Monday, December 14, 2009

Moonshine Today.

People are enamored of moonshine, mostly the idea of it, since few have had the real thing.

What is moonshine? Moonshine is any distilled spirit that is made illegally. It is not, contrary to popular belief, always corn whiskey. These days it is rarely whiskey of any kind, as the base ingredient is usually table sugar, which makes it rum.

We’re talking here about modern moonshine, produced by people who are doing it to make money. We’re not talking about history or hobbyists.

Recently in Eastern Kentucky, a person of my acquaintance obtained a gallon of moonshine. It was packaged in a one-gallon plastic jug of the type in which milk is commonly sold. It even had a sealed closure, just like the jug of milk you get at the grocery store. On top of the lid was the ‘Kentucky Proud’ logo.

This moonshiner has access to a bottling line, perhaps through a small dairy or orchard, as cider often comes in the same packaging. ‘Kentucky Proud’ is the official trademark of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, meant to promote Kentucky agricultural products. This moonshiner has a sense of humor.

The one-gallon plastic milk jug has become the standard package for commercial moonshine, which competes today not so much with whiskey as with the cheapest legal vodka/ethanol or rum on the market. It is consumed the same way, usually mixed with fruit juice or a soft drink. Some of it is sold to bars, who substitute it for vodka and rum without their patrons ever knowing.

Many people assume that moonshine is unusually strong. It’s usually not, because the producers use cheap, throw-away, often homemade equipment, so they’re not out much money if it gets confiscated and destroyed. The equipment is usually a simple pot still, perhaps with a rudimentary doubler, and they’re lucky if they can reach 50 percent alcohol with it. In many cases, moonshine is sold below 40 percent, which is the most common proof of legal spirits.

People think a strong taste indicates a high alcohol content, when in reality a high distillation proof removes flavor. That’s why the best vodkas taste like water. Moonshine tastes strong because it is low proof, so a lot of flavor from the raw materials is retained, as well as congeners produced during fermentation which are not removed by low proof distillation. It doesn’t so much taste strong as bad.

Is moonshine dangerous? It can be, if the maker is sloppy about making the heads and tails cuts, which can contain high levels of poisonous methanol. These are, however, commercial producers and poisoning your customers is bad for business, so most of them have mastered that technique.

In terms of raw material and production cost, moonshiners can’t produce spirits less expensively than legal distilleries can. They make money because they don’t pay taxes. Since taxes account for about 60 percent of the cost of a bottle of legal distilled spirits, that gives them a lot of room to maneuver and keeps the ancient art of moonshining alive and well.


Kickert said...

Chuck, I have been thinking about the idea of bad heads/tails cuts potentially making a whiskey dangerous. Help me out on this one. Distilling does not introduce any new compounds into a mixture, it just concentrates them. Theoretically a beer would have the same amount of acetone/methanol as a whiskey made from that beer. The reason the methanol is not dangerous is because it is consumed with the "antidote": ethanol (

If you made no heads cut, you would be injecting more poison, but no more than the original beer. It seems the only dangerous moonshine would be one where the distiller would be trying to offer extremely high proof and thus only sold someone the heads.

Am I off base with this?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Your analysis is correct but since the typical moonshiner bottles right off the still, those first bottles can be deadly. By the way, some distillers discard the heads while others redistill them.

sku said...

Fascinating. What about the issue of use of lead parts in the still. I know that was a big issue for prohibition moonshine. Is that no longer the case?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The problem is people using lead solder, which is still a potential problem.

Kickert said...

If you bottle right off the still then that makes sense, but as someone who consistently tastes whiskey runs (near) beginning to end, I could not imagine customers being happy with that kind of inconsistency. The taste and the proof change dramatically.

The issue of lead is interesting. The 90 year old pot still we have at Corsair originally had lead solders, and when it was refurbed by Vendome they replaced those.

I have talked to many moonshiners who have come through our distillery. I firmly believe if they would take a more conservative hearts cut and then redistill their heads and tails with the next run they could produce a much better and must more consistent product without too much extra headache or cost. Of course I don't in any way support their activity.

Hondo said...


Fascinating article! Thank you for sharing with us. I find moonshine to be an interesting topic but don't see a lot of factual information about it. This helped me a bunch!



Sam Komlenic said...

My moonshiner uses a hybrid fermentation in which rye grain is a flavoring agent for the sugar-based fermentation. Great stuff, and I absolutely support that activity in every way!