Moonshine: Its Nature, Illegality, Dangers, and Prevention

I. What is Moonshine?

Moonshine is slang for distilled spirits made without governmental authorization. The term may have originated because much of the distilling, packaging and distribution was done at night. Or it may have come from “moonraker.” That was an early English word for a smuggler.


I.   What is Moonshine?

II.  Moonshine is Illegal

III. Moonshine is Dangerous

IV.  Government Poisoning!

V.   The Solution

VI. A Look Back

VII. Resources

Other common terms for illegally-made 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. Historically, it was difficult for corn farmers in mountainous areas of the U.S. to transport corn to market. They had to use mules in the absence of roads. But the crop could be much more easily transported 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. However, it’s illegal to make distilled spirits at home.

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

moonshineMoonshiners typically use old vehicle radiators in distilling their alcohol. They 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 illegal spirits 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 levels ranging from five to 599 parts per billion (ppb). 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 product. 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. In addition, they can be injured or killed if they’re still blows up. It’s dangerous work making this dangerous product.

Government officials argue that moonshining is a serious health hazard because of lead poisoning. But the legalization and availability of safe home stills could easily 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 legally-produced industrial alcohol 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 was an ingredient in many products. They included fuels, paints, solvents, and medications. In addition, many industrial processes used it. Therefore, the federal government required distillers to add foul substances substances 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 by ordering distillers to double the poisons added to the alcohol. This created widespread outrage. One senator called it “legalized murder.” But the government would not stop.

Incredibly, this poisoning continued until Repeal (the end of Prohibition). By that time, over 10,000 Americans died from the government’s poisoning program. Of course, many more Americans suffered blindness, brain damage, paralysis, and other serious medical conditions. Discover more at Government Poisoned Alcohol.

So the government’s concern would appear to be taxes rather than protecting consumers.  Indeed, the serious health dangers encourages many consumers to choose paying high taxes rather than risk the dangers of moonshine. So the dangers actually contribute to high tax revenue. This is exactly what the government always wants.

V. The Solution

The solution to the problems caused by moonshine is simple. Lower the taxes on legally produced distilled spirits. That would reduce the incentive to buy the dangerous alternative beverage. Or legallize home distillation of spirits for personal consumption.

When Canada reduced its very high tax on cigarettes, the total revenue increased. That’s because it reduced smuggling from the U.S. 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.

When National Prohibition began in 1920, the demand for spirits increased dramatically, especially in towns and cities. To get their product to these booming markets, moonshiners needed “runners” to deliver it.

Law enforcers had great difficulty locating the stills 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 so the car could burn more fuel and have more speed. Larger intake manifolds gave the engine more oxygen. They might add superchargers or turbochargers. To increase displacement for more horsepower, they might over boring the cylinders.

Even after Repeal, the demand for moonshine remained high so 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

Videos and Books


    1. Tsai, M. Why is moonshine against the law? Slate website, Oct. 18, 2007.
    2. Morgan, B., et al. Lead contaminated moonshine. Vet Hum Toxicol, 2004, 46(2), 89-90.