How Moonshine Works

Moonshine operation at Pinckney Island, South Carolina, 1931.
Moonshine operation at Pinckney Island, South Carolina, 1931.
Photo courtesy NOAA

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 made in secret, and it’s illegal.

­ ­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?
Typical riding boot from colonial times
Typical riding boot from colonial times
Photo courtesy UMKC School of Law

Moonshine is any kind of alcohol, usually whisky or rum, that is made in secret to avoid high taxes or outright bans on alcoholic drinks. The term “moonshine” comes from Britain, where it originally was a verb, “moonshining,” that referred to any job or activity that was done late at night. Because the operators of illegal whisky stills had to conduct their business out of the sight of legal authorities, these backwoods brewmasters became known as moonshiners, and the term became exclusively theirs.

Moonshiners are the people who actually make the alcohol. Bootleggers are the smugglers who transport it and sell it. In colonial times, these distributors would conceal their product inside their tall riding boots, which is how they got their name. More recently, bootleggers in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s took to racing cars packed with moonshine through the night to avoid local police. Their mechanical skills developed as they learned to drastically increase the horsepower of their vehicles to outrun the authorities. 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 ever NASCAR race had used the same car to make a bootleg run just a week earlier.

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 recipe for moonshine is simple:

  • corn meal
  • sugar
  • yeast
  • water

Sometimes, other ingredients are included to add flavor or kick. Alcohol can actually be distilled from almost any kind of grain (the earliest American moonshiners used rye or barley), but virtually all moonshine made in the United States for the last 150 years has been made with corn.

So what makes moonshine different from the whisky 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 — this is because they are aged for years in charred oak barrels. The aging process gives them color and mellows the harsh taste. There’s no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such “kick.”

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, step by step:

  1. The corn is ground into meal. Today, some moonshiners use commercial hog feed because it’s mostly made of corn and is easy to buy without attracting a lot of attention.
  2. The corn meal is soaked in hot water in the still. Sometimes sugar is added (or even used instead of grain), but traditional moonshiners added malt to convert the starch in the corn meal into sugar. Then the yeast is put in, which starts the fermentation process. (See How Beer Works for details on 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. Some solid material from the mash usually comes along with the steam, so the thump keg, so named for the thumping sound the bits of mash make when they drop into the barrel, re-evaporates the alcohol, filtering out the mash. If a moonshiner wants to make his or her alcohol extra potent, he or she might “charge” the thump keg — add 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.
  8. The resulting clear liquid is ready to be illegally bottled and sold.
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, 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.

The History of Moonshine
The Blue Blazes whiskey still at Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, was a large commercial operation. More than 25,000 gallons of mash were found in 13 2,000-gallon vats when the operation was raided in July 1929.
The Blue Blazes whiskey still at Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, was a large commercial operation. More than 25,000 gallons of mash were found in 13 2,000-gallon vats when the operation was raided in July 1929.
Photo courtesy National Parks Service

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 purposes), were not particularly pleased. So they decided to just keep on making their own whisky, completely 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 whisky, 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 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 Whisky 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 incentive to avoid the law. Gun fights 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 — these secret saloons 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 grew thin. Although moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and ’70s, today, very few illegal alcohol cases are heard in the courts. Large commercial distilleries can buy raw materials on such a large scale that, even with the taxes they must pay, their products aren’t too much more expensive than moonshine. While some counties in the south and midwest United States remained “dry” (alcohol-free) for decades after the end of national Prohibition, even those localized liquor bans have, for the most part, faded away. That leaves consumers of alcohol little reason to seek out moonshine other than the temptation of buying and drinking something that’s “forbidden” and the flouting of government authority. The desire to flout government authority is one of the reasons moonshining exists in the first place.

The Wrong Side of the Law

Despite all that has changed about moonshining in the last 200 years, one thing remains the same — it is illegal. You might be wondering about homebrewed beer and amateur winemaking — these activities were made legal in the 1970s, but they can only be 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). Homebrewing is a different activity from distilling alcohol, and distilling is definitely illegal in any amount. The reason distilling at home is illegal is because it’s too easy to make a mistake and create a harmful product. Permits and licenses are required so that the government can make sure the alcohol being produced is safe. Plus, the Feds want to get their tax money.

However, moonshiners are rarely arrested or charged with making illegal liquor. The real charges come from tax evasion. A new federal push to crack down on moonshiners has also started using money laundering charges against moonshiners and their suppliers. A money-laundering conviction can lead to a prison term of 15 years, as opposed to five years for moonshining. Many moonshiners have their property seized by the government when they are caught, because tax evasion and moonshining convictions also result in heavy fines. The property is seized to make sure the fines can be paid.

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