Moonshine grew in popularity during prohibition, when speakeasies and other underground alcohol distribution movements flourished.(Emon Hassan/The New York Times)

August 25, 2021

A Cautious Defense of Moonshine

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If you’re like me at all, the question, “Is making your own moonshine really that bad?” has crossed your mind at least a few times. Can you blame me? The thought of unlimited, practically free alcohol was tempting, and I imagined that it would have the added bonus of being as strong as a horse tranquilizer. While contemplating if I really wanted to freak out my housemates by making them accomplices to an illegal moonshine distillery, I started to wonder why moonshine is even against the law in the first place. Like almost everything, the answer is … complicated. 

For legal reasons, I disappointedly must report that I don’t have the balls to distill moonshine in my collegetown house. 

Moonshine in the United States has a long history, especially in the South. Defined as a “smuggled or illicitly distilled liquor, especially corn liquor as illicitly distilled chiefly in rural areas of the Southern U.S.,” moonshine can be made out of any fermentable substance, like fruit or even milk. As a homemade and unregulated liquor, moonshine also doesn’t have limits on its alcohol content and some moonshines can reach up to 190 proof. For comparison, Tito’s vodka is 80 proof. Woof. 

Likely brought to the U.S. by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 18th century, moonshine quickly took hold in the South where grain — especially corn — harvest thrived. First utilized as a way for grain producers to use and preserve excess product, moonshine soon grew into a mainstay of southern culture and was occasionally used as currency. For many farmers, moonshine was a security measure; it assured families that even in a bad year, there would be product to sell. Moonshine was such a prevalent part of life in early America that even George Washington produced corn whiskey in his Virginia distillery. 

The United States government inevitably took notice of this blossoming and untapped industry. Alexander Hamilton first imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, prompting Americans to evade this tax in creative ways (The term bootlegger “originated in the 1880s, when smugglers would hide flasks in their boot tops.”). Moonshine, though taxed heavily, was technically legal until prohibition when all alcohol was outlawed. It wasn’t until 1978 that the U.S. government legalized homebrewing of non-distilled alcohols like beer (though some states like Mississippi and Alabama only legalized the practice in 2013). One look on Amazon shows that adults over 21-years-old in the United States can easily purchase a wide range of DIY kits for homemade wine and beer. 

But as far as I’m able to tell from my research, home liquor distilleries are still illegal for two main reasons. Firstly, because of potential dangers associated with unregulated distilling. And secondly, some individuals also believe —  and this is slightly harder to prove for obvious reasons — that moonshine is illegal because liquor taxes are simply more valuable to the government than taxes on wine and beer. 

The taboo and mystery which surrounds moonshine stems partially from its riskiness; many people have heard horror stories about individuals going blind, having seizures or even dying from consuming toxic batches of moonshine. Irresponsible practices can contribute to a higher risk of toxic moonshine; many moonshiners still distill in old automobile radiators because of their size and water-tight design. Nevertheless, these radiators often contain lead soldering, and fail to pour out the methanol-rich beginnings of the batch. Many supporters of moonshine, however, claim that these instances of poisoned moonshine are few and far between, exaggerated to prevent individuals from trying their hand at distilling. These supporters point out that bootleggers live by their reputation alone; if your customers begin to drop dead after consuming your product, chances are that your business’s lifespan won’t be very long-lived either. Building up a trustworthy reputation, therefore, is enough to motivate moonshiners to create a quality whiskey. Of course, from a public health standpoint, this argument doesn’t exactly hold up to justify legalizing moonshine distilling at home. Nevertheless, many suspect that the government is equally motivated to keep moonshine outlawed by liquor’s profitability. Hard liquors are taxed “$2.14 for each 750-milliliter bottle of 80-proof spirits, compared with 21 cents for a bottle of wine (of 14 percent alcohol or less) and 5 cents for a can of beer.” Despite this mountainous tax, most Americans keep buying liquor — and as long as we keep buying, the government still has incentive to tax it and prevent us from making our own. 

It’s worth noting that the stereotypes associated with moonshine are not all entirely accurate; not all corn whiskey is illegal, or even American. In recent years, many craft distilleries all across the United States have begun producing corn whiskey for commercial sale, at times even under the label of “moonshine.” In my personal opinion, calling a legal alcohol “moonshine” is a bit like buying a movie on Amazon and calling it “torrented,” but I digress. 

Many regions outside of the American South also have long histories of moonshine production. The Balkans in particular are famous for their rakija, a type of moonshine commonly made with fermented plums. As a Slav, I can personally attest to the fact that, yes, even my elderly relatives still living in Croatia knock back a shot of rakija before most meals. 

Despite moonshine’s taboo and mystery, most aficionados view moonshine production as a craft requiring immense skill to produce a truly great product. As a non-aged beverage, producers cannot rely upon fine barrels to impart flavor onto a mediocre product — the whiskey must be able to carry itself without hiding behind other additives. Like many other foods, there’s much more that goes into quality moonshine than initially meets the eye. 

I can’t predict how the U.S. government will move forward in moonshine legalization, and I’ll let you decide for yourself if moonshine is still illegal for safety or taxation reasons. Yet, regardless of what happens in the beverage’s legal future, we can quite certainly assume that moonshine isn’t going anywhere. Whether we like it or not, moonshine is an indelible part of many Americans’ lives and will undoubtedly stay that way for generations to come.

Amelia Clute is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as the Assistant Dining Editor on the Sun’s editorial board. She can be reached at [email protected]