History of Moonshine and Prohibition in America

During the prohibition era in the United States, which began in 1920 after the Volstead Act went into effect following the ratification of the 18th amendment, moonshine became a staple of the underground drinking culture that sprang up to avoid the ban on alcohol.

Moonshine has a rich and interesting history in America which precedes prohibition and extends beyond its end. While the drink became massively popular during the roaring 20s, today, you can still buy it legally all over the world.

There is so much interesting information to learn about prohibition and the rise of moonshine. From how moonshine was made during prohibition to the famous bootleggers of the 1920s, there is plenty to read about.

The history of when moonshine running started, what moonshine was like in the 20s, as well as the rules of prohibition, like what was illegal and what the punishments for breaking the rules are, are all worth learning about.

By the end of reading this, you will be an expert on everything to do with moonshine and one of the rowdiest times in American history: the prohibition era.

Moonshine in a glass jar on a wooden barrel with a metal dispenser.

History and Timeline of Moonshine

The history of moonshine is long and interesting, beginning in the 18th century, rising to its peak popularity in the 1920s, and continuing up until the present day.

The Beginning of Moonshine

The practice of creating moonshine began in England in the 18th century and quickly spread to the US. For the first 200 years of its consumption in America, it was not illegal to produce moonshine, and issues surrounding the taxation of moonshine played a role in the American Revolution and Civil War.

The knowledge needed for moonshine production was brought to America by Scotch-Irish immigrants, who settled in insular communities near the Appalachian mountains. Moonshine became increasingly popular in these communities and was traded to other areas for profit.

The Prohibition Era

After prohibition came into effect, moonshine exploded in popularity. Because moonshine is higher in alcohol content than beer or wine and is manufactured at a smaller scale than other forms of alcohol, moonshine was a comparatively cheap and convenient way for people to get a drink when liquor was illegal.

Many people began creating their own pot stills and boiling still, either to drink the product themselves or to sell. Some were small setups put together in people’s basements, and others were large operations meant to create an industrial output.

The prohibition age was key in bringing moonshine into the public’s imagination and exposing more people to it. After the 21st amendment passed, repealing the 18th amendment and putting an end to prohibition, moonshine declined in popularity as people regained easy access to more traditional kinds of alcohol.

Moonshine Today

Producing moonshine in your home is still illegal to this day, and in 2010, a law operation apprehended members of an organization that had brewed over 1.5 million gallons of alcohol. The moonshine trade is still alive and well.

There are even brands that market legally produced moonshine to consumers worldwide, and pot stills that produce moonshine are available for purchase online.

Related: Moonshine Stills for Beginners

What was Moonshine in the 1920s?

During its history, moonshine has evolved, both in its ingredients and the way moonshiners produce it, and the 1920s had a unique style of moonshine that differentiates it from today’s moonshine.

The Ingredients

Because so many different brewers were producing so much moonshine during prohibition, there was more variety in the ingredients than before or after.

This increased production meant they used all sorts of fruits like prunes and apricots on top of the usual moonshine ingredients like rye, corn, sugar, and yeast. These differing ingredients produced a less consistent flavor, meaning people in the 1920s got to try lots of different flavors of moonshine.

Many brewers realized part of moonshine’s appeal was the kick you get when you drink it, which led many brewers to add a variety of unique ingredients designed to amplify the kick. These included many poisonous materials, such as embalming fluid, paint thinner, and even manure.

However, because many brewers were novices, the most common recipe was the same as it is today: cornmeal, sugar, yeast, and water. 

The Danger of Moonshine in the 1920s

Moonshine is extremely strong and can be as high as 150 proof, making it around 75% alcohol, nearly twice the strength of your typical liquor. The high alcohol content is part of what makes moonshine so dangerous.

But in the 1920s, many other factors made moonshine dangerous. The brewers’ inexperience caused them to fail to separate off the methanol – which can cause blindness – from the ethanol (also known as alcohol).

Other mistakes (or the intentional addition of dangerous ingredients) caused the brewers to make poisonous moonshine, the consumption of which resulted in many deaths. 

When Did Moonshine Running Start?

Although moonshine running took off during the prohibition era, that is not when it began. As a practice, it started as early as the 18th century.

The Original Bootleggers

States passed laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to Native Americans as early as the beginning of the 18th century. Smugglers who broke this prohibition by selling them alcohol were the original bootleggers.

The term bootlegger originates from these smugglers, as they would hide flasks containing alcohol in the top of their boots. As moonshine became more popular, it joined whiskey and gin as a spirit of choice for bootleggers to sell illegally to Native Americans.

