Moonshine Making: Debunking the Urban Myths

Moonshine Making: Debunking the Urban Myths

Photo: Steve Ryan

Moonshine conjures up all sorts of romantic ideas of men peaceably or not so peaceably making their ‘shine’ in the backwoods of Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia hiding from the evil revenuers (tax men). The reality is not nearly so romantic, nor is moonshine always a potable drink in terms of taste.

Strearns-moonshine-stillPhoto: Brian Stansberry Moonshine still at the McCreary County Museum in Stearns, Kentucky, USA. The still (mash pot, arm and thump keg) was provided by the McCreary County Sheriff’s Department. Locals provided the barrel, jugs and setting to simulate a typical still site appearance. The sign atop the wooden barrel is a recipe for moonshine.

First of all, let’s look at what moonshine is. It is not the liquid fire that comes from the stills; it is not a type of alcohol; it is not the copper or homemade still; it is simply illegal alcohol. Be it based on sugar, wheat or anything else, if it is not taxed it is moonshine. It doesn’t matter if it is made in a small factory or in someone’s back yard; if tax is not paid on it and is due (some states allow you to make enough for home consumption) then it is illegal. The word apparently comes from old English smugglers and Appalachian distillers who did their illegal work by the light of the moon.

Former moonshiner John Bowman explaining the workings of a moonshine stillPhoto: Lynther Scott EilerFormer moonshiner John Bowman explains the workings of a still

Despite what the urban legend tells you, moonshine is unlikely to blind you. There is a caveat though. Methanol is toxic to the optic nerves, and during the time of Prohibition, unscrupulous moonshiners added everything but the kitchen sink, including methanol, to add alcohol or flavor without adding to their costs. And many were not careful to remove the small amount of methanol or lead from the fittings – which would thus leach into the liquid – by draining off the first few ounces (50 ml for 20 liters). That said, while most moonshine might make you think you are blind because it tastes so raw, your sight will actually be fine.

The Moonshine Man of Kentucky Harper's Weekly 1877Photo: Courtesy of Harpers Weekly“The Moonshine Man of Kentucky,” showing five scenes of the moonshining life, including a man chopping down a tree, a man mixing ingredients, a moonshiner held captive by 3 men, 3 men on horseback begging for breakfast from a farmer, and a boy holding a jug by the still house. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Moonshine making was always a hard life if done for a living – like any enterprise where the law was after you, especially if you lived in a poverty stricken area. Lots of hours in the shed with the still, or out in the woods; not a lot of money for you labor… That was the moonshine making of the 1800s, as can be seen in the photo above.

KachasuPhoto: Hans HillewaertDistilling Kachasu with a home made still and cooler

Moonshine is still being made today. The photo above is of a still in Zambia and as you can tell, hygiene is not the biggest concern. This is the same with moonshiners in modern day America, where the people who have taken over the majority of illegal liquor making are the very same people who manufacture methamphetamines. While modern moonshine may not make you blind, there is a good chance it won’t make you feel very well since meth dealers are not well known for their quality control. Therefore, if offered moonshine, just take a small sip unless you know where it came from personally.

Sources: 1, 2, 3