Understanding Moonshine

On June 19, 2019

In many parts of the world, Moonshine is less of a drink, and more of a rite of passage – something to separate the men from the boys, so to speak, and to provide an opportunity for the flexing of muscle and bragging rights. This is certainly the case in some of the Southern states, in Ireland, and in many central and eastern European countries… and it’s not something likely to change any time soon.

Whether it’s the rebellious history and less-than-glamorous reputation of this most potent of drinks, or the connection it has with outlaw home-brewers and distillers keeping the speakeasy spirit alive, moonshine has undoubtedly carved a unique niche in the world’s drinking cultures. But what is moonshine, and how did it come to be? As International Moonshine Day rolls around (yes, there really is a thing), let’s take a closer look at the murky and heady world of this most notorious category of booze.

What Exactly Is Moonshine?

Most drinks dictionaries define moonshine as a ‘strong alcoholic drink, often produced and distributed illegally’. So far, so vague. This definition becomes doubly confusing when we find bottles labeled as moonshine on many of the shelves of our favourite drinks shops and supermarkets.

This problem and confusion arises because moonshine is governed by none of the federal or legal requirements for labeling as you’d find on other drinks bottles. Whiskey, for example, can only be labeled as such if it has been made from grain, distilled to a particular alcohol content, and aged in oak (among other requirements). The rules for labelling wine bottles are even more complex… but moonshine has no real equivalent. In fact, moonshine can be made from pretty much anything: potato peelings, fruits, grains, even milk – and there’s no upper limit on its alcohol levels. As such, in the US and elsewhere in the world, you can really make moonshine any way you want, and it’s not very difficult to get the go-ahead to bottle it, label it, and get it stocked at a store.

The confusing aspects of moonshine don’t end there, either. While in the US, it’s generally associated with homemade hooch hailing from the South, moonshine’s roots aren’t American at all. In fact, the term ‘moonshine’ first started popping up in the 15th century, and it was regularly used in the UK as a term referring to hard liquor throughout the 18th century, during the first great distilling booms which kick-started the Scotch and Gin industries.

A Brief and Bizarre History of Moonshine

Of course, what the UK and Europe started, the US really perfected. The American roots of moonshine production are shared with the foundation of the American Whiskey industry. Frontier towns in Pennsylvania (and other grain-producing parts of the country) were feverishly distilling alcoholic drinks for workers and newcomers to the US, and the grain mills providing food for the new nation would frequently distill vast quantities of excess produce, in order to reduce wastage. Distilled drinks were rough, strong, and in huge demand – and would even be used as currency.

The free and easy days of the frontier, however, weren’t to last forever. 1791 saw the federal government introduce a hefty tax on US-made liquor (known at the time as ‘whiskey tax’). For the following few years, distillers used every trick in the book to avoid paying taxes, and tensions bubbled up until US soldiers were sent into Pennsylvania to gather unpaid tax money. In a bizarre twist, more than 500 people launched a counter-attack on the tax inspectors, leading to the murder of several officals, and knock-on protests and disruption across the state. Eventually, the tax was repealed in 1801, and the Whiskey Rebellion which brought it about went down in folklore and drinking history forever. Furthermore, the underground world of the moonshine producer was well and truly established, with home distilleries – suspicious of the law and working to their own rules and family recipes – popping up all over the country.

A Questionable Reputation

It’s fair to say there exists a whole load of rumours, legends, and hearsay about moonshine. It’s also fair to say that many such rumours are demonstrably true. We’ve all heard the stories of the bad batches of moonshine, and the madness, blindness, and fatalities that follow… and even though many dedicated moonshiners will claim that these stories were spread in an organised effort to discredit their scene, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we probably shouldn’t be drinking hard spirits sold informally in recycled 7Up bottles.
That’s not to say that all moonshine is bad, however. In fact, in central European countries (namely Hungary and Romania), moonshine is generally slightly more highly respected by the populous, and there are even official festivals celebrating the homemade fruit and grain distillates, with many claiming the finer examples to be on a par with fine wine or top-grade vodkas and whiskies.

Moonshiners and Bootleggers

Bootleggers and moonshiners are often confused, and it isn’t very difficult to see why. Both live and work on the fringes of the alcohol industry… but moonshiners are the producers of the liquor, and bootleggers are just those who smuggle it and distribute the stuff. Interesting fact – the term ‘bootlegger’ comes from a method of smuggling bottles and flasks in the tops of riding boots. Obviously, the introduction of motor cars and other vehicles meant the smugglers could move larger quantities from place to place without the need to hide booze in their shoes, but the name stuck, regardless.

So, there you have it – some interesting facts that reveal the truth behind one of the world’s most mysterious and rebellious categories of drinks. Whether you have a taste for this firewater, or wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, there’s no getting away from the fact that moonshine really is the stuff of legend.