Moonshine Runners During Prohibition

Although a lot of the bootlegging done during prohibition was the bootlegging of alcohol produced in either Canada or Mexico into the United States, bootleggers also transported moonshine illegally brewed in the US.

Because they would not have to cross borders, bootleggers could often make shorter trips if they were transporting moonshine. Additionally, moonshine’s high alcohol content means that it was easier to hide from authorities while in transportation. Smugglers could carry more alcohol if it was in a concentrated form like moonshine rather than a weak one like beer.

While the biggest bootleggers made their money smuggling beer, wine, and whiskey in from neighboring countries, there were countless moonshine runners during the prohibition era.

How Was Moonshine Made During Prohibition?

Because the practice of making moonshine was illegal during the age of prohibition, we don’t have as many detailed recipes and procedures for how brewers made moonshine as we might have otherwise. However, we do still know some things about how moonshine was made during prohibition.

The Studer Method

One example of how bootleggers made moonshine was recorded by a moonshine brewer’s sons, Robert J. and Joseph M. Studer, who wrote a story recounting the brewing method their father, Joseph A. Studer, used.

The recipe was one Joseph A. had learned from an obsolete large distiller. The moonshiner deposited corn, whole rye, raisins, prunes, apricots, sugar, and yeast into a 50-gallon oak barrel.

He then filled the barrel 2/3rds with water and kept it between under 80 degrees for up to a week for fermentation. After a week, they strained the contents into a copper wash boiler with copper tubing attached to the top, where they heated the contents to the point of evaporation.

The vapors then made their way through the copper tubes, which were submerged in a barrel of cold water, causing the vapors to return to liquid form before trickling out into a jug placed just below the bottom of the barrel of cold water.

The brewers could repeat the process up to three times by adding sugar, yeast, and water to the rye and fruits left in the barrel. Each time the brewers repeated the process, it produced up to 3 gallons of clear alcohol. Once they finished their brewing, they added a syrup made of lemon and orange juice for taste and color, bringing the moonshine closer to whiskey or cognac.

Other Methods

Joseph A. Studer was not the only one making moonshine, although his process was fairly typical for the age. Some people living in the city had smaller stills set up in their kitchens to produce their own moonshine supply.

Others would make gin in large buckets filled in the bath, but these methods often resulted in very low-quality alcohol that few could tolerate by itself. This method was so popular that bathtub gin became a household term. 

There is some debate as to what we should consider moonshine; whether it should just be the clear alcohol produced with methods similar to Studer’s or whether the term moonshine describes any illicitly produced alcohol. But in the 1920s, they used the latter definition, and so bathtub gin they considered to be a form of moonshine.

Although in the 20s, they called it bathtub gin, they did not actually make it in bathtubs. Instead, they filled buckets of fruits, which were too big to fit in sinks, using the bathtub faucets. They then stored those buckets in cool and dry spaces making sure to shake them once a day. 

They stored the bucket between two days and a week, depending on how much flavor they wanted the gin to absorb. After the fermentation was complete, they drained the liquid while straining out the solid fruit remnants.

While moonshine brewers used many methods to create moonshine in the 1920s, the bathtub gin method and the pot still method used by Studer were the most common.

How Much did Moonshine Cost in Prohibition?

Because of the legal risks involved in producing moonshine and the risk involved in selling it, moonshine’s cost during the prohibition era was more than the price of whiskey or another comparable spirit had been before prohibition.

At the beginning of prohibition, moonshine producers typically sold their product for around $25 a gallon, which would be over $325 today if you adjust for inflation. That is more than triple the price you would pay for Jack Daniels today (and Jack Daniels won’t poison you or make you go blind).

These sky-high profits are why moonshine producers were willing to take the legal risks associated with moonshine production. $25 a gallon was also only the price that the moonshiners were selling it to the bootleggers for, so we know that the average customer was likely paying far more for moonshine.

However, these high prices did not last forever. By 1927, the price had declined substantially and was less than half what it had previously sold for at $12 a gallon, which would be $180 today.

Famous Bootleggers

Prohibition-era profits gave rise to or elevated the status of prominent bootleggers, who had big impacts on the US both during the 20s and after. 

Robert Glen ‘Junior’ Johnson

Johnson’s ancestry stretched back to some of the first moonshiners in America. While he was growing up, Johnson’s house was filled to the brim with moonshine that his father had distilled. At the age of 14, Johnson began bootlegging in his car and discovered he had a natural talent for it.

Because bootleggers had to be excellent drivers to avoid the law, they developed a passion for it and began racing in their free time. Eventually, these races drew crowds and began giving out prize money.

