Moonshine puts the ‘rot’ in ‘rotgut’

It goes by many names: hooch, white lightning, mountain dew, panther’s breath, bathtub gin, rotgut, corn liquor, popskull, etc. Most of us, however, know it best as “moonshine” and because of Hollywood, conjure up images of rednecks and hillbillies in the back woods of Tennessee or Kentucky making the stuff in primitive stills. Regardless of the term used to describe it, several facts about it are certain: it’s illegal, made in secret, and probably unsafe to drink.

Moonshine got its name because it was produced at night so as not to get discovered by the government and police, and to avoid regulations and paying taxes. The name is derived from the term “moonrakers,” referring to smugglers, or in this case, producers, who operate under the light of the moon. Those who actually distribute the swill are known as “bootleggers.”

Moonshine is made in almost every country in the world. However, it is perhaps best known for its prevalence in the Appalachian region and the Ozarks of the US where it possesses a long history, especially during prohibition when the production and sale of alcohol in any form was strictly illegal. It was once manufactured as a main source of income for many families.

So what’s so different about moonshine compared with other spirits, other than the fact that it’s illegal and unregulated, or not made under sanitary conditions? It’s the aging. Quite simply, there isn’t any. Most spirits, like whiskey, are aged in barrels, providing colour and mellowness. This inventive distillate sees no aging whatsoever. It comes off the still looking clear like water – thus the name “white lightning” – and sold immediately. Because there is no aging to help mellow it out, or an exact way of controlling the alcohol (often as high as 75 per cent by volume), it is very strong and usually burns going down. Thus the name “rotgut!” Some folks describe it as “tearing out your tonsils from the inside.” Delightful! No commercial packaging of the product either! It is often sold in quart- or pint-sized canning jars. I’ve even heard of it being distributed in everything from plastic pop and water bottles to old wine and spirit bottles to milk cartons and ceramic jugs.

As for the recipe for moonshine, it’s no big secret. Four simple ingredients do the job: sugar, yeast, water and, as most is made with corn, corn meal. Occasionally other ingredients are included in the mix to provide additional flavours or to give the concoction “kick.” I’ve heard that such things as bleach, paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, embalming fluid and even manure have been added in the past. Yuck!

Most of the time, production is crude and improperly carried out, to say the least, and equipment poor or, often, homemade. As a result, contaminants and toxins like lead and methanol are often released into the finished product. Because of unsanitary conditions, it is not uncommon for small animals, rodents, insects, leaves, twigs and other things to fall into the fermenting vessel. All of this leads one to believe the stories of people going blind from drinking the stuff.

Although moonshine is an interesting product, possesses a sordid history, is part of our culture, and is made to look like a lot of fun in movies, it is best avoided. With no quality control or regulations, you really don’t know what you’d be drinking and could easily jeopardize your health.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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