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What is Moonshine?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Moonshine is alcohol that has been distilled and sold in secret, usually with the goal of evading high liquor taxes or bans on the sale of alcohol. Many people associate the idea with the Prohibition Era in the United States, but in fact the practice of making alcohol illegally is quite old, because governments have been taxing and regulating alcohol for centuries.

The term “moonshine” in reference to illegal alcohol dates to the mid-1700s. It was first used to describe smuggled alcohol, which was moved during the nighttime to avoid detection, and eventually it came to be used in reference to alcohol that was produced illegally. It goes by a variety of colorful regional slang terms, such as white lightning, rotgut, brush whiskey, blockade, or panther's breath. Many of these terms reference the high alcohol content and potential health hazards of the spirit.

Moonshine is made in copper stills.
Moonshine is made in copper stills.

Classically, moonshine was made by farmers who wanted to extract a higher profit from their grain crops. They would roast corn, barley, or other grains and then ferment them with sugar and water to generate an alcoholic mash. The mash would then be heated in a distillation chamber, yielding a beverage with a very high alcohol content and a rough, raw flavor. During Prohibition, people also started making it in their homes, and many home brewers today maintain small stills in their homes.

Moonshine is made from corn or other grains.
Moonshine is made from corn or other grains.

There are several reasons why moonshine can be dangerous. The first is the high alcohol content, which is typically much higher than that of commercial alcohol. The second is the lack of quality control at the still, which can result in contamination of the alcohol or the bottles it is packaged in. Historically, a wide range of substances were also added to the spirit to make it stronger, and some of these were extremely hazardous, causing people to sicken and sometimes die as a result of consuming it.

When made under controlled conditions and filtered properly, this form of alcohol does not pose much of a health threat. Some people like making their own spirits because they enjoy playing around with ingredients, or they want to evade high alcohol prices and taxes. With some training in chemistry and food safety, these individuals can produce alcohol that is comparable to that someone might find in the store, but it is still considered illegal, due to lack of inspection by regulatory agencies.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


Is buying store-bought alcohol of a low grade and then distilling it at home yourself considered making moonshine? I read that you can filter your whiskey to turn a cheap brand into a much better-tasting drink, but I don't want to get in trouble for making "moonshine whiskey" or anything.

Any advice on this would be great. It sounds like you guys here in the discussion area know a lot about moonshine, including what it is and isn't.


In my humble opinion, making moonshine illegal is the right thing to do.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure some people can safely make moonshine that wouldn't hurt anybody to drink. However, for every one of those people, there are always going to be ten others who mess it up and hurt themselves. At that ratio, more people are hurting themselves than anything, so it's good to make it harder for people to do this dangerous practice.

I don't think moonshine is only illegal because the government is greedy about taxes, either. That might be part of it, but please remember also that moonshine isn't the same as the alcohol you can buy in the store. It's much stronger -- and the more power you place in a condensed form, the more likely people are to abuse it.

Think of how much more easily someone could give themselves alcohol poisoning if they chugged a bunch of moonshine than if they chugged a bunch of, say, beer. Even hard liquors like vodka typically only contain 50 percent alcohol by volume at the max level. It can go as low as 37 percent in some brands.

Now look at moonshine. Do you know the typical alcohol by volume in this stuff? Home made alcohol coming out of a moonshine still can contain to 95 percent alcohol by volume. That's insane!

If you think chugging a bottle of vodka would be dangerous, consider that chugging a bottle of moonshine the same size would be twice as hazardous -- something the drinker might not realize, since not only are they used to store-bought alcohol, but they're rapidly getting drunker and losing their inhibitions.


When I think about moonshiners, I usually think of the mountain men in the Ozarks and Appalachians. I'm sure these ideas come from watching TV shows and movies about them. I imagine a fair number of back country folks got sick or died from drinking alcohol that was too strong or had additives that just weren't good for human consumption.

There are so many funny stories about those who were involved in moon shining. Does anyone know of a good book on the subject?


@Misscoco - Wow -- you might be able to make this in an industrial kitchen, but not a regular one! One hundred pounds of sugar and a hundred gallons of water just aren't going to fit into my kitchen, I don't know about anybody else's.

It's really interesting to see how cornmeal is involved in the process of making moonshine, though. Thanks for posting this. I do have a question, though -- is it possible to divide the ingredients down to make a smaller amount with same proportions of each thing?

I don't want to make 100 gallons' worth of mush, I just don't have the space or the money to buy that much of the ingredients.


@TheGraham - Interesting way of looking at it. With the way that the article notes that moonshine is technically only illegal because it isn't inspected by health organizations before being consumed, your canning example does hold some merit.

Food inspection places don't insist on inspecting canned foods if you're going to consume them privately in your home -- it's only illegal to sell them to people who will be eating them if you made them without first obtaining a food handler's card to make sure they know you can produce food in a sanitary environment.

I'll bet getting a food handler's card wouldn't fly for making moonshine legally, of course, because as you pointed out, the sanitary conditions thing is really just an excuse to keep people from making and consuming alcohol they don't have to pay any taxes on.

"Sin taxes", especially when called by their proper name like that, seem pointless. Are they literally taxing us for doing something they consider bad and a sin? So much for separating church and state...


So according to this article, the answer to my question -- "is moonshine illegal?" -- is a yes. I have to chalk it up to greed, though. Making your own moonshine is no ore dangerous than making your own canned goods.

Think of it this way. Without the proper procedures and sanitary conditions, canning food can result in contamination, which can sicken or kill the people who consume it. Canning can have toxic ingredients put into the contents of the jars.

Despite all of this, canning is not only legal, but it's fully supported. People sell canning materials, like canning jars and lids and sealing rings, year round at any grocery store.

Making your own moonshine has almost exactly the same traits. You can contaminate the ingredients -- if you're careless. You can put in toxic ingredients -- if you're careless. You can make and consume it at home. Sure, underage people can consume it -- if you're careless about how you distribute it. No more than what would happen if underage people got hold of alcohol you had bought, though.

The only big difference I can see between these two is that the government doesn't place high taxes on food, so they don't get in your way if you want to can some. They're greedy about alcohol taxes, so they make it illegal to make moonshine at home. It's silly.


Here's a recipe for supposedly safe moonshine mash that you can make right in the kitchen. I'll just give the main ingredients and directions to give an idea of what goes into moonshine.

Ingredients: 25 lbs. of cornmeal, 100 lbs. sugar, 100 gal. water, and 6 oz. yeast. Directions: Boil water, add cornmeal, let cool. Add sugar and yeast to warm mash. Let it sit and ferment for 4 -5 days. When it stops bubbling, it is ready. This is called sour mash. Put this into a pressure cooker until it reaches 173 degrees. Then use a coiled copper tube, passed through cold water, trapping vaporized alcohol in a separate container.(I don't get this part). Then it condenses into liquid moonshine. The last step - filter through charcoal. Voila, it's ready to drink!

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    • Moonshine is made in copper stills.
      By: frog-travel
      Moonshine is made in copper stills.
    • Moonshine is made from corn or other grains.
      By: rimglow
      Moonshine is made from corn or other grains.