Moonshine goes by a great many names based on historical time periods and regions. Other names for Moonstone include shine, rotgut, white lightning, firewater, skull pop, and mountain dew. In the American South, having your first sip of moonshine is considered something of a rite of passage.
Moonshine as a rebellious spirit has played an important role in American history. To be clear, there’s nothing new about the production of homemade liquor. As is so often the case in American history, a part of moonshine’s history involves taxes. Americans battled the British over taxes and would later go on to quarrel with their own government. The American government was among the first to tax and attempt to federally control the alcohol industry. This historical moment was the beginning of moonshining.
The United States began taxing liquors and spirits not long after the American Revolution. In the years that followed, the country was struggling to pay bills that had piled up as a result of the war. Taxing liquor, an early form of vice taxes, was believed to be an effective way to generate revenue for the government.
The term “moonshine” is derived from the notion that these illegal spirits were distilled under the light of the moon. Across America, early moonshiners worked their stills at night to avoid detection from authorities.
The History of Moonshine in America
Beginning in the early frontier days, moonshining was not considered a hobby. Instead, it was a part-time job that farmers relied on to subsidize their income during poor crop seasons. Crops like corn that yielded a low price would be turned into a much more expensive product in the form of whiskey.
Americans have had a long and fraught history with paying taxes. Americans were so against having to pay taxes that back in the early days of American history, citizens would attack government agents who came around in-person to collect taxes. Some were even tarred and feathered which is something you don’t hear about often in modern times. Some were They hated taxes so much that revenuers, the government agents who came to collect taxes, were often attacked, tarred, and feathered when they came to visit.
The tension between the government and American citizens eventually came to a head and resulted in a conflict known as the Whisky Rebellion.
The Whisky Rebellion began in 1791 during George Washington’s presidency. This rebellion came in the form of a violent resistance movement. Less than 15 people were killed throughout the entire conflict, however, in order to suppress the rebellion, Washington led a militia of 13,000 into Western Pennsylvania to quell the insurrection. At the time, it should be noted, Western Pennsylvania was considered the frontier.
An important takeaway was learning that the government did have the power to suppress violent uprisings. At the end of the day, those who rebelled won the fight as in 1801 Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax with widespread public support.
Taxes returned during the Civil War when funds were needed. Moonshiners were targeted and this led to many violent conflicts around the country. A shift in the view of moonshiners came after the Civil War. During the Whiskey Rebellion, the portrait of moonshiners was positive and they were oftentimes seen as heroic. When the Civil War ended, the public had a view of moonshiners as violent criminals.
In 1920, after the Volstead Act went into effect following the ratification of the 18th amendment, prohibition went into effect. These were more glory days for moonshiners and moonshiners as underground drinking culture became a way to avoid the alcohol ban. Illegal liquor like moonshine became an extremely lucrative business for those who were willing to take the risk.
Organized crime took over the moonshine business in part due to high demand and not enough supply. Those who were making moonshine started to water down their product using sugar instead of corn to keep up with the demand. Some of the trends in production carried over into variations on moonshine production that would be passed on to future generations of moonshiners.
Speakeasies were well-known to exist during the time of prohibition and could be found in every city across America. The need for underground liquor production ended in 1933 when prohibition was repealed.
What is Moonshine?
There are many misconceptions about moonshine from its roots to its quality to its history. Today, you can buy a version of moonshine at stores in certain states. What you’re buying is not moonshine distilled in the woods under the cover of darkness.
You may remember scenes from cowboy films and cartoons with a jug that has three Xs on it. That triple X was an indicator that the moonshine contained in that jug had been triple-distilled. Repeated distillation is a way to remove the impurities from alcohol and ensure its safety.
You may have heard that drinking moonshine can cause you to go blind. A bad batch of moonshine using poor distilling techniques can result in negative consequences. If the end product contains too much methanol this can acidify in a person’s bloodstream, causing blindness, seizures, and even death. Drinking moonshine with impurities on a regular basis may not result in instant negative consequences, however, over time this can significantly increase the risk of renal disease primarily because of increased lead content.
Liquors made with a seal of government approach and following standardized guidelines have requirements. Whiskey, for example, must be made from grain, distilled to a specific alcohol by volume, and aged in oak. Vodka can be made from any fermentable product including fruit, sugar, grain, or even milk.
Moonshine does not have the restrictions of an enforced upper limit on how much alcohol by volume (ABV) it can contain. This can be dangerous for many reasons. If a standard shot of whisky or vodka contains 40% ABV that is approximately equivalent to a glass of wine or pint of moderate strength beer. Moonshine is extremely strong. It is not uncommon to find moonshine that is as high as 150 proof, meaning the ABV is around 75%. This is nearly twice the strength of typical hard liquors. Moonshine could contain very high ABV and drinking a small amount in a short period of time could lead to extreme intoxication, alcohol poisoning, or a sudden loss of consciousness.
Moonshine in Modern Times
In 2005, Piedmont Distillers, located in Madison, North Carolina, became the first legal moonshine operation in the United States since the Prohibition Era.
Piedmont’s business model involves using recipes passed down from legendary moonshiner and NASCAR hall of famer Junior Johnson, Their Midnight Moon moonshine is tripled distilled, and special batches are infused with fruits such as watermelon, strawberry, raspberry, and peach.
Producing moonshine in your home or without permits for a moonshine operation remains illegal. In 2010, law enforcement cracked down on an organization that was believed to have brewed over 1.5 million gallons of illicit alcohol.
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