Moonshine: Its Nature, Illegality, Dangers, and Prevention

Want to know about moonshine? You’ve come to the right place.


I.   What is Moonshine?

II.  Moonshine is Illegal

III. Moonshine is Dangerous

IV.  Government Poisoning!

V.   The Solution

VI. A Look Back

VII. Resources

I. What is Moonshine?

Moonshine is slang for distilled spirits (liquor) made without governmental approval. That means it wasn’t taxed. The term may have been because much of the distilling was done at night. Or it may have come from “moonraker.” That was an early English word for a smuggler.

Other common terms for illegal spirits are mountain dew, white lightning, white whiskey, and white liquor. “White” refers to the clear nature of moonshine. All distilled spirits are originally clear. They acquire their color from aging in wooden barrels. But moonshine is sold quickly without aging to reduce the chance of detection. So it’s always clear.

Moonshine is commonly made from fermented corn. In history it was hard for corn farmers in the mountains  to get corn to market. They had to use mules in the absence of roads. But the crop could be easier to move if converted into moonshine.

II. Moonshine is Illegal

It’s perfectly legal in the U.S. to brew beer or make wine in limited quantities at home. Millions of people do. But it’s illegal to make spirits at home.

moonshineThe reason is money. Taxes on beer and wine are low compared to the very high taxes on spirits. Over half the retail price of a bottle of spirits consists of taxes. Indeed, The federal government gets about 14 times more in taxes on spirits than producers earn making them. That doesn’t include what states and localities add in taxes on the same products.

Because of heavy taxation, moonshiners produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of the illegal product annually in the US.

III. Moonshine is Dangerous

      It’s Dangerous to Drink

moonshineMoonshiners typically use old vehicle radiators in making alcohol. They have lead in them. Moonshiners often also use lead-based solder to make connections. But lead leaches out of the radiators and connections.

The human body does not need any lead. To the contrary, lead serves no function in the body. And too much lead causes lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can cause memory loss, brain swelling, paralysis, and even death. In fact, drinking moonshine causes about 80% of all adult lead poisoning deaths.

In one study, researchers examined moonshine made at 48 different stills. They found that 43 of the 48 samples had lead in them. Over half the samples contained dangerously high lead levels.1

Another study examined 115 suspected moonshine samples seized by local law enforcement. The samples were from nine states. Thirty-three of the samples had dangerously high levels of lead.2

     It’s Dangerous to Moonshiners

Yet there are also dangers to moonshiners. Other than drinking their own moonshine. They can suffer fines, loss of property, and jail. Fire is a major risk to moonshiners. They produce a liquid as flammable as gasoline. Yet they do it around high heat or even flames. They can be injured or killed if their still blows up. It’s dangerous work making this dangerous product.

Officials argue that moonshining is a serious health hazard because of lead poisoning. But the legalization and availability of safe home stills could solve that problem. Driving moonshining underground is the cause of the problem. The real issue isn’t the health risk of contaminated alcohol.

IV. Government Poisoning!

Indeed, the federal government poisoned legal industrial alcohol. It was during National Prohibition. That was to prevent it from being illegally drunk. Here’s the story.

It was legal to distill alcohol for industrial purposes. Alcohol is a part of many products. They included fuels, paints, solvents, and meds. Many industrial processes use it. Therefore, the federal government required distillers to add foul things to make it undrinkable. Some of the substances were toxic. The result was “denatured alcohol.”

This didn’t stop bootleggers. They stole tens of millions of denatured alcohol each year. Then they re-distilled it to remove the toxic and other additives. This was sold for drinking.

The government reacted. It ordered distillers to double the poisons. This created widespread outrage. One senator called it “legalized murder.” But the government would not stop.

Yet the poisoning continued until Repeal. Over 10,000 people died from the government’s poisoning. Of course, many more suffered blindness, brain damage, paralysis, and other serious problems. Learn more at Government Poisoned Alcohol.

So the government’s concern would appear to be taxes rather than protecting people. Indeed, the health dangers encourages most people to choose paying high taxes rather than moonshine. So the dangers actually contribute to high tax revenue!

V. The Solution

The solution to the problems caused by moonshine is simple. Lower the taxes on legal spirits. That would reduce the incentive to buy the dangerous moonshine. Or legallize home distillation of spirits for personal use.

When Canada reduced its very high tax on cigarettes, the total revenue increased. That’s because it reduced smuggling from the US. Countries within the E.U. have had similar results from reducing taxes on alcohol.

VI. A Look Back

Moonshine running was the origin of NASCAR racing. Here’s what happened.

National Prohibition began in 1920. Then the demand for moonshine increased greatly. That was especially so in towns and cities. To get their product to these booming markets, moonshiners needed “runners” to deliver it.

Law enforcers had a hard time finding the stills. They were hidden deep in the mountains. So the “revenuers” focused on catching the runners. In turn, the runners then increased the speed of their autos to avoid capture.

They added extra carburetors to have more speed. Larger intake manifolds gave the engine more oxygen. They might add superchargers or turbochargers. For more horsepower, they might over bore the cylinders.

Even after Repeal, the demand for moonshine was high. Therefore, running continued. A number of runners became famous NASCAR drivers. Their driving skills helped make NASCAR one of the largest spectator sports in the world.

VII. Resources: Moonshine

Videos and Books
    • Carter, T., et al. Ozarks Spirits. Moonshiners and Revenuers. (Video)
    • Moonshiners. Seasons 1 & 2. (Video)
    • Nelson, D. Moonshiners, Bootleggers & Rumrunners.
    • Pierce, D. Corn from a Jar. Moonshining.
    • Powell, G. Moonshiners, Fast Cars and Revenuers.
    • Stewart. B. Moonshiners and Prohibitionists.
    • _______. King of the Moonshiners.
    • Sutton, P., et al. Popcorn Sutton. A Hell of a Life. (Video)
    • White, B. NASCAR Racers.
    1. Tsai, M. Why is moonshine against the law?
    2. Morgan, B., et al. Lead contaminated moonshine. Vet Hum Toxicol, 46(2), 89-90.