All of us have heard the term moonshine before, all of us know it’s illegal, but few of us really know what it is or how it’s made. For most of us it’s just something that they do in the hill country of Arkansas and Tennessee and doesn’t really effect us. But that’s not really true. This history of moonshining and the science behind it effect our lives today from everything from soda pop to professional racing and a lot of things in between. Here is a brief primer on both.
First, lets get a few things straight. This whole concept of illegal liquor comes from taxes. What makes a spirit illegal is not that it was produced stronger or less pure than what is sold in the grocery store, but that it is sold without the government collecting it’s share of the tax associated with it first. Liquor tax in the United States alone is a multibillion dollar business, and like most governments, ours hates to be short changed. So citing concerns for the safety of the citizenry, moonshine was made illegal since before prohibition. Primary among those concerns is that moonshine (also white lightning, hooch, mountain dew, stump water and mother’s milk) makes you go blind. But it doesn’t. Not really. But more on that later.
First lets talk about alcohol by itself.
Man has been using alcohol to get high since before the beginning of history. The first histories were written about 4 thousand years ago on clay tablets, and the intentional use of alcohol predates that by another 2 thousand years. The problem was that at this time, they really didn’t know how to make alcohol. They would leave fruits and berries in a covered container for a few months and sometimes when they opened it they would have a mash with a little bit of alcohol in it and sometimes it would be a rotten goo. It was pretty much hit or miss at this point, but none the less early man still tried to produce it and used it for “religious ceremonies”. Any time an anthropologist can’t explain a practical use for something they always blame religious ceremonies. Personally I would like to think that our prehistoric ancestor used liquor for the exact same reason we do: it feels good.
Time and tide may make mercenaries of us all, but it also serves to educate us. After a couple of thousand years of experimentation we discovered better and better ways to make alcohol. Eventually this culminates in the production of wines. The first wines were actually not made from grapes, but more than likely made from vegetables. Sugar beats and carrots are the most likely, as they both contain a lot of sugar, and sugar is needed for alcohol. Eventually someone tried grapes and a whole new lifestyle was born. Grape juice is mostly sugar, water, and nitrogen and nothing ferments as well.
So what exactly is fermentation, I pretend you ask. Fermentation is the process for micro organisms called yeast consuming sugar and give off carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yeasts exist wild in the air in every part of the planet, including Antarctica. Yeast are everywhere. There are tens of thousands of different varieties, each imparting their own flavor to a fermentation. Some flavors are good and highly cherished, some are pretty terrible. Others produce high alcohol contents of up to 20%, some die off around 4%. Some produce pure ethanol, others produce things that are more harmful. There is a lot to worry about with yeast, which is why it’s so nice that we produce it commercially now. Commercially produced yeast is much safer to use for fermentation than wild yeast because you are assured to get the variety that you want.
You can use regular bread yeast to make alcohol. Really, truly. You can do it yourself in the comfort of your own home. It’s nothing special. You can add some sugar to a gallon of grape juice, add some bread yeast and leave the cap half screwed on to allow some gasses to escape and in about two weeks you will have wine. It won’t be very good, but it will technically be wine. If you want to drop a dollar on some wine yeast at the store or on the internet, you can get a much better drinkable product.
Nothing about this is illegal by the way. In fact if you go to a brewing supply store they will encourage you to do this yourself. It is perfectly legal to make wine in your home since the end of prohibition, and it has been legal to make beer since 1976. It’s actually pretty fun. It’s cheap. You can get all the materials and supplies you need to do this for about $20 if you are clever, and I guarantee that it will be an education.
So why is moonshine illegal if you are encouraged to make wine and beer in your home?
The answer comes from the 20% yeast barrier. Yeast give off alcohol as a byproduct of their life cycle. They eat sugar and give off alcohol and then reproduce. But just like if you were living in a vat of your own byproducts, it eventually gets toxic. Most yeast tap out around 14% alcohol. That’s why most wines contain 14% alcohol. However there are a few super yeasts out there that can easily ferment to 20% alcohol. The most common being the champagne yeast called Pris de Mousse. Now there are a few mutant yeasts out there for sale on the internet that claim that they will produce alcohol to 22%, but I say that’s crap. I’ve tried it, and have never gotten that high. Still, even if we agree to that number, we are a long way off from the 40% that most hard alcohols are produced to, and still further away from things like 151 proof Purto Rican rum and 95% Everclear.
