Moonshine has earned a unique place in American history. More than your standard run-of-the-mill alcoholic drink, it has come to represent American ingenuity, aversion to authority, and creativity.
The original moonshiners were sneaky, clever, and courageous folk who refused to be told what to do. They created moonshine with whatever they had on hand, including old boilers, homemade metal pipes, and timber casks.
To help you learn more about this delicious spirit and the people who made it, here are 22 interesting facts about moonshine. They are great conversation starters that you can use at your next moonshine tasting session.
1. There Are No Rules When Making Moonshine
Spirits like Scotch Whisky, Irish whiskey, Gin, and Saki have certain rules which dictate the ingredients, equipment, and processes that must be used to create them.
Scotch Whisky, for example, must be made in Scotland, distilled twice, matured in oak casks for 3 years or more, made from water and malted barley (with other whole grains), and have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% ABV. The Scotts are so strict on these rules that they have legislated them.
When it comes to moonshine, anything goes. You can use a mash made from corn, malted barley, rye, wheat or any other grain that can provide soluble sugar. It doesn’t need to be aged in oak or any specific wood. In fact, it doesn’t need to be aged at all.
There is no strict rules in terms of the ABV of the finished product and many other ingredients can be added, like fruit, herbs, and spices.
This level of freedom is what attracts many distillers to moonshine. They can experiment with their moonshine and concoct delicious spirits with interesting flavors.
Related: Best Beginner Moonshine Stills
2. The Term “Moonshine” Refers To Illegal Activities
“Moonshine” is a slang term that describes any illicit activity that occurs at night (under the light of the moon). These types of activities would be performed at night to avoid detection by law enforcement. Because most illegal stills also operated at night, the spirits they produced were eventually nicknamed moonshine.
Contrary to popular belief, the term wasn’t coined in the United States. It was first used in Britain, where the first moonshiners operated their stills under the cover of darkness. These distillers produced whiskey, gin, and other kinds of spirits illicitly to avoid taxation by the British government (more on British moonshining later on).
3. There Are Dozens Of Slang Words To Describe Moonshine
Moonshine has its own vocabulary with dozens of unique terms being used to describe the finished product and the tools used to make it.
Some of the many English words used to describe moonshine include Hooch, White Lightning, White liquor, Mountain Dew, Choop, Homebrew, Shiney, Hooch, White Whiskey, Stump Whiskey, and Mash Liquor.
There are different names for moonshine overseas. In Poland they call it Palinka, in Armenia it is Oghi, in Bulgaria it is Rakia, in Cuba it is Gualfara, in Columbia it is Chirrinchi, while in Argentina it is Chicha. Check out this extensive list to learn all of the names of moonshine in foreign countries if you are interested.
Even the processes, equipment, and outcomes associated with the moonshine making process have unique names. Here are a few of the most interesting terms:
- Backins is the weak whiskey that is created at the end of a double run.
- Puke is the boiling over of a hot still
- Granny Fees are bribes paid to law enforcement
- Blackport is a mash which ferments directly in the still instead of a tub
- A Runner is a person who moves moonshine while evading the law (also called bootleggers)
- A Thumper is a keg that is placed between the boiler and condenser to give the moonshine a second distillation during a single run
Related: 15 Interesting Facts About Bourbon
4. A Basic Moonshine Only Needs Four Ingredients
Moonshine can be a complex spirit involving all kinds of ingredients. However, in its simplest form, it will be made with cornmeal, sugar, water, and yeast. The simplicity of moonshine is one of the reasons why it was a popular choice amongst backwoods distillers.
5. Moonshine Had A Bad Reputation For Causing Health Problems
As you might have expected, many of the prohibition moonshiners weren’t concerned about product safety standards. They would use dirty equipment and often wouldn’t check the quality of their product before selling it.
Some prohibition moonshiners would even use old car radiators as condensers when creating their white lightning, simply because nothing else was available. Unfortunately, radiators would often contain rust, lead, and other dangerous chemicals. This could contaminate batches of moonshine, causing lead poisoning and other illnesses.
Unscrupulous moonshiners would add methanol to their product to give it a stronger kick and to improve its flavor. While this sometimes made for a sweeter hooch, it could also make a drink toxic. Methanol consumption can cause systemic acidosis, central nervous system problems, and in some cases, blindness.
Modern moonshines aren’t made using radiators or methanol, so are perfectly safe to consume (as always, in moderation).
