How Moonshine Works

The Thing About DIY Liquor

Mash barrel
Mash barrel
Photo courtesy National Parks Service

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

The whole point of making 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 hair nets and wash their hands, and no one is there to ensure that all the ingredients are safe. Moonshiners are not known for their careful maintenance of sanitary conditions. It is not uncommon for insects or small animals to fall into the mash while it's fermenting.

That's pretty gross, but it probably wouldn't kill anyone. 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 (see the next section to learn about 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, 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 the appeal of moonshine was that "kick." They experimented with different ingredients to add more kick to the drink, 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 two manufacturing mistakes that can lead to a poisonous batch of moonshine.

  • 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.
  • If the still is too hot, more than alcohol can boil off and ultimately condense -- meaning more than alcohol makes it into the finished product.

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

In the next section, we'll explain why people started making moonshine in the first place.