A Touch of Moonshine History

Moonshine. Branchwater. Fire water. White lightning. There are many names for homemade alcohol and just as many reasons why a person decides to distill their own spirits. For some, especially in the Appalachians, home distilling is a time honored tradition and family recipes for the perfect sippin’ whiskey are closely guarded. Some people see it as a business or a way of supplementing income during hard times. Still others simply like to know what they’re drinking; they want control of the ingredients that are used in their alcohol and that type of control can only happen when you’re making the product yourself. Along with all those factors, the upswing in the DIY movement, of getting back to the land and becoming more self-sufficient, has led to a resurrection of the time honored craft of home distilling.

The history of distilled spirits is as old as mankind. Virtually every civilization, every country, and every ethnic group, has always had it’s own special type of distilled brew. It would be safe to say that the hankering for alcohol is a human need, although not exclusively a human desire. Even in nature, animals will seek out fermented fruit to get a little buzz on. Inside a copper still, the alchemy of fermentation turns simple sugars, fruits, and grains into a drink that brings people together in pubs, over dinner tables, at the joy of weddings, and the sorrow of wakes.

Here in the melting pot of the USA cultures from all over the world brought their libations of choice, along with the secrets of how they’re made, to Ellis Island. Scotch, Irish whisky, rye, bourbon, rum — only in America was there such a readily available choice of spirits. Today there are roughly 200,000 moonshiners operating in the US. In spite of that it was, and still is, illegal to make moonshine, largely because commercially produced alcohol is a huge source of revenue for the federal government. Alcohol taxes account for about five percent of the country’s revenue. And yet, despite the risks associated with home distilling, which can include hefty fines, jail time, and property seizure, the craft continues to grow. Once an activity that only took place in remote locations under the watchful eye of the moon, people are now distilling in garages, basements, backyards, and spare bedrooms. From the boondocks to suburbia, people are getting their shine on and whether you’re a novice or an experienced distiller we have the products you need to get you going on your journey. Let’s take a walk in the moonlight.

A Moonshine Still

A moonshine still is an apparatus designed to create a homemade mash whiskey called “moonshine.” A moonshine still gets its name from the necessity to run distilling operations under cover of darkness, ideally when the moon is full. The cool night air also helps with the distillation process, as vapor is converted back into liquid form. There are many different design variations on the basic moonshine still, but essentially it is a large copper pot with a tight lid and a narrow conical vent at the top. This vent leads the vapors through a coiled length of copper tubing and ultimately into a container for storage. Because the production of alcohol without a license is illegal, a moonshine still would commonly be hidden deep within a mountainous region. Ideally, the moonshine still would be set up near a flowing creek, which would serve as a primitive cooler for the copper tubing.

The moonshiner would first mix together a slurry of corn meal, sugar, water and yeast in a large container, then transfer the mixture to the moonshine still itself. After a few days of fermentation, this “corn mash” would acquire a distinctive odor, which is another reason why a moonshine still is generally set up in isolated locations. Once the corn mash has had time to ferment, heat is added to the bottom of the moonshine still. This could be a gas burner or even firewood, but it must be controllable. The corn mash is carefully heated to the point of vaporization, around 173 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 78 degrees Celsius). The mash is never supposed to reach the boiling point at any time. The vapors from the mash are drawn into the narrow cone at the top of the moonshine still and eventually through the coiled copper tubing. The tubing could be contained in a second pot or placed under the flowing water of a nearby stream.

The distilled liquid which eventually drips from the end of the copper coiling is pure grain alcohol, or moonshine. It is usually stored in clay jugs or Mason canning jars after production, then sold illegally by bootleggers. A moonshiner may own the moonshine still and create the product, but he often leaves it up to others to sell it or store it. A quality moonshine still can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to make, so moonshiners often go to great lengths to hide their operations from government officials and other moonshiners. It is legal to own a moonshine still, but illegal to produce and sell alcohol without a proper license. Many home brewing enthusiasts use a high-tech version of a moonshine still to produce other distilled beverages for their own personal consumption. Before investing in a home distillery system, however, it pays to know the local laws concerning the production of alcoholic beverages.