6. The First Moonshiners Were British
Although most people associate moonshine with the backwoods distillers in the Appalachians, it is actually a British invention. The first moonshiners began operating in Britain in the late 15th century.
They initially began distilling spirits illegally to avoid new excise taxes. Although they were moonshiners, they didn’t use the term to describe the spirits they were making until the 18th Century.
7. Making Moonshine Is A Remarkably Simple Process
When the average person looks at a still, they might think it resembles a mad scientist’s laboratory. Despite this, the science behind creating moonshine is very straightforward.
- Corn is ground into a meal (other grains can also be used)
- The cornmeal is soaked in hot water to extract sugars. Sugar can also be added.
- Yeast is added and the fermentation process starts
- After some time, the fermented solution (called a mash) is placed in the still and heated to about 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 C)
- As it heats, the alcohol vapors rise to the top of the still and are captured by the swan neck (a copper tube).
- The vapors then go into a condenser coil, where they cool and turn back into alcohol.
The distillation process is usually run several times to create a stronger, smoother spirit. A device called a thumper keg can also be used. It sits between the boiler and the condenser. It is used to distill the alcohol vapors from the boiler a second time before they are condensed.
8. The Earliest American Moonshine Was Not Always Made From Corn
The original Appalachian moonshiners would use cornmeal to make moonshine, simply because it was readily available. However, the earliest moonshiners would use rye or barley as they were usually growing those crops. Today, virtually all moonshine producers will use cornmeal.
9. Moonshine Is Gradually Being Legalized
For many years, it has been illegal to use a still to produce alcohol for consumption. However, that is gradually changing, at the state level at least.
Many states now offer licenses to ‘craft distillers’ which let individuals make a small amount of moonshine for private consumption. However, most states do require moonshiners to also obtain a commercial distiller’s permit or a fuel alcohol permit from the federal government. It’s worth noting that these licenses do not allow for the commercial sale of moonshine.
Some states do allow commercial moonshine distilleries, like North Carolina, where the first legal moonshine distillery opened its doors in 2005 (Piedmont Distillers).
After the financial crisis of 2009, other states relaxed laws on commercial moonshine production in an effort to stimulate their economies. So you can now operate a commercial moonshine distillery in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
It’s now relatively easy to track down a bottle of moonshine in a liquor store and sample this delicious spirit.
10. Moonshine Has Experienced A Rapid Growth In Popularity
For several decades after prohibition ended, moonshine had a bad reputation due to the substandard and sometimes dangerous beverages that were being produced. After all, no one wanted to risk going blind by ingesting a few glasses of White Lightning spiked with methanol.
However, it has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, largely thanks to the legalization of commercial moonshine production in several states. Consumers now know that the product is now safe and are interested in trying moonshine.
11. American Moonshiners Went To War To Avoid Taxation
In the early days of American colonization, there were very few rules about the production and consumption of alcohol. Industrious farmers and entrepreneurs would use stills to turn their corn, rye, and barley crops into beer or spirits. They would drink what they created, give it away to friends or family, or sell it locally.
That all changed in 1791 when President George Washington’s newly established congress imposed a liquor tax to help pay war debts. As you might imagine, distillers weren’t too happy about it and many of them established moonshine distilleries in secluded locations (America’s first moonshine operations).
The distillers and their supporters had several run-ins with tax collectors, particularly in Western Pennsylvanian counties. These conflicts escalated and eventually led to the Whiskey Rebellion (1791 – 1794).
The government eventually beat the rebels back with a large militia. However, the suppression of the rebellion was very unpopular and damaged the Federalist Party. This led to the whisky tax being repealed in 1803.
12. The American Civil War Created More Moonshiners
Everyone knows that going to war is an expensive business. So, when the federal government began to fight the civil war, they immediately turned to distillers and demanded that they pay another whiskey tax.
This time, the tax was extremely high — in some cases eight times higher than the cost of the actual whiskey. This prompted many distillers to hide in the backwoods and produce spirits illicitly.
13. Prohibition Helped Moonshiners Turn a Profit
The next major change for moonshiners was the introduction of prohibition in 1920. It banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages across the United States.
Before prohibition, many backwoods moonshiners would make liquor for the fun of it. It was a hobby or a part-time business. After prohibition, the moonshine they produced was worth a lot more money. Many moonshiners became full-time bootleggers, selling their hooch for substantial profits. It was how they made a living and fed their families.
