by Beth Ann Bovino
A sailing trip touring the Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea began with a gift from family. The skipper, a Slovenian man, brought out a 2 liter soda bottle to celebrate our sail, saying “it was made by his cousin”. The label and color of the drink seemed like we were being served some Canada Dry. It was wine, and not bad at that. What began the journey lasted through the trip. We finished the wine, and turned to much stronger stuff. (I’m not sure which cousin made this one.) It was a bottle of clear liquid with some kind of twig in it, probably to try and cover the taste. Upon each harbor reached, and we traveled to many, we would take another swig.
The last night culminated with the purchase of some local wine. On the street, a guy was selling glasses of white and red, a 2 kunas each. We asked for a bottle. He gave our group samples, and asked for about 35 kunas or 7 euros, no negotiation. The ‘wine’ tasted like gasoline with a hint of apple. We walked off with our purchase and celebrated the find.
While savoring the wretched drink, the question became ‘what are we drinking?’ The answer, ‘Moonshine, of course.’
What is moonshine? What makes it legal here, if, indeed, it is? How is it made and what can it do besides taste really bad and get you drunk?
Moonshine, also called white lightning, bathtub gin, is homemade fermented alcohol, usually whiskey or rum. Moonshine is a word-wide phenomenon and is made in secret, to avoid high taxes or outright bans on the stuff. In most countries, it’s illegal.
In France, moonshining was tolerated up to the late 50’s, since having an ancestor who fought in Napoleon’s armies gave you the right. The right can no longer be transferred to the descendents.
In the Republic of Macedonia, moonshine is legal, and remains the liquor of choice, at leastaccording to wikipedia. In Russia and Poland it is illegal to manufacture moonshine, but the law against it is rarely enforced. A Polish woman I met told me about helping her granddad siphon off the flow at the age of 10, and recalled how her parents always had the a few bottles around to hand out as gifts or favors. She said back then, under Soviet rule, food rations were used to make the stuff; it was usually overlooked by the state. Home distilling is legal in Slovenia, a rare occurrence.
In the United States, it’s pretty clear-cut. It is illegal to make, sell, distribute, or be in possession of moonshine. However, like baseball and apple pie, most agree that it will always be around. It is tied to U.S. history in many ways. From the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 to the Prohibition Era distillers and, now, the backwoods stills of Appalachia.
Shortly after the Revolution, the United States was struggling to pay for the expense of the long war. The solution was to tax whiskey. The American people, who had just gone to war to fight oppressive British taxes, were angry. The tax on whiskey incited the Whiskey Rebellion among frontier farmers in 1794. The rebellion was crushed, so many just built their own distillers to make their own, ignoring the federal tax.
Later on, states banned alcohol sales and consumption, encouraged moonshine. In 1920, nationwide Prohibition went into effect, to the boon of moonshiners. Suddenly, no legal alcohol was available, and the demand for moonshine shot through the roof. Easily able to increase their profits with losing business, moonshiners switched to cheaper, sugar-based or watered-down moonshine. Organized crime blossomed as speakeasies opened in every city.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the market for moonshine grew thin. Later, cheaper, easily available, legal alcohol cut into business. Although moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and ’70s, today, very few illegal alcohol cases are heard in the courts. In 1970, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms seized 5,228 stills, but from 1990 to 1995, only two stills were seized.
The law also chased down bootleggers, the smugglers who transport it and sell it. The name came from tall riding boots, where they would hide their product. Later, they raced cars packed with moonshine at night to avoid the police. They learned to drastically increase the horsepower of their vehicles to outrun the authorities. This created a culture of car lovers in the southern United States that eventually grew into the popular NASCAR racing series. The winner of the first ever NASCAR race, Glenn Dunnaway, had used the same car to make a bootleg run just a week earlier.
What about homebrewed beer and amateur winemaking? Since these activities are different from distilling alcohol, they were made legal in the 1970s. However, they can only be done in small quantities. So if you’re supplying half the bars in town with your “homebrew,” you might run into a few problems with the Feds. However, home distilling is definitely illegal in any amount. Since it’s too easy to make a mistake and create a harmful product, permits and licenses are required to ensure safety. That and the Feds want to get their tax money.
It’s All in the Mash
Corn is commonly used, though alcohol can actually be distilled from almost any kind of grain. http://www.unm.edu/~skolman/moonshine/history1.html Moonshiners during the Prohibition started using white sugar instead of corn meal to increase their profits, and the earliest makers supposedly used rye or barley.
The recipe for moonshine is simple:
Sometimes, other ingredients are included to add flavor or ‘kick’. Once you make the mixture, called mash, you heat it for a bit of time in a still. The “Alaskan Bootleggers Bible” (Happy Mountain Publications, 2000) shows a number of stills, including the ‘two-dollar” still, using a crock pot and milk bottle.
“Drink Up, Before It Gets Dark”
Besides the several years it could land you in jail, (it could land you 5 years for moonshining, 15 years for money-laundering) what makes moonshine different from the whisky you find on the shelf at a liquor store? Aside from the obvious differences between something made in a sanitized production facility and something made at night in the woods, the primary difference is aging. When whisky comes out of the still, it looks like water. Moonshiners bottle it and sell it just like that (moonshiners’ code “It’s for selling, not drinking”). Commercial alcohols are aged for years in charred oak barrels, which gives them an amber or golden color to them. It also mellows the harsh taste. There’s no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such “kick.”
There are a few other reasons why drinking moonshine can be risky. Since the whole point of making moonshine is to avoid the law, no FDA inspectors will be stopping by the backwoods at night still to check if moonshiners had wash their hands, and no one will be able ensure that all the ingredients are safe. It is not uncommon for insects or small animals to fall into the mash while it’s fermenting.
While a few furry creatures added to the mix wouldn’t likely kill anyone, you might have heard stories about people drinking moonshine and going blind — or even dying. These stories are true. During Prohibition, thousands of people died from drinking bad moonshine. I finished the sailing trip with both eyes intact. Though, one toast was “Drink up, before it gets dark!’
There isn’t anything inherently dangerous about moonshine when made properly. It is very strong alcohol with a very hard taste, or “kick,” because it hasn’t been aged. However, some distillers realized that part of the appeal of moonshine was that “kick” and experimented with different ingredients to add more kick to the drink, many poisonous, including manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner. Occasionally moonshine was deliberately mixed with industrial alcohol-containing products, including methanol and other substances to produce denatured alcohol. Results are toxic, with methanol easily capable of causing blindness and death.
Besides poisonous ingredients, there are other manufacturing mistakes can poison moonshine. For example, only one pass through the still may not be enough to remove all the impurities from the alcohol and create a safe batch. If the still is too hot, more than alcohol can boil off and ultimately condense — meaning more than alcohol makes it into the finished product. Either can result in a poisonous drink. While it seems exciting to try (I was fascinated by the booze and I own a crockpot), chances are you end up with pure poison. Moonshiners often die young. If they don’t go blind, or the Feds get them. Better to just walk down to your corner-store for that bottle of Jack Daniels and soda.