So you’re thinking Uncle Sam’s tip on your hooch is a little steep huh? Think you’re ready to take things into your own hands? Welcome to the wonderful world of moonshinin’. An American pastime more storied than pro wrestling or Yosemite Sam mud flaps. Tread lightly, you’re drunk-stumbling among giants my friend.
Making moonshine is actually older than the U.S. itself. Back in the late 18th century, farmers survived by withholding crop from the market for moonshine, which they could sell for larger profits. When governments started cracking down on the trade, enough distillers got angry enough to stage their own little uprising. The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 was actually over this type of homemade whiskey — not just fueled by it.
So let’s be clear about one thing: distilling your own mountain dew (yep, that’s an actual name for moonshine, and you just thought it was a stupid yellow drink) is wildly illegal. It’s not even like home brewing, where in most states anyone can make their own beer or wine without a license as long as you’re the one that’s drinking it. Making gin, whiskey or whatever, is a serious no-no.
Part of that is because the government wants their tip on more-profitable liquor, but part of that too is because distilleries are fantastically dangerous. Yes, they can explode from pressure or built-up flammable fumes. And yes, if enough impure spirit is created in your hooch, you can actually kill yourself. As little as 30 mL of bad booze can kill a human being — only 10 mL can make you go blind.
Despite all that, prohibition in 1920 ignited the alcohol-making craze. If you’re wondering where the phrase the “Real McCoy” comes from, it comes from illegal hooch. By most accounts, bootlegger William McCoy prompted the phrase because the rum he ran was seldom watered down (apparently a lot of bootleggers cut their product with water to stretch profits, or so I hear, I wasn’t alive) spurring speak-easy patrons to ask if the illegal booze they were consuming was “The Real McCoy.” How’s that for useless knowledge?
When prohibition was repealed in 1933, most of the bootlegging and moonshining business faded when the real booze started flowing again, but some folks, mostly in the Southern states, have held their own in the White Lightning business ever since.
Fast-forward to today and your wild dreams that you can make better, cheaper bourbon in your kitchen than ol’ Jonathan Daniels ever could. Better think again.
Unless you’re making enough for the whole county, the business of booze making isn’t really all that cheap. Large commercial distilleries purchase so much corn, grain and other commodities used in alcohol making that most of the savings are passed along to consumers. And it’s not like you’re going to find casks to age the stuff at the nearest corner store either.
Setting up even a small still can run hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and that’s even if you can get your hands on the raw materials. Making and hiding a still can be even tougher, and the end result is usually rotgut enough that you’re probably better off drinking turpentine. Yes, it tastes that bad.
But if you insist of flaunting massive federal laws, bypassing $20 bottles in favor of much more expensive mason jars full of stuff that could kill you/or at least rob you of your eyesight, remember: the founding fathers would be proud.
Then they’d put you in jail.
A. Michael Cole
Salt Lake City, UT