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Moonshine

Moonshine (also called white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, and many other names) is an illegally produced distilled beverage.

The Moonshine Man of Kentucky, illustration from Harper's Weekly, 1877, showing five scenes from the life of a Kentucky moonshinerThe word is believed to derive from early English smugglers and illegal Appalachian distillers who clandestinely (i.e., by the light of the moon) produced and distributed whiskey.

Production

Moonshine is any distilled spirit made in an unlicensed still. As with all distilled spirits, yeast ferments a sugar source to produce ethanol, then the alcohol is extracted through distillation using a still.

Because of its illegal nature, moonshine rarely is aged in barrels like proper whiskey, and it sometimes contains impurities and off flavors. On rare occasions, it may contain dangerous levels of toxic alcohols such as methanol.

The off flavors may come from improper mashing, fermentation and/or distillation, and unsuitable storage containers. In popular culture, moonshine is usually presented as being extremely strong and in North America is commonly associated with the Southern United States, Appalachia and Atlantic Canada.

Moonshining is usually done using small-scale stills. Typically, the still is built by the moonshine producer, thus avoiding the legal ramifications of obtaining a still commercially. The pot still is made of copper or stainless steel, and a water filled barrel with a copper tubing coil for a condenser, is the traditional type of still, being popular with early moonshine producers due to its simplicity and ease of construction.

More efficient reflux stills are available to the modern moonshiner, either self-built, assembled from a kit, or purchased fully assembled. Lately, do-it-yourself still designs have become widely available on the Internet. "Moonshine" and "Still Making Moonshine" are two documentaries that depict the life of a modern Appalachian moonshiner: the making of a three-stage still from sheets of copper, putting up corn mash, and running whiskey.

Prevalence

Varieties of moonshine are produced throughout the world.

Uses

Usually, illicit distillation is associated with the making of ethanol for drinking, however it is also practiced for creating biofuel.

Safety

Poorly produced moonshine can be contaminated with toxins, mainly from materials used in construction of the still. Stills employing used automotive radiators as a condenser are particularly dangerous; in some cases, glycol products from antifreeze used in the radiator can appear as well. Radiators used as condensers also may contain lead at the connections to the plumbing. Both glycol and lead are poisonous and potentially deadly.
Although methanol is not produced in toxic amounts by fermentation of sugars from grain starches, contamination is still possible by unscrupulous distillers using cheap methanol to increase the apparent strength of the product.

Moonshine can be made both more palatable and less damaging by discarding the "foreshot"--the first few ounces of alcohol that drip from the distiller. The foreshot contains most of the methanol, if any, from the mash. Methanol may be present because it vaporizes at a lower temperature than ethanol. The foreshot also typically contains small amounts of other undesirable compounds such as acetone and various aldehydes.

Any alcohol that is at least 80 US proof (i.e. 40% alcohol by volume) is flammable. This is especially true during the distilling process in which vaporized alcohol can accumulate in the air if there is not enough ventilation.

Mixtures

Moonshine has sometimes been mixed with an adulterant (e.g., methanol, lye, or beading oil) with the intent of increasing its apparent alcohol content. Moonshine that has been adulterated in this way will form bubbles on its surface. Large bubbles with a short duration would indicate a higher alcohol content.

This practice has sometimes resulted in a toxic mixture that can cause blindness or death. Although poisoning incidents are rare, particularly in developed nations, they are a cause for concern about the safety of moonshine.

Moonshine may be flavored with fruit or bark. The mash may be cooked with birch bark to achieve a mint-like flavor. Fruit flavoring may be added to the product before bottling.

Tests

A common folk test for the quality of moonshine was to pour a small quantity of it into a spoon and set it alight. The theory was that a safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate burns with a yellow flame. Practitioners of this simple test also held that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser, then there would be lead in the distillate, which would give a reddish flame.

This led to the phrase, "Lead burns red and makes you dead." Although the flame test will show the presence of lead and fusel oils, it will not reveal the presence of methanol, which burns with an invisible flame.

Another test used for moonshine is for "proof". A small amount of gun powder is poured into a dish with the moonshine. It is ignited, and if the mixture starts to flame it is "proofed". In other words, if it burns, then it contains plenty of alcohol. But if it does not burn, then the moonshine has been diluted. (Note that this only proves that the alcohol content is at least 57% ABV.)

The Moonshine Man of Kentucky, illustration from Harper's Weekly, 1877, showing five scenes from the life of a Kentucky moonshiner


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