Moonshine (also called white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, and
many other names) is an illegally produced distilled beverage.
word is believed to derive from early English smugglers and illegal
Appalachian distillers who clandestinely (i.e., by the light of the
moon) produced and distributed whiskey.
Moonshine is any distilled spirit made in an unlicensed still. As
with all distilled spirits, yeast ferments a sugar source to produce
ethanol, then the alcohol is extracted through distillation using a
Because of its illegal nature, moonshine rarely is aged in barrels
like proper whiskey, and it sometimes contains impurities and off
flavors. On rare occasions, it may contain dangerous levels of toxic
alcohols such as methanol.
The off flavors may come from improper mashing, fermentation and/or
distillation, and unsuitable storage containers. In popular culture,
moonshine is usually presented as being extremely strong and in
North America is commonly associated with the Southern United
States, Appalachia and Atlantic Canada.
Moonshining is usually done using small-scale stills. Typically, the
still is built by the moonshine producer, thus avoiding the legal
ramifications of obtaining a still commercially. The pot still is
made of copper or stainless steel, and a water filled barrel with a
copper tubing coil for a condenser, is the traditional type of
still, being popular with early moonshine producers due to its
simplicity and ease of construction.
More efficient reflux stills are available to the modern moonshiner,
either self-built, assembled from a kit, or purchased fully
assembled. Lately, do-it-yourself still designs have become widely
available on the Internet. "Moonshine" and "Still Making Moonshine"
are two documentaries that depict the life of a modern Appalachian
moonshiner: the making of a three-stage still from sheets of copper,
putting up corn mash, and running whiskey.
Varieties of moonshine are produced throughout the world.
Usually, illicit distillation is associated with the making of
ethanol for drinking, however it is also practiced for creating
Poorly produced moonshine can be contaminated with toxins, mainly
from materials used in construction of the still. Stills employing
used automotive radiators as a condenser are particularly dangerous;
in some cases, glycol products from antifreeze used in the radiator
can appear as well. Radiators used as condensers also may contain
lead at the connections to the plumbing. Both glycol and lead are
poisonous and potentially deadly.
Although methanol is not
produced in toxic amounts by fermentation of sugars from grain
starches, contamination is still possible by unscrupulous distillers
using cheap methanol to increase the apparent strength of the
Moonshine can be made both more palatable and less damaging by
discarding the "foreshot"--the first few ounces of alcohol that drip
from the distiller. The foreshot contains most of the methanol, if
any, from the mash. Methanol may be present because it vaporizes at
a lower temperature than ethanol. The foreshot also typically
contains small amounts of other undesirable compounds such as
acetone and various aldehydes.
Any alcohol that is at least 80 US proof (i.e. 40% alcohol by
volume) is flammable. This is especially true during the distilling
process in which vaporized alcohol can accumulate in the air if
there is not enough ventilation.
Moonshine has sometimes been mixed with an adulterant (e.g.,
methanol, lye, or beading oil) with the intent of increasing its
apparent alcohol content. Moonshine that has been adulterated in
this way will form bubbles on its surface. Large bubbles with a
short duration would indicate a higher alcohol content.
This practice has sometimes resulted in a toxic mixture that can
cause blindness or death. Although poisoning incidents are rare,
particularly in developed nations, they are a cause for concern
about the safety of moonshine.
Moonshine may be flavored with fruit or bark. The mash may be cooked
with birch bark to achieve a mint-like flavor. Fruit flavoring may
be added to the product before bottling.
A common folk test for the quality of moonshine was to pour a small
quantity of it into a spoon and set it alight. The theory was that a
safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate
burns with a yellow flame. Practitioners of this simple test also
held that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser, then
there would be lead in the distillate, which would give a reddish
This led to the phrase, "Lead burns red and makes you dead."
Although the flame test will show the presence of lead and fusel
oils, it will not reveal the presence of methanol, which burns with
an invisible flame.
Another test used for moonshine is for "proof". A small amount of
gun powder is poured into a dish with the moonshine. It is ignited,
and if the mixture starts to flame it is "proofed". In other words,
if it burns, then it contains plenty of alcohol. But if it does not
burn, then the moonshine has been diluted. (Note that this only
proves that the alcohol content is at least 57% ABV.)
The Moonshine Man of Kentucky, illustration from Harper's Weekly,
1877, showing five scenes from the life of a Kentucky moonshiner