In this day and age, when many brew their own wine, beers, ciders, or meads, why is producing your own moonshine — and not just for sale, but for personal consumption, as well — still illegal?
In fact, the federal government fears home-distilling so much that being caught in possession of unregistered stills or other moonshine production carries heavy penalties including hefty fines or possible imprisonment.
Which begs the question: is any illegal liquor worth this hassle? Let’s take a look at what exactly illegal moonshine is and why it became such an enemy of the government. Is it just about a loss of taxable revenue, as many suggest, or is the US government trying to protect us from poorly-made alcoholic spirits?
What is Moonshine?
Moonshine is a fanciful term for clear, unaged whiskey which has been distilled illicitly by some regular ol’ citizens. It’s often referred to as “whiskey without wood” or “bourbon without the barrel” due to the absence of an aging process, instead being served straight from the still.
Traditionally, it was made with corn, although it can be made with any fermented grains from rye to wheat or sometimes plain old sugar. If you go to a liquor store and take a bottle of moonshine from the shelf, it may be labeled as “corn whisky” (yes, without the “e”), although some brands drop the ‘shine’ label for a white whisky tag, which is more accurate as commercially produced moonshine is obviously not an illegal production.
Traditional, or old-fashioned, moonshine is illicit by its very nature as defined by the Webster’s American dictionary. Any brands of moonshine on your local liquor store’s shelves are merely paying homage to this traditional drink and have been legally produced with taxation revenues paid. That’s perhaps the biggest difference.
What are the Origins of Moonshine?
Moonshine is deeply rooted in American history. Often presented as a part of Southern cultural history and heritage, its true origins can actually be traced back to Pennsylvania. In fact, moonshine had been so important to Americans, it nearly caused the first American Civil War.
Farms with grain mills would often distill their excess grain into moonshine to avoid it spoiling. In some places, this whisky was even used as currency.
When the federal government passed the Distilled Spirits Tax in 1791, farmers held off the tax inspectors by, well, less-than-legal means and sparked the Whiskey Rebellion, which could have easily escalated into our first civil war.
Moonshine production later moved to larger cities, and by the 1900s, there were more illegal moonshine operations in New York than in the whole of the South put together. Brooklyn in particular was a hot bed for moonshining, where Irish immigrants would set up hidden distilleries, refusing to pay taxes on their illicit whisky.
The golden age of moonshine is considered by many to be the Prohibition years, but don’t confuse bootleggers with moonshiners. Moonshiners were the producers of the illicit beverages, while bootleggers smuggled it. Rumor has it NASCAR racers owe their start to the driving skills acquired by many bootleggers in an attempt to outrun government prosecutors.
Is Moonshine Unsafe? Is This Why Moonshine is Illegal?
One argument for moonshine being illegal is safety, in regards to both producing it and consuming it. The artisan moonshine you often see on the store shelf is produced with a legal permit and has to meet federal rules on food and drink safety. However, illegal whisky moonshine doesn’t have any quality control and can often be harmful to your health.
Lore and legend surrounding the controversial spirit often refer to low-quality moonshine, which was made using dangerous practices such as distilling it in car radiators where it often became contaminated by heavy metals.
A study of Emergency Department patients in Atlanta by the CDC even showed a link between elevated lead levels in the blood of patients known to have consumed moonshine regularly.
Many times, I’ve heard people say you would go blind drinking moonshine, and I’m sure many have (I have only got blind drunk from it, fortunately).
The real culprit here is methanol, which is produced in the fermentation process.
Although upon first sip you may not recognize the danger, 10ml of methanol, after it is metabolized, is all it takes for a harmful effect on the optic nerve, and in some cases can cause partial or even complete blindness. 30ml of ethanol can be fatal, yet moonshine producers often put methanol back into a bottle of liquor to boost its alcohol content. With no regulation, it’s difficult to know just how much ethanol is in this illegal spirit.
But surely the same could be argued for many beers or wines produced at home? What’s stopping homebrewers from boosting their beer or wine’s alcohol content by reintroducing methanol? (Although I hope none of you would do that.)
In the 1980s, some European, legally-produced wines, particularly from Hungary, were found to boost the proof of their wine by adding anti-freeze, of all things!
Clearly, it’s not a case of food safety making moonshine illegal. After all, it’s no more or less difficult to add toxic things to moonshine than any other spirit. So, instead, maybe it’s the alcohol distillation process used in homemade spirits.