The way those spirits are made is to distill them. Distillation is the process of evaporating a liquid to concentrate certain properties of that liquid. Here is where the real hard core science kicks in. Water and ethanol (the good alcohol) are 100% miscible. That means that they can be dissolved in any quantity of the other one. Because of that it’s impossible to separate them conventionally. However water and alcohol have different boiling points. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and ethanol boils at 178. That mere 34 degrees makes the whole process possible. As you heat a liquid that contains water and alcohol past the 178 degree mark, the alcohol will start to evaporate leaving most of the water behind. Therefore if you hover your temperature between 178 and 212 the majority of the water will be left behind. The alcohol takes a little with it when it evaporates, this is due to the properties of an azeotrope, but that’s not really the point. However once you get it evaporated, you still need to condense it to a liquid. Capture the steam and run it through a condensing coil and it comes out liquid on the other side. (A condensing coil is merely a tube of conducting metal that allows the vapor to cool off and re condense into a liquid.) This is fractional distillation at it’s most basic and it’s been around for 3,000 years in one form or another.
So, lets go back to our wine. Lets take that grape juice, add some sugar and some yeast. Wait the requisite time and end up with a wine made to roughly 20% alcohol. Now lets run it through our imaginary still, and remove half the volume of water from the mix. That will double our alcohol content and we now have brandy at 40%. If we were to do the same thing plain sugar we would have vodka, molasses would give us rum and corn products would give us the almighty whiskey (which can of course be made from other things like rye.) This is the exact same process every commercial distillery and every moonshiner in the world uses. The only real differences are the amount they make and the permission they get from the government.
So, is it dangerous? Will it really make you go blind?
Not if it’s made properly. First lets address the blindness issue. Yes, there have been a few cases of people going blind from bad batches of moonshine. However I would argue that those were cases when the person making it didn’t know what they were doing or got greedy and tries to use the wrong parts of the product they were producing. There are many types of alcohol. One is ethanol, and that’s what we are trying to make when we want to drink something. Another type is methanol, or wood alcohol. Methanol is an optic nerve poison and can legitimately make someone go blind. It is added to commercial products like rubbing alcohol and denatured alcohol so that people won’t try to drink them. All yeast fermentation will produce some small amount of methanol, and in small quantities it is harmless. However if you get a large quantity it could indeed make you go blind.
The good news is that methanol evaporates at 158 degrees. So the first product from a still should always be discarded. And then what comes after that should be tested. Methanol burns with a yellow flame and ethanol burns with a crystal clear blue flame. When you start getting a test batch with a blue flame you are safe from concentrating methanol. Discard anything that comes before that.
The other serious threat to your health is lead poisoning. This comes from lead solder being used in the welding of the still itself. As a consumer it is much harder to guard against this, but as a rule know who you are buying it from and ask questions. Or make it yourself and know for sure that you did not use lead solder. But keep in mind that this is an illegal activity and product in the Untied States.
So how does moonshine and it’s history effect your life today?
First if you have ever had a soft drink, you may thank moonshine. The soft in soft drink refers to the fact that it contains little or no alcohol. In the 1640 the English and Spanish government started demanding higher and higher taxes for any drink that contained more than 3% alcohol. So the makers started distilling the alcohol out of beers made from ginger and sarsaparilla root and selling the left over product with very little alcohol in it as a tax free beverage. These were the first soft drinks.
The American tradition of racing cars, and everything that came after started with moonshiners. The moonshiners were the first ones to modify their cars for speed and maneuverability so that they could outrun the authorities that were trying to stop their activities. This lead to the creation of NASCAR and Stockcar racing. To this day, NASCAR is still based in the same places that were frequented by moonshiners a few decades ago.
The first car engine that was designed to burn alcohol was designed by a moonshiner. In an attempt to smuggle booz more freely he filled his gas tank up with high proof moonshine and altered his engine to run off of alcohol. When he would get to his destination, he would drain the tank of alcohol and replace it with gasoline and drive back.
It was the first antifreeze. In the long days before Prestone, people would fill there radiators full of moonshine because the among of alcohol kept it from freezing in the winter, and therefore shattering your radiator.
I hope this clears up some of the mystery behind moonshine and explains some of the terminology. I myself come from a proud line of moonshiners. My great grandmother operated a pot still in her back yard in Louisiana during the depression and Prohibition, selling Cherry Bounce for a nickle a cup to feed her family. Later in life she used to give it to us kids any time we complained about a belly ache or some other malady. My great uncle/second cousin Mark operated a still until the mid 80s when some federal agents found it and got drunk on his property. In his own words “They got lit up pretty good and got in a tussle with one another. Someone got shot and ever since then it just didn’t make no sense to do it. Those fedies were all over the place like flies on shit, like it’s my fault they can’t hold their liquor.”
If you have any questions, please feel free to write a comment.