.
If the moonshiner is careless, any of these problems can result in a poisonous drink.
The History of Moonshine
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.
The Whiskey Rebellion
Moonshining began very early in U.S. history. Shortly after the Revolution, the United States struggled to pay for the expense of fighting a long war. The solution was to place a federal tax on liquors and spirits.
The people who had just fought a war to escape under oppressive British taxes (among other reasons) were not particularly pleased. So, they decided to keep making their own whiskey, ignoring the federal tax.
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 corn 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; 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 rebellion’s failure, 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 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 with 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, the courts hear very few illegal alcohol cases.
Moonshine Production Today
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.
State and federal authorities regulate alcohol production intended for public distribution and sale. 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 Smoky Moonshine, Midnight Moon and Sugarlands.
While commercial moonshine is now legal, individuals are still prohibited from making their own. In contrast, it became legal to produce home-brewed 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 “home brew,” the government will probably get suspicious.) Why the discrepancy?
Unlike crafting your 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 allows 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.
Moonshine is typically made of corn, sugar, water and yeast.
Is moonshine illegal?
It is not illegal to consume commercially produced moonshine. Federal law prohibits individuals from producing moonshine for personal consumption because of health hazards in the precise distillation process.
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