It was just as well, because this period was very difficult, economically. By 1929, the nation was in a full-blown great depression. By the end of 1933, both the Great Depression and Prohibition had ended. Most drinkers turned away from illicitly produced moonshine and switched to drinks like gin and Scotch whiskey.
Related: How to Proof Moonshine
14. Moonshine Is Clear Because They Don’t Mature It
Spirits like Scotch whisky and Bourbon whiskey have a distinctive brown color. This comes from the time that the spirit spends maturing in charred oak casks. These spirits also take on aromas and flavors from the wood as they mature. Because moonshine isn’t aged in a cask it remains crystal clear.
15. Distillers Used XXX To Label Moonshine
Have you ever seen an old cartoon or caricature with a jug of booze inscribed with XXX? It turns out that moonshiners used to draw X’s on their bottles to show how many times it had been distilled. A single X meant that the spirit had been distilled one, two X’s indicated it has been distilled twice, and so on. Seeing XXX or XXXX on a bottle of moonshine meant it had been concentrated a few times and was probably quite strong.
16. Mountain Dew Soda Was Developed To Be A Moonshine Mixer
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed earlier that one of the slang terms for moonshine mentioned earlier was ‘Mountain Dew’. You may have wondered if there is some kind of link between moonshine and the popular soda.
It turns out there is. The original Mountain Dew soda was developed to be a mixer for moonshine and other spirits. In fact, the original mascot was named Willy The Hillbilly, in a clear reference to the intended use of the drink.
17. There Is A Connection Between Bootlegging And NASCAR
Bootleggers were the men and women who smuggled moonshine from the distillery to another location. It was dangerous work as you could be pulled over by the police or robbed by criminals at any moment. The term ‘bootleggers’ comes from the fact that hooch smugglers used to hide flasks in their boots.
After WWII, some of the soldiers returning home from war would ended up becoming bootleggers. They used the mechanical skills that the military gave them to modify vehicles so they could hide moonshine. They would also add better shocks to safeguard their hooch on bumpy roads, along with faster engines for a quick getaway.
These hot rod bootleggers would sometimes race their modified vehicles on their days off. This tradition became the foundation of NASCAR. Not surprisingly, the person who stumped up the money to start the NASCAR sporting foundation was a former bootlegger himself, named Big Bill France.
18. Modern Moonshines Are Often Flavored
Traditionally, moonshine would be consumed straight. However, many people find that the flavor is a little too strong, particularly if the hooch in question has a high proof. As a result, many of the commercial moonshines on sale are flavored spirits and have a lower proof. The takes the edge off slightly and makes it easier to drink.
The most popular flavors at the moment include blueberry, pineapple, raspberry, and apple pie. These flavored moonshines can be enjoyed on their own or mixed with soda water for a refreshing drink.
19. Moonshine Is Less Safe In Other Countries
American moonshine makers are creating delicious moonshines which are completely safe to consume. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in other countries. In 2019, at least 154 people died in India, after consuming a bad batch of homemade moonshine. Authorities suspect that methanol was added to the moonshine. Worth remembering if you intend on traveling overseas and are offered moonshine.
20. Moonshine Stills Can Blow Up
It’s not a myth! If a blockage occurs in the swan’s neck, the alcohol vapors which should have exhausted into the condenser can begin to build up to dangerous levels. If exposed to a spark or open flame, they can combust, causing a pretty large explosion. This myth was tested by the team at MythBusters a few years ago.
21. Moonshine Is Essentially The Same As Corn Whiskey
In terms of how they are made, the only difference between corn whiskey and moonshine is that corn whiskey is matured in a wooden cask. Moonshine can be consumed without maturation. If you like corn whiskey, chances are you will like the taste of moonshine, and vice versa.
22. Hooch Wasn’t Just For Drinking: alternative Moonshine uses
The original settlers of the Appalachians were tough folk living in harsh conditions. They were also very practical, knowledgeable, and industrious.
When they produced moonshine, it wasn’t just for getting drunk. It had several practical applications around the home, including as a disinfectant, tranquilizer, solvent, and anesthetic.
Moonshine was also used as currency, so they could trade moonshine for food, medicine, seeds, tools, livestock, and other things they needed to survive. Moonshine wasn’t just a drink, it was an essential asset that made life in the Appalachians easier.
Related: Moonshine History