MOONSHINE: LEGAL OR NOT?
First up, we’ve got a question from Laurie in North Carolina, who writes:
I listen to your podcast every week on my drive to work, and I’ve learned so much about making drinks, but I do have a question I hope you can answer about moonshine.
When I was little, I thought that moonshine was illegal liquor that people sipped from mason jars or jugs. But now, I’m seeing a ton of “moonshine” at the liquor store. Did moonshine become legal at some point, and I just didn’t realize?
Also, is any of it worth trying?
Well, Laurie – American moonshine is a fascinating topic but before I jump into the history and the “legality” of making it, let me just say that 90% of what you’re seeing when you look at the moonshine on your liquor store shelves is marketing. You’ll notice that a lot of it comes in mason jars of bottles that are meant to look like vintage jugs, and this is all designed to evoke the romance and danger of moonshine that became legendary during prohibition, when folks were forced to distill in the woods.
Now, to answer your main question, let’s rely on our old friend, the square is a rectangle metaphor.
All illegally produced spirits are illegal, and here in the U.S., the generic term for illegally produced spirits is “moonshine.”
However, not all moonshine is illegally produced. If you own a distillery and you operate that distillery in good standing while making an un-aged neutral spirit that you call moonshine, then you can put that in a bottle and sell it in a liquor store.
A lot of people are under the false impression that making moonshine is illegal simply because you’re evading the government, who really wants to tax any alcohol that comes off a still. If that was the case, we wouldn’t call it “illegal distilling” – we’d call it “tax evasion,” so there’s got to be something more to the moonshine story.
Now, you’ll recall I mentioned Prohibition a few moments ago. During that time, there were two main dangers that accompanied distilling in the woods. One is that you were using a direct fire still made up of mostly improvised components, and if you had any leaks where alcohol vapor could escape, chances are you and anyone else in the vicinity would be consumed by a fiery explosion. The other is the fact that people didn’t have the technology or experience to make precise cuts, which means that harmful chemicals like methanol could end up in the hooch, causing all sorts of bad health side-effects.
So, in summary, distilling moonshine without a license and a certified facility is illegal primarily because of the harm you can cause to yourself and others – not to mention any property that gets destroyed in a still fire – and yes, also tangentially because the government does want to tax alcohol.
Finally, regarding whether or not the moonshine products you’re seeing at the liquor store are worth trying, I’m going to caution you that the large majority are probably not worth the price you’ll see them listed for. This is because custom bottles and old tymey labels jack up the cost, and so by the ounce, the juice inside probably isn’t worth it.
One thing I will say is to consult the label and see if you can learn what the moonshine was made of. Traditionally, corn is used, but it can be made from pretty much anything. So determining the base grain used to make your moonshine is about the only thing I can think of that will tell you whether or not you’ll enjoy drinking it.