The word "moonshine" probably came from the term "moonrakers" used for early English smugglers and the clandestine (i.e., by the light of the moon) nature of the operations of illegal Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed whiskey.
Poorly produced moonshine was often contaminated, mainly from materials used in construction of the still which employed used vehicle radiators as condensers. In some cases, glycol, from antifreeze, were included as well. These radiators also sometimes contained lead at the connections to the plumbing. We all know glycol and lead are poisonous and potentially deadly.
Although methanol is not produced in toxic amounts by fermentation of sugars from grain starches, contamination is still possible if unscrupulous distillers used cheap methanol to increase the apparent strength of the product. All sorts of additives were used to give more "pow" to the product, or to stretch it out so that it provided more volume. Gun powder, tobacco and hot peppers were popular additives. Mountain men and, later, whiskey runners, often did this to the liquor they sold or traded to Indians.
Moonshine can be made both more palatable and less damaging by discarding the "foreshot"—the first few ounces of alcohol that drip from the condenser. The foreshot contains most of the methanol, if any, from the mash because methanol vaporizes at a lower temperature than ethanol. The foreshot also typically contains small amounts of other undesirable compounds such as acetone and various aldehydes.
|Former West Virginia moonshiner explaining the workings of a still.|
|Shoes with cow hooves, used to fool authorities|
Throughout the nineteenth century, alcohol saw a high popularity, not only with men, but also with women and even children, through the use of tonics and other medicines that contained alcohol. I haven't seen any statistics on the percentage of the population who were alcoholics at that time, but it would be surprisingly high.
In my book, Taming Jenna, just released this month, the heroine's father was saved from alcoholism by the hero.
Charlene Raddon is the award-winning author of five historical romance novels set in the American West. Four of these are now available as e-books. A fifth, Taming Jenna, will be released in November. Charlene’s paperbacks can be found through used book stores. Her e-books are available at Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and other e-book stores.