The police arrested Junior and sent him to prison for using an illegal still, but upon his release, he returned to racing professionally, which eventually turned into what we know today as NASCAR. Johnson won 50 races in his career and was inducted into the NASCAR hall of fame in 2010.

Enoch Lewis ‘Nucky’ Johnson

Enoch Lewis ‘Nucky’ Johnson was a prohibition-era bootlegger who ran Atlantic City during the roaring 20s. He began as the Sheriff, but then-governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson, who went on to be president, removed him from the position due to Johnson’s corruption.

Johnson became the executive secretary of the Atlantic City Republican Party in 1909, a position he used to control the entire Atlantic City political machinery. This power allowed him to control Atlantic City, making it a bastion of intemperance during prohibition.

Because of Johnson’s control, alcohol was readily available throughout the roaring 20s, along with gambling and prostitution. The writers of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire based the character ‘Nucky Thompson’ off of ‘Nucky’ Johnson.

William Frederick McCoy

Known affectionately as ‘The Real McCoy’, Bill McCoy was a famous bootlegger who illegally imported alcohol from the Caribbean. McCoy and his brother had initially begun as sailors running an above-board freighting company, but they took advantage of the prohibition to pivot to smuggling alcohol to cover for their dwindling profits.

McCoy captained a 130-foot sailboat equipped with an auxiliary motor and a hidden machine gun to transport his product. However, he had to recruit local sea captains who could evade the coast guard to take his goods ashore because of his boat’s size. Hundreds of ships were required to transport his goods, creating what was called ‘Rum Row.’

McCoy was one of the very few bootleggers who never watered down his moonshine, which is how he earned the nickname ‘Real McCoy.’

What Was Illegal During Prohibition?

Although most people believe that prohibition made drinking alcohol illegal, this was not the case. The 18th amendment that created the ban on liquor only banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Therefore, any way of getting liquor was made illegal, but the consumption of alcohol was not.

However, there were exceptions. Many doctors at the time considered alcohol to be a vital medicine, and so some liquors were available for purchase with a doctor’s prescription. This loophole was liable to abuse, and many doctors would take payments in return for liquor prescriptions.

Another prohibition loophole was that, although the 18th amendment was ratified in 1919, prohibition did not begin until 1920, when the Volstead Act became the law of the land. This buffer year gave those with means and room plenty of time to stock up on alcohol before prohibition began.

Because the law only prohibited drinks with an alcohol content higher than 0.5% (about a tenth the strength of an average beer), many brewers began making what they called “near beer”: beer with an alcohol percentage of 0.5%. They also produced something called “malt syrup,” which consumers could easily convert into regular beer.

What Was the Punishment for Bootlegging During Prohibition?

Bootleggers and moonshiners producers faced heavy penalties during the prohibition age, which Congress increased substantially in 1929 when they passed the Increased Penalties Act.

The Original Penalties

Those found guilty of violating the Volstead Act, which began prohibition in America, were liable for a fine of up to $5,000 or a maximum of one year in prison, or both. $5,000 may not sound like much now, but if you adjust for inflation, that would be over $68,000 today.

And that was for first offenders. Repeat offenders could be liable for increasing fines and prison sentences. Although bootlegging was incredibly profitable, it was not without its risks.

The Increased Penalties Act

The Increased Penalties Act of 1929 lived up to its name. The act increased the maximum fine for bootlegging and the manufacturing of intoxicating liquors from $5,000 to $10,000 and increased the possible prison sentence from one year to five.

These increased penalties, combined with moonshine’s declining price, meant that bootleggers were incurring more risk for less reward.

Effects of Prohibition

Prohibition led to a mixture of results. While it was successful in creating a decline in alcohol consumption, as we have seen, it did not end its consumption either. Prohibition also led to an explosion of organized crime, helping elevate some of history’s most famous gangsters.

The economic effects were also a disappointment to many who supported prohibition. Many had hoped the ban on alcohol sales would lead to increased spending in other areas, like clothing, real estate, or theatres. The opposite effect ended up coming to pass, with many other industries seeing reduced profits instead of increasing ones.

Prohibition decreased in popularity every year it was in effect and eventually ended with the passing of the 21st amendment.

Conclusion

The history of moonshine and prohibition in America teaches us a lot about the limits of the ability of laws to change people’s behavior. The history of moonshine also teaches us about Americans’ industrious spirit and ingenuity, as well as the lengths they are willing to go when there is money to be made.

There are many lessons that astute observers can learn from prohibition and the history of moonshine.

Related: Proofing Moonshine