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Alcohol and Health

All You Need To Know About Moonshine

April 6, 2024
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An Overview of Moonshine

  • Moonshine is a type of liquor often associated with illegal, homemade production, although some commercial distillers make regulated versions.
  • Moonshine is risky to produce, often dangerous to consume, and different from other types of hard liquor.
  • The Reframe app can guide you on your journey as you take control of your drinking habits and navigate toward healthier options.

The definition of moonshine is confusing at best. You may be thinking, “Isn’t moonshine that drink that can make you blind?” Or maybe you think of it as the famous Prohibition era booze that people made at home in their bathtubs. Even the hip-hop and country music star Nelly was a bit confused on the “moonshine” label as he crafted his own celebrity “moonshine” last year, which really consisted more of a fruity, lower-proof spirit than the traditional moonshine whiskey.

Many people think of moonshine as some sort of off-limits alcohol, but it’s also a term for a class of unaged whiskey.

So, what exactly makes moonshine, moonshine? Let’s dive in and explore the difference between the two definitions of moonshine and learn about the dangers of moonshine production and consumption.

What Is Moonshine?

The first moonshine came around in England in the late 1700s, but the word moonshine has been around since the 15th century. Fundamentally, moonshine was created to avoid paying taxes on high-proof liquor production.

Originally, the term “moonshine” referred to a distilled liquor produced and/or distributed illegally. The term “moonshine” comes from the tradition of making the liquor under the cover of darkness to avoid detection. Over the years, it developed a standard definition as a clear, unaged, high-proof whiskey made from corn. This definition was commonly used during Prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920s. Other names for moonshine include rotgut, white lightning, white dog, and corn liquor.

History of Moonshine in the United States

Moonshine has a particularly rich history in the United States.

  • The Whiskey Rebellion. Moonshine first became popular in Pennsylvania in 1791 after the new federal government enacted a hefty tax on liquor to repay debts from the Revolutionary War. This sparked three years of (sometimes violent) protests known as the Whiskey Rebellion, during which Pennsylvania farmers and distillers attacked and intimidated tax inspectors to prevent them from collecting the tax. Moonshine production was a popular nonviolent way to protest the tax
  • The Whiskey Ring. History repeated itself in St. Louis in the 1870s when another tax was enacted to raise money after the American Civil War. A group of Missouri distillers and farmers, known as the Whiskey Ring, conspired against the government and bribed officials so they could pocket the taxes themselves. For many, moonshine was the only way to afford liquor or turn a profit on liquor sales.
  • Prohibition. Federal alcohol prohibition laws came to the U.S. in 1920. Since liquor was now illegal and very hard to come by, the demand for moonshine significantly increased and producers began experimenting with innovative flavors and additives.

Types of Moonshine

Traditionally, moonshine is made from corn. However, sometimes moonshiners (a.k.a. people who make moonshine) use rye or barley instead. Yeast, malt, sugar, and water are also added to the mix with each moonshiner having their own particular preference.

Moonshine was originally popular because it could be created and purchased without paying taxes, but in modern times it’s sought out for its flavor and high alcohol content. Ethanol is the pure alcohol responsible for intoxication in alcoholic beverages. However, the moonshine distillation process creates a toxic byproduct called methanol that can have deadly consequences when consumed.

Moonshine is known for having significantly higher alcohol content than other hard liquors. Vodka, bourbon, and gin, for example, do not generally reach an alcohol by volume (ABV) above 80% alcohol content, and typically rest in the 35%-50% range. Moonshine, however, is often much higher.

The key to moonshine’s high alcohol content lies in the production process. Keep reading to understand how the chemical composition of moonshine makes it up to 95% ABV — and how this can cause blindness or death to consumers if distilled improperly.

How Is Moonshine Made

How Is Moonshine Made?

The most popular way to make moonshine is using a still. A still is a large, multi-chamber pot used to boil a liquid and extract certain chemicals (such as ethanol). Moonshine, in particular, uses a copper still.

  • Fermentation. First, the corn is cooked in water to create a slurry known as “mash.” Then, it is cooled and mixed with sugar and yeast and left to ferment. The yeast eats the sugar and produces ethanol as a waste product.
  • Boiling. After the mash has fermented, it is filtered and transferred into a still, where it is heated to a boil.
  • Evaporation. Ethanol has a lower evaporation temperature than water. As the mash boils, alcohol evaporates and is collected in another chamber, where it cools and condenses into a glass jar called a receiver.
  • Bottling. The moonshine is then removed from the receiver, filtered, and bottled.

Some moonshiners add flavors or other ingredients at the end, such as sugar, fruit juice, or herbal mixtures. However, these flavor additives may not be the only things hidden inside this insidious liquor.

Moonshine vs. Other Spirits

The moonshine distillation process is very similar to the process for making other types of spirits. However, a few key details make all the difference.

Moonshine, when defined as the beverage, is an unaged clear whiskey and made from corn. It can also be up to 95% alcohol, which is much more alcohol content than most hard liquors. Let’s explore how this is different from a few other hard spirits.

  • Whiskey generally uses the same ingredients as moonshine and is typically aged, which produces its signature honey-amber color.
  • Vodka is a clear alcohol that, like moonshine, is not aged. Vodka can be produced from grain, fruit, or potatoes, and it’s usually distilled several times to remove impurities and other substances.
  • Gin is also a clear hard liquor, but gin is made from grain alcohol and juniper berries. Many types of plants and sugars can be used to adjust the process, but juniper berries are fundamental to its definition.
  • Tequila is made from agave and produced mainly in certain regions of Mexico. The agave plant is baked in a brick or clay oven called a “horno,” after which juice is extracted from the plant to be fermented, distilled, and aged.

