What Is Moonshine?
Most everybody has heard about moonshine at some point in their life. For those who’ve never had it, it may bring to mind rednecks and hillbillies drinking some horrific sludge out of a jug marked with a skull and crossbones while playing a banjo around an open fire pit. There are certainly enough cartoon images that follow that theme, but what is moonshine really?
The simple answer is that moonshine is homemade alcohol, usually whiskey or rum. Commonly made in secret to avoid taxation, moonshine has developed an illicit reputation, though not one that is entirely undeserved. The name originally came from Britain and the term “moonshiner” actually referred to any job that was done in the middle of the night. Since homemade whiskey stills were illegal, they had to be operated out of sight from authorities, and so usually this was done at night. Over time, the term “moonshiner” became exclusive to these illegal brewers.
Most moonshine is made from very simple ingredients; water, yeast, sugar, and corn meal, although other ingredients can be used and many brewers often add things for flavor. Almost any kind of grain can be distilled to make alcohol, but most moonshine made in the United States in the past 150 years used corn. Unlike store-bought alcohols, moonshine tends to be clear, since it is bottled right out of the still and sold as-is, whereas whiskey you’d buy from the store has been aged, which gives the alcohol a golden or amber coloring as well as mellows it out. Moonshine, however, is not aged and therefore does not mellow.
Moonshine Can Be Dangerous
It’s a commonly heard old wives’ tale that drinking moonshine can cause you to go blind. Is there any truth to this story? Well, yes and no. There are those who will tell you that it’s true, even though they’ve never had moonshine. There are others who will tell you it’s a lie made up by puritans to keep people from drinking alcohol. As is often the case with urban legends and old wives’ tales, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
As previously stated, moonshine is just any kind of homemade alcohol. Alcohol, in itself, does not cause blindness. The culprit in damaging the optic nerves is, in fact, methanol, which is a byproduct of the distilling process. During regular distillation, methanol only forms in small, non-toxic amounts, nowhere enough to cause harm, but certainly add unpleasant flavors to the moonshine. Methanol, along with other undesirables such as acetone and aldehydes, are low-boiling-point compounds and so they come out of the still first. Most decent distillers who know what they’re doing will discard the first few ounces.
Unfortunately, not all distillers are honest. Methanol is also known as wood alcohol, is very cheap to acquire, and affects the body in the same way as ethanol, which is in the alcohol we buy from stores. However, even in low doses, methanol can cause really nasty hangovers. Distillers will sometimes add methanol to their moonshine to give it more of a kick and get the imbiber drunk quickly. Once the body metabolizes everything, though, things can turn very bad, very quickly. Methanol is extremely toxic and even a small amount, 10 milliliters, can cause severe damage to the optic nerves and cause blindness. A few ounces, however, is all it takes for methanol to become lethal. Methanol poisoning is a very real danger when consuming moonshine and has caused thousands of deaths.
To make matters worse, methanol isn’t even the only danger in drinking moonshine. Since moonshine is made at home, by non-professionals, it is done without licensed, approved, or sanitary equipment. Very often, distillers will use the radiator from a truck, which gives rise to a whole new problem. Alcohol is a solvent, which means it will leech all sorts of chemicals and grime from a radiator, such as lead salts which can cause lead poisoning. Glycol products, which are found in antifreeze, have been known to turn up in batches of moonshine as well.
How Can You Tell if Moonshine is Safe?
The short answer is that you really can’t. You can pour a little into a spoon and light it on fire, and if the flame is any color other than blue, it’s toxic, but this is still a potentially dangerous gamble. While the distillation process is generally safe enough, there are numerous external factors that can make moonshine hazardous to one’s health.
Methanol is used in sewage treatment facilities, so it’s no surprise this stuff can cause blindness and even death. While methanol is the first chemical that comes out of the still, a few degrees after methanol starts evaporating, acetone follows suit. Acetone is the active ingredient in nail polish remover, which is certainly not safe to drink. After acetone comes butanol and propanol, something you definitely don’t want to be putting inside you.
The bottom line is that distilling alcohol is a science and even in the information age where we have all the information we could possibly want at our fingertips, it’s best to leave certain things to professionals. Store-bought liquors come from a licensed distillery that has passed inspections and uses proper equipment. It’s worth it to leave it to a professional and buy from the store.