Is Home Distilling Safe? Is This Why Moonshine is Still Illegal?
Amateur distillers face many risks when distilling spirits at home. Apart from the obvious food safety issues associated with heavy metal stills, methanol production, and the possibility of plastic contamination, there is a very real risk of still exploding.
Explosions are incredibly rare, but, as a rule of thumb, if the alcohol proof of a spirit rises above 56%, it will become highly flammable at room temperature. A build-up of pressure caused by the production of ethanol and methanol could lead to a still buckling or, even worse, leaking onto nearby heat sources.
Unfortunately, home distilling is either heavily restricted or illegal in most countries of the world, including France, the UK, Australia, and most of the USA. Federal rules in the US declare that distilling alcohol at home is illegal with serious criminal penalties. But in some states like Missouri, Arizona, or Alaska, it is legal with other states allowing home distilling with a distilled spirits permits or licenses.
Ironically, it is legal to buy the tools required for home distillation online, although most companies would assume the customer intends to use the still for making perfumes, distilled water, or other legal liquids. Many would argue the government merely uses this hype to justify the push-up on taxes associated with home moonshine production. After all, it wasn’t until taxation laws were introduced that moonshine became illegal.
Taxation and Loss of Revenue – The Real Reason Moonshine is Illegal
Finally, we get to the truth of the matter, and, as always, it comes down to money!
Until 1978, it was illegal to home brew beer or liquor, with the rules on wine-making also being somewhat unclear. Fortunately, Congress, under pressure from many beer connoisseurs, decided to decriminalize home brewing, and now federal rules state that every household is allowed to brew up to 200 gallons of wine, and the same amount of beer, each year. (Thank the Lord for that — without that decision, this site wouldn’t exist and much of today’s craft beer scene wouldn’t either!)
The 1978 law didn’t legalize moonshine, but you could still own a still to process alcohol at home, as long as it was alcohol for fuel, and you had a legal permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).
Looking closely at the taxation levels for alcoholic beverages, you will see the liquor market is worth much more to the government than the beer or wine market. A 750ml bottle of 80-proof spirit pays an excise tax of $2.14, compared to just 5 cents for each can of beer, or 21 cents for a bottle of wine (under 14% alcohol).
In 2020, the taxation collected from legally produced distilled spirits was $236,964,000 — over half the total revenue from all alcohol sales. As an unlicensed industry, nobody can be sure how much revenue is lost in the illegal production of moonshine, but you can guarantee it’s enough to make a difference. Just one raid in Virginia in 1999 by ATF agents confiscated enough raw materials and equipment to produce over 1.5 million gallons of moonshine, a potential tax loss of almost $19.6 million dollars.
Moonshine Today — The Big Takeaway
So why, if moonshine is still illegal, do we see so many spirits labeled as moonshine on supermarket or liquor store shelves? If its as bad for you or as dangerous to produce as the government says, why would anybody want to drink it, let alone try their hand at producing it?
The moonshine you see on the shelf of your local liquor store isn’t moonshine in the traditional sense of the word. It has been legally produced by a registered manufacturer with a legal permit. It’s the same as those “Ye Old Tea Shops” you see in almost every mall. It’s a hark back to traditional times, trying to recreate a period of history.
Many would argue there are now some high-quality, traditional moonshine spirits available, including many flavored moonshines. For those who don’t like their whiskies to “woody,” this clear, unaged whisky can be a great alternative.
If you do intend to produce your own moonshine, check your local state laws first and remember federal law always rules over state laws. The government may have hyped up the dangers of producing and consuming moonshine to justify federal excise taxes, but as with all unlicensed food or beverage operations, there will be many safety aspects to heed.
A Final Word
Homebrewing beer or homemade wine isn’t illegal (good job, really, otherwise you’d be reading this on the dark web) but moonshine is. If you really want to try some moonshine, my advice would always be to go for a commercially-produced, legal moonshine. One of my favorites is Ole Smoky Apple Pie Moonshine, with a drier taste than many other apple pie-flavored moonshines due to the added cinnamon spice.
Do you have a favorite moonshine to recommend? Let us know! Have you ever tried your hand at producing your own moonshine? I would love to hear your stories (and, naturally, would leave your name out of any future retellings).