These may seem similar, but the only big thing these liquors have in common is that they are all distilled. The process of moonshine distillation differs just slightly from other liquors, but it makes a huge difference.

Risks of Moonshine Production

The primary difference between common liquors and moonshine is that careful attention is paid to removing impurities from standard liquor, often with multiple rounds of distillation. By definition, moonshine is typically distilled only once.

Originally, moonshine was illegal due to its association with tax evasion. Even today there are many “illegal” distilleries that create moonshine in secret to avoid taxes, but they are less common because even major distilleries make commercial moonshine.

The danger with moonshine comes from the production process itself. If the distillation process is not done correctly, moonshine can contain high levels of a more toxic form of alcohol: methanol.

Methanol and ethanol — the two types of alcohol produced when making moonshine — are both highly flammable and have the potential to explode during the distillation process. A gas leak between the distillation apparatus and the receiving container could also spark an explosion. Ventilation is important, and illegal moonshine is often produced in noncommercial settings that were not designed with this in mind.

So, is moonshine bad for you? We know moonshine production can be dangerous, especially when moonshiners are inexperienced and don’t understand the precautions necessary for safety — and, unfortunately, drinking it can be just as dangerous.

Why Is Moonshine Dangerous?

So, what is so dangerous about drinking moonshine? It has a reputation as a dangerous liquor, but the details are not often discussed. As we mentioned earlier, methanol is a form of alcohol created during moonshine production alongside the commonly known ethanol. The differences between ethanol and methanol are molecular, and they impact our body in dramatically different ways.

Humans can tolerate generous amounts of ethanol, but only a few milliliters of methanol will get us extremely drunk, and it only takes a few more milliliters later for methanol to become lethal. Our liver processes methanol into formaldehyde and later into formic acid. As little as 2 teaspoons (10 mL) of methanol produces enough formic acid to cause blindness.

Because moonshine and methanol are both clear liquids, it’s impossible to tell if moonshine contains any methanol just by looking at it. Commercial moonshine producers have the means to eliminate methanol after distillation, but some illegal moonshiners actually add small amounts of methanol to make the drink stronger.

There is no reliable way to test for methanol content in illicit moonshine. Upon first sip, we simply get really drunk — and we might not know whether or not methanol is responsible.

The Lethality of Methanol

Just 2 teaspoons (10 mL) of methanol is enough to give us the worst hangover of our life, but as we know, any more than that is damaging to our eyesight. For context, one standard shot glass is about 9 tsp (3 tbsp/44 mL). Drinking too much methanol can result in full or partial blindness. This result is called methanol-induced optic neuropathy, or Me-ION.

Me-ION causes damage to the optic nerve, which connects visual information to our brain for interpretation. Any damage to this nerve behind either eye will result in different types of (or complete) vision loss.

The lethal dose of methanol is 6 tsp (2 tbsp/30 mL). Some people may not need that much methanol for it to be lethal, either. In facilities where moonshine is still being produced illegally, there is no way of telling how many shots or glasses of moonshine will contain lethal amounts of methanol. Remember: moonshine that is made illicitly may be stronger because methanol has been added. 

Our chances of alcohol poisoning are also higher when methanol is present because of how little methanol is needed to get drunk. Not only are we putting ourselves at risk for lethal doses of methanol, but we are also putting ourselves at risk for violent hangovers and alcohol-related experiences when drinking illicitly produced moonshine. So how do we avoid this?

The Truth About Moonshine Safety

Simply put, moonshine made illegally is never guaranteed safe to drink! For this reason, it’s probably best to avoid moonshine produced outside of a licensed commercial facility, and it’s definitely best to avoid making our own moonshine.

A high alcohol tolerance may lead us to seek out moonshine for an easier “buzz.” After all, a small amount of methanol will get us more drunk than several glasses of beer, right? But the risks associated with methanol consumption are too great, and we are putting our lives at risk when we decide to drink something with methanol. High tolerance can allow us to handle a little more methanol than a casual drinker, but there’s only so much the human body can handle regardless of how the alcohol content makes us feel.

Thankfully, there are ways to stay safe and avoid the dangers of methanol in moonshine.

  • Keep it legal. Stay away from distilleries and moonshiners who don’t have proper licenses! This is a non-negotiable to ensure safety.

  • Leave it to the pros. Don’t make moonshine at home, and avoid consuming homemade moonshine even if it’s from a trusted friend or family member. Leave the chemistry to the scientists for this one!

  • Stay informed. Educate yourself on small distilleries and alcohol shops before purchasing moonshine. Does the shop or bar have a reputation for distributing alcohol under the radar?

  • Consider alternatives. The best way to avoid methanol is to stay away from commercial moonshine and drinks containing any amount of moonshine.

The Bottom Line

Throughout history, moonshine has been described romantically as a boozy rebellion to taxation, but now we know it is illegal for a reason — its high risk of causing permanent disability. While it may be tempting to try a beverage as strong as moonshine, remember the dangerous consequences of moonshine consumption if it’s not regulated properly. Stay safe and remember: knowledge is power!

Summary FAQs

1. What is moonshine?

Originally, moonshine was defined as an illegally produced high-proof liquor created to avoid taxes. Now, moonshine is also a commercially produced product and is not always — but still can be — produced illegally.

2. What is in moonshine?

Moonshine is made from fermented corn, sugar, malt, yeast, and water. After distillation, it consists primarily of ethanol (pure alcohol). When improperly distilled, it can also contain methanol.

3. Is moonshine dangerous?

When moonshine is distilled incorrectly, the process can produce a toxic byproduct called methanol. Methanol, even when consumed in small doses, is lethal. As little as 2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) can cause blindness and 6 teaspoons (30 milliliters) is generally fatal.

4. Is moonshine strong?

Yes! Most liquors contain 35%-50% alcohol, but moonshine can contain up to 95% alcohol.

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