Moonshine's Gone Legit But Illegal Trade Still Dangerous

Toxins in Illegal Hooch Can Kill

Copper Still
All-Copper Moonshine Still. CopperMoonshineStills.com

 

Moonshine, the formerly hush-hush, home-distilled liquor of backwoods Appalachia is still around. In fact, it's now legit. "White lightning," as it's called, was once completely an illicit and banned substance by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but it is now permitted for sale and regulated by the U.S. federal government in some states.

The first legal moonshine distillery in Tennessee opened its doors in 2010, and others followed in Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

There are some estimates that more than a million illegal moonshine stills are in operation in the United States making the production of the clear, high-potency brew more prevalent and widespread now than it has ever been in history. And, it's potentially very dangerous to make at home due to its ingredients, byproducts, and flammability. 

What Is Moonshine?

Moonshine, also known as "hooch" or "home brew," is made by fermenting a sugar source to produce ethanol. Traditionally, moonshine is made from a mash of corn and sugar. The alcohol is separated from the mash by a distillation process. One big difference between moonshine and other liquors like whiskey or bourbon is it is not aged. The result is a distilled spirit that contains a high percentage of alcohol, many times greater than 100 proof (50 percent), like a white whiskey.

Moonshine may conjure up images of country folk distilling and transporting their potent potables in jugs branded "XXX" during the middle of the night to avoid detection, and that is not far off from the truth in some parts of the U.S. where that still occurs.

What has changed is that now in the modern era, the ability to buy commercially-produced, all-cooper moonshine stills on the internet has taken some of the danger out of the moonshine distilling process. Despite this improvement, that does not mean that all moonshine is safe to drink. Plenty of moonshine is being brewed in the hills of Appalachia in stills made from automobile radiator parts.

History of Moonshine

As far as we can tell, brewing alcohol has been around since the beginning of mankind. Moonshine is believed to have been introduced in the southern Appalachian region of the U.S. by Scotch-Irish immigrants in the late 1700s.

According to Appalachian anthropologists, the Scotch-Irish immigrants who migrated to the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought with them their tradition of home brewing and their recipe for the high-potency hooch.

"The term comes from the fact that it is done at night so people will not see the smoke from the still. Therefore, it can be hidden from the police or thirsty neighbors," according to Jason Sumich, Department of Anthropology, Appalachian State University.

Moonshine was originally packaged in clay jugs then later Mason jars. The old clay jars were often marked with "XXX" on the side. Supposedly each X represented how many times the brew had been through the distillation process.

Big Moneymaker Moonshine

Moonshine was once an important financial aspect of the Appalachian economy, providing a source of income in bad economic times and in areas where poverty was rampant.

Like any good produced in the U.S., moonshine experienced its peaks and valleys in the supply and demand chain.

Moonshine experienced a deep lull when the U.S. had an increase in the price of sugar starting in the 1950s. Moonshine seemed to become a fading tradition as the U.S. experienced an increase in the use of marijuana and the use of prescription painkillers at epidemic levels in the region.

In recent years, moonshine seems to have had a resurgence. Now with the trend for higher prices at the liquor store, especially for imported spirits, moonshining has hit the spotlight again. In 2010, a BBC investigation into moonshining in the United States found that as many as a million Americans were breaking the law by making moonshine.

In the same year, Tennessee started selling legal hooch in big box stores like Walmart and Sam's Club.

On the internet, several websites offer stills made of all copper for sale, ranging from one-gallon personal models to 220-gallon commercial outfits. They range in price from $150 to $11,000 and anywhere in between. One seller said the demand for his copper stills has doubled in recent years and he's shipped still to every state in the U.S.

Why Is Moonshine Dangerous?

Illegal moonshine remains dangerous because it is mostly brewed in makeshift stills. It can be dangerous on two levels, both during the distilling process and when consuming it.

The distilling process itself produces alcohol vapors which are highly flammable. More than one moonshine maker has died by striking a match to light his pipe at the wrong time. The flammable vapors are one major reason why moonshine stills are almost always located outside, although it makes them easier to be spotted by law enforcement. The threat of vaporous explosions is too great if confined inside.

In terms of consuming the liquid, if the final product is over 100 proof, the moonshine itself is flammable and can be very dangerous.

Can Moonshine Make You Go Blind?

More people have died from drinking moonshine than have died by explosions of stills due to the toxins in the brew. Although many of the stills in operation today are the all copper variety, there are plenty of the old handmade stills still around.

Old stills use vehicle radiators in the distilling process, and they are apt to contain lead soldering, which could contaminate the moonshine. The old radiators could also contain remnants of antifreeze glycol products which could also add toxins to the brew.

In larger batches of distilled moonshine, methanol poisoning can occur. Because methanol vaporizes at a lower temperature than alcohol, the first liquid produced by the distillation process can contain methanol. The larger the batch, the more methanol.

Methanol is highly poisonous and can cause blindness and even death. Most moonshine makers today know to pour off those first drippings from the condenser, also known as the foreshot, but not all of them know or do it.

In 2003, Dr. Christopher Holstege, a physician with the Virginia Health System, tested 48 samples of moonshine obtained by law enforcement from different stills. The doctor found lead contamination in 43 of the samples.

How Can You Tell If Moonshine Is Safe?

Folklore tells us one way to test the purity of moonshine is to pour some in a metal spoon and set it on fire. If it burns with a blue flame it is safe, but if it burns with a yellow or red flame, it contains lead, prompting the old saying, "Lead burns red and makes you dead."

But, the spoon burning method is not completely reliable. This test does not detect other toxins that might be in the brew, like methanol, which burns with a colorless flame.

With millions of gallons of moonshine being produced each year in the United States, chances are some of it is going to be tainted. Health officials are concerned that moonshine toxicity in ailing patients might be overlooked because most healthcare providers consider it a tradition of the past. 

Sources:

Appalachian State University. "It's All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians." Department of Anthropology 2007.

BBC News. "Moonshine 'tempts new generation'." US & Canada July 2010

Clawhammer Supply. "10 Most Important Safety Tips for Moonshiners." How to Make Moonshine Safely March 2013.

Skylark Medical Clinic. "Global Moonshine." November 2008

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