What Is Moonshine? Is Moonshine Illegal? – The Famous Illegal Drink of Yore

Moonshine Still

Moonshine Still
Photo Credit: Christophile Konstas

Moonshine is a high-proof distilled spirit, usually produced illegally and illicitly, and it has also been called; white lightning, hooch, mountain dew, and Tennessee white whiskey. The word “moonshine” is derived from the term “moonrakers” which was used to describe the early English smugglers, who did things “by the light of the moon.” Because the nature of their operations were illegal, these Appalachian distillers produced and distributed homemade whiskey in a clandestine manner. Early versions of flasks were sure to sometimes conceal this illegal and sometimes extremely potent drink.

Poorly produced moonshine would sometimes become contaminated, mainly from materials used in construction of the still, such as used car radiators. This made it dangerous to drink moonshine, in days of old, because it was subject to mistakes and such. Alcohol concentrations above 50% alcohol by volume (100 proof) are flammable and dangerous to handle. This is especially true during the distilling process when vaporized alcohol might accumulate in the air to high levels of dangerous concentrations if adequate ventilation has not been provided. There were sometimes accidents, and they were not pretty.

Moonshine Jug

An empty moonshine jug down by the lake. Looks like someone had fun 🙂
Photo Credit: Mike Trainor

A common safety test in the old days, was to pour a small quantity of Moonshine into a spoon and set it on fire. The theory was that a safe distillate will burn with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate will burn with a yellow flame. Folk practitioners of this simple test also believed that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser, then there would be lead in the distillate, which would give a reddish flame.

Moonshine has been made all over the world, and has been called by many other names in other countries. During prohibition, people outside of the southern states commonly made something called “bathtub gin.” This was another beverage often associated with flasks in the 1920s.

Recently relaxed liquor laws have allowed the once infamous, illegal moonshine to be produced and sold through regulation in many areas of the U.S. A great article from Time magazine provides insight into the fact that even bigger name distilleries are now trying to get in on the moonshine action! Additionally, the Discovery Channel ran a special docudrama called Moonshiners about the life of moonshine makers. The show is highly informative and recommended for those who want to gain more insight into this interesting alcoholic beverage. The following clip explains the basic components of a moonshine still:

Although we don’t regularly imbibe this potent southern elixir, it’s nice to have a stash around for special occasions. And, of course, our preferred method of toting it is in a fresh, clean stainless steel flask, although many store it in big moonshine jugs. However you like it, make sure to drink your moonshine with friends because (a) what’s alcohol for, anyway, and (b) you’ll have each other there to make sure you don’t do anything too irrational while under the influence. Either that or you’ll egg each other on to do some of the dumbest things you’ve ever done. So, as we always say, drink with extreme caution, especially your moonshine!

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