Moonshine Can Still Cause Health Problems

Lead Toxicity Can Occur Among Chronic Abusers

Copper Still
All-Copper Moonshine Still. CopperMoonshineStills.com

Yes, moonshine is still around.

It may conjure up images of hillbillies distilling and transporting their white lightening in the middle of the night to avoid detection, but the production of moonshine has actually become more mainstream than you might think.

There are some estimates that more than a million illegal moonshine stills are in operation in the United States - all across the country, not just in the south - making the production of the clear, high-potency brew more prevalent and widespread now than it has ever been in history.

The availability on the Internet of commercially-produced, all-cooper moonshine stills has taken some of the danger out of the moonshine distilling process, but that doesn't mean that all moonshine is safe to drink. There is still plenty of it being brewed back in the hills of Appalachian in stills made partially with automobile radiator parts.

What Is Moonshine?

Moonshine 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. That results in distilled spirits that contain a high percentage of alcohol, many times greater than 100 proof (50 percent).

What Is the Origin of Moonshine?

Seemingly, brewing alcohol has been around since the beginning of mankind. In the United States, it is believed to have been introduced in the southern Appalachian region 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," wrote Jason Sumich of 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.

How Prevalent Is Moonshine Today?

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. But, with the increase in the price of sugar since the 1950s; the increase in the use of marijuana; and the use of prescription painkillers at epidemic levels in the region, moonshining is a fading tradition.

However, the advent of higher prices at the liquor store, especially for imported spirits, moonshining has apparently moved to the suburbs. 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.

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.

"I can't keep up with my orders," he told the BBC. "I've shipped stills to every state in the US."

Why Is Moonshine Dangerous?

Because moonshine is mostly brewed illegally in makeshift stills, it is dangerous on more than one level - both during the distilling process and when consuming it.

The distilling process itself produces alcohol vapors which are highly flammable. More than one moonshiner has blown himself up by striking a match to light his pipe at the wrong time.

This is one reason that moonshine stills are almost always located outside, although it makes them easier to be spotted by law enforcement. The threat of exploding is too great to use them inside.

Of course, if the final product is over 100 proof, the moonshine itself is flammable and very dangerous.

Can Moonshine Make You Go Blind?

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

Many of them 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 definitely cause blindness and even death. Most moonshiners today know to pour off those first drippings from the condenser - known as the foreshot - but not all of them know to do it.

As late as 2003, a physician with the Virginia Health System tested 48 samples of moonshine obtained by law enforcement from different stills. Using atomic absorption spectrophotometry to detect lead in the samples, Dr. Christopher Holstege found contamination in 43 of the 48 samples.

How Can You Tell If Moonshine Is Safe?

Folklore tells us that 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 flame, it contains lead, prompting the old saying, "Lead burns red and makes you dead."

But, the above method is not completely reliable. It doesn't test for other toxins that might be in the brew. The burning test certainly doesn't detect 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 might be overlooked because most healthcare providers consider it a tradition of the past.

"Physicians need to be aware of this problem when evaluating moonshine abusers," Dr. Holstege said when he published his Virginia study. "...there are still hazards associated with drinking moonshine."

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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