I recently attended a wedding where the groomsmen were passing around a bottle of what smelled like the strongest liquor known to man. I’m no stranger to smuggling a flask into an event, but one whiff of this bottle had me doing a hard pass to the next person. “What is that?” I asked. One groomsman pocketed the bottle and smiled. “It’s moonshine,” he said.
My immediate thought was that moonshine is illegal. Isn’t it? Yet everyone at the table confirmed they had already sipped moonshine at least once in their life. So, did the Dukes of Hazzard lie to me? Has moonshine really been completely legal this whole time? Also, what the hell is moonshine?
The Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster Dictionary both define moonshine quite simply as a kind of alcohol made illegally. But there’s a little more to the process of moonshine distillation than its legal status.
Advanced Mixology explains that moonshine is made by a similar process to vodka. It can be made from any grain or fruit via fermentation. For example, whiskey moonshine is made from a mixture of water, yeast, and bacteria like that found in yogurt. From there, Drizly goes into further detail on the process:
“The ingredients ferment in the still, creating alcohol. The fermented mixture then gets distilled by heat, condensing in another vessel as a formidable alcoholic spirit. That’s the shorthand process.”
Most American moonshine is technically whiskey because it is made from corn, one of the most readily available grains in the United States. However, the main difference between moonshine and standard whiskey is the aging process. Where moonshine goes straight from the still into a serving vessel (typically a mason jar), most whiskeys are barrel-aged for some length of time before being sold, lending them a smoother, more palate-friendly taste.
Moonshine—also known as hooch, corn whiskey, bathtub gin, and some other creative nicknames—might be associated with more rural areas of the country, its roots aren’t squarely within any particular region. In fact, as Mental Floss points out, the term has generally been used to describe any illicit homemade alcohol since as early as the 18th century. The name “moonshine” refers to the fact that the illegal liquor would often have to be made and/or smuggled by cover of night to avoid detection.
The illegality of moonshine in the US goes as far back as the nation’s first president. During George Washington’s administration, the country was in major debt, and to offset that debt a “whiskey tax” was put in place on all spirits. However, farmers distilling moonshine from the comfort of their own homes were obviously not paying that tax. Over a century later, the Prohibition era only further popularized the moonshine business.
Technically, yes, moonshine is still illegal to produce. But, that hasn’t stopped businesses like Tennessee distillery Ole Smoky from capitalizing on the intrigue that surrounds illegal booze.
According to federal law, you are allowed to brew beer and even make your own wine at home for your personal consumption. However, you are absolutely not allowed to distill spirits at home, and doing so could lead to a $10,000 fine or up to five years in jail for each offense.
So why can distilleries stock their shelves with hooch and I can’t fill my pantry with my own? Because only facilities approved to distill alcohol are allowed to produce it, and getting that government approval requires jumping through all kinds of hoops, including permits and registration for every still. The kicker is that, by definition, only illegally produced homemade alcohol is actually considered genuine moonshine. No matter how popular the product is with consumers, the second it’s made by legal means, it’s no longer its truest self.
Although we at The Takeout would never, ever encourage illegal activity, if you happen to be in the market for your own still, you can find a deal for a five-gallon option on Amazon, a 9.6-gallon model on Wayfair, and a 13.6-gallon model at Home Depot. I just want you to shine, whether it be by day or by moon.