Substance Use

What is Moonshine? Origins, Safety, & Legality

moonshine liquor in shot glasses and bottle

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Moonshine, a strong and traditionally homemade liquor, has a storied history rooted in its production during the prohibition era in the sugarlands, where its name originated from being made clandestinely at night to escape authorities’ notice. (1)

While some craft distilleries offer legal and novelty versions of moonshine, a significant portion of it is still produced illicitly, posing potential risks. Illicit moonshine is associated with safety concerns due to unregulated production methods, which may result in harmful byproducts like methanol. The legality of moonshine varies, with illicit production being against the law, while legal options adhere to safety standards.

It’s very important to distinguish between regulated and unregulated sources to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience with moonshine.

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What is Moonshine?

Moonshine has its roots in American history as a homemade alcoholic drink from the Appalachian region. It became popular during Prohibition when making and selling alcohol was illegal. (2)

During the whiskey rebellion, bootleggers crafted small batches of ole smoky moonshine, often using grains like corn, in secret to avoid getting caught. Sometimes, corn liquor or corn whiskey would be used. (3)

The term “moonshine” comes from the idea of making it by the midnight moon to stay hidden. This homemade spirit symbolized resourcefulness, rebellion, and a connection to tradition. Even though it was once illegal, today, moonshine has made a comeback as a craft spirit in places like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kentucky, holding onto its historical charm with a modern twist. (4)

Moonshine comes in a wide array of flavors, showcasing the creativity and innovation of craft distillers. Some popular flavors include:

  1. Fruit Infusions: Moonshine often embraces the natural sweetness of fruits like pineapple, apple, watermelon, cherry, or blackberry, creating a fruity and vibrant twist. The most popular fruit flavor is peach moonshine.
  2. Spiced Varieties: Distillers may add spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, or cloves to impart warmth and complexity to the moonshine.
  3. Herbal Infusions: Some moonshine recipes incorporate herbs like mint, basil, or lavender, adding an herbal and aromatic dimension to the spirit.
  4. Coffee or Chocolate Infused: For those who enjoy a richer profile, moonshine can be infused with coffee or chocolate, offering a delightful blend of flavors.
  5. Honey or Maple Syrup: Sweeteners like honey or maple syrup can be added, bringing a touch of sweetness and depth to the moonshine. One of the best flavors of mine shine tends to be apple pie moonshine.
  6. Caramel or Butterscotch: Adding caramel or butterscotch provides a sweet and buttery note, contributing to a smoother and more indulgent taste. Peppermint moonshine is also a popular flavor.

How is Moonshine Made?

Moonshine production starts like any other alcoholic beverage by going through a period of fermentation. Wine, for example, begins with fermented grapes, but moonshine is a type of whiskey made from grains (typically corn), sugar, and yeast put into a mason jar. (5)

  1. Fermentation: Moonshine begins with the fermentation of ingredients like grains (usually corn), sugar, and yeast. This fermentation process typically occurs inside a chamber and lasts for at least one week. During this time, the sugars in the ingredients are converted into alcohol by the yeast. (5)
  2. Distillation: The liquid is ready for distillation once the fermentation is complete. Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water and other components in the fermented mixture. This is achieved by heating the mixture, causing the alcohol to vaporize. Since alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, the steam containing alcohol is collected and condensed back into a liquid in the alcohol production phase. (5)

While distillation is an important step, it poses risks. One significant danger is the production of methanol, a flammable byproduct of the chemical transformation occurring during distillation. To mitigate risks, many people choose to distill moonshine outdoors, making it easier to detect potential dangers. Due to this, commercial distilleries carefully make this delicious Appalachia drink and watch methanol levels.

Methanol is highly dangerous, and its presence in moonshine poses severe health risks. Both the making and consuming of moonshine involve potential dangers. (6) (7) More deaths have been linked to the consumption of moonshine contaminated with methanol than the actual process of making it. (8)

The challenge lies in the fact that methanol cannot be detected before consumption. Individuals drinking methanol-laced moonshine may experience a rapid onset of intoxication due to the alcohol’s potency, only realizing contamination when deadly side effects emerge.

Detecting methanol before drinking the contaminated moonshine is impossible. A person drinking moonshine with methanol will get drunk quickly due to the potency of the alcohol, and they may not realize the moonshine was contaminated until the deadly side effects begin to show.

Moonshine and High Alcohol Content

Moonshine can contain anywhere from 40% to 80% alcohol, depending on how someone produces it. (9) This percentage makes moonshine one of the most alcoholic drinks out there, one reason it’s considered illicit alcohol.

Many people think of alcohol as something to enjoy, but they don’t realize it can be addicting. In recent years, we’ve come to understand the nature of alcohol addiction far better.

We know treating it requires a structured process and consistent support to minimize withdrawal symptoms and help a person achieve long-term recovery.

Any alcohol can be addicting in America, but moonshine has a higher risk of addiction because of its distillation process and potency. In addition, when people consume alcohol in larger amounts, they feel the effects more. The intense sensations can even cause a person to drink more than they planned and encourage them to drink moonshine again.

Over time, repeated alcohol use can lead to addiction and serious health side effects.

What Is the Difference Between Spirits and Moonshine?

Distinguishing between spirits, liqueurs, tequila, and moonshine involves jumping into various facets of these distilled beverages. Spirits, often originating from established distilleries, adhere to regulated production methods, ensuring consistency in quality and safety.

These commercial products undergo meticulous quality control measures, aligning with legal frameworks that govern their production. On the other hand, home-distilling moonshine or bootlegging, associated with a homemade or small-scale approach, exists in a legal gray area.

Crafted with an artisanal flair, moonshine may lack the standardized precision of its commercial counterparts, contributing to its unique and often diverse character.

While spirits follow a well-trodden path of legality and refinement, moonshine embraces a more rustic and unconventional journey, adding a distinct charm to the world of distilled libations.

Health Risks and Dangers of Drinking Moonshine

Methanol contamination poses the biggest danger with moonshine. Unfortunately, people often produce moonshine illegally using random equipment, like car parts. There is no quality control or formal testing, so while one batch of moonshine seems fine, the next could be deadly.

It only takes 10 milliliters (ml) of methanol to damage the optic nerve permanently. This damage can lead to partial or complete blindness. (10)

Consider that you could die from drinking just 30 milliliters (ml) of methanol. For reference, a standard shot glass holds 40 milliliters (ml) of fluid. Moonshine is also connected with lead poisoning and arsenic poisoning. 

Aside from the dangers of the contaminants that may be found within the moonshine, the high alcohol content of moonshine also poses risks, such as alcohol poisoning and liver disease. If someone drinks moonshine, the people around them must understand the signs of methanol poisoning and alcohol poisoning.

However, even if they understand the signs, they might not have enough time to treat the poisoning before extremely harmful effects set in.

Is Moonshine Illegal?

Moonshine, synonymous with clandestine distilleries and backwoods operations, carries a complex legal status that varies worldwide. Let’s delve into the intricate web of legality surrounding moonshine, shedding light on its status for a clearer understanding.

  1. Historical Perspective: The term “moonshine” originally referred to homemade spirits produced under the moon’s cover to evade authorities during Prohibition in the United States. While Prohibition ended in 1933, many countries still regulate the production and distribution of spirits, impacting the legal status of moonshine.
  2. Global Variances: The legality of moonshine spans a spectrum across countries. In some regions, crafting small amounts for personal use might be legal, whereas large-scale production often requires licensing. Contrastingly, certain nations strictly prohibit any form of homemade alcohol, deeming it illegal.
  3. Illicit vs. Legal Production: Moonshine’s legality hinges on whether it is produced in accordance with established regulations. Illicit production without proper licenses or adherence to safety standards is universally deemed illegal. Legal production involves obtaining the necessary permits and adhering to safety guidelines imposed by local authorities.
  4. Regulation Challenges: The challenge lies in the enforcement of moonshine regulations. Illicit distillers often operate covertly, evading authorities and contributing to the persistent allure of the underground moonshine culture.
  5. Safety Concerns: One of the driving forces behind moonshine’s legal status is safety. Illegally produced moonshine may lack quality control, leading to health hazards such as contamination with harmful substances.

The Addictive Nature of Moonshine

Moonshine, with its potent alcohol content and often homemade nature, carries inherent risks of addiction. The high alcohol concentration in moonshine can lead to rapid intoxication, contributing to the substance’s addictive potential.

The do-it-yourself aspect of moonshine production may also increase its allure, fostering a sense of autonomy and connection to the process. The addictive nature of moonshine is intensified by the strong and sometimes unique flavors it possesses, creating a sensory experience that individuals may find compelling.

Moreover, the historical and cultural associations with moonshine, particularly in regions where it has deep roots, can contribute to its allure and addictive appeal.

Comprehensive Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

Recovering from alcohol addiction requires more than quitting drinking. Unfortunately, many people who try to quit drinking, especially when they’re taking strong alcohol like moonshine, will tend to relapse.

This process of quitting and relapsing can be very draining on the body, but it doesn’t mean you can’t recover.

Some of the treatment options for alcohol addiction include:

  • Outpatient treatment, where you can continue living at home and will attend appointments a few times a week. This option is a good idea if you have a strong support network that can limit alcohol accessibility.
  • Residential treatment, where you enroll in a treatment center for around-the-clock support from a team of addiction professionals.
  • Inpatient treatment at a hospital, where you can get help through the initial detox process with a team of medical experts. This healthcare team understands the symptoms of alcohol poisoning and what’s necessary to reduce the risk of side effects like liver disease.

Hospitalization isn’t necessary for most people, but it may be the first step to recovery if you believe you have health side effects due to moonshine or alcohol consumption.

No matter where you seek treatment, it’s important that you’re honest with any healthcare professional about your consumption of substances like moonshine. 

Get Help for Moonshine or Alcohol Addiction Today

Quitting alcohol isn’t easy, especially if you’ve consumed illicit substances like moonshine for a while. What matters is that you seek help sooner rather than later — before you risk serious side effects like damage to your eyesight, liver, or central nervous system. Once you reach out for help, you can begin your healing journey.

Are you ready to take the next step toward moonshine or alcohol addiction treatment? Let Zinnia Health help. Call our alcoholism hotline available 24 hours per day at (855) 430-9439 for more information.


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(855) 430-9439
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