Saturday, November 23, 2013


In reality, moonshine (white lightning, bathtub gin, mountain dew, hooch, or Tennessee white whiskey) are terms for high-proof distilled, and often illegal, spirits. You've heard the stories, seen movies, and know about prohibition. But how much do you know of the history?

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.
Alcohol concentrations above about 50% (100 proof) are flammable and dangerous to handle, especially during the distilling process when vaporized alcohol may accumulate in the air to dangerous concentrations if adequate ventilation has not been provided.

Shoes with cow hooves, used to fool authorities
A quick estimate of the alcoholic strength, or proof, of the distillate (the ratio of alcohol to water) is often achieved by shaking a clear container of the distillate. Large bubbles with a short duration indicate a higher alcohol content, while smaller bubbles that disappear more slowly indicate the increasing presence of water. A common folk test for the quality of moonshine was to pour a small quantity of it into a spoon and set it on fire. The theory was that a safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate burns with a yellow flame. Practitioners of this simple test also held that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser, then there would be lead in the distillate, which would give a reddish flame. This led to the mnemonic, "Lead burns red and makes you dead." Although the flame test will show the presence of lead and fusel oils, it will not reveal the presence of methanol (also poisonous), which burns with an invisible flame.

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.


  1. Interesting post and I have heard most of these names before. I have even had a little hooch, lets say the next day was very bad after the hooch and it was Christmas time.

  2. Ah ha, a moonshine lady, huh? Very interesting, Gail.

  3. Fantastic, Charlene--I've heard of moonshine tasting or being like anti-freeze. Now I know why.
    and the cow hooves strapped on the shoes of a bootlegger? I've heard that, too.
    All of this was very entertaining!
    And you book sounds just great. Good luck, and best wishes...Celia

  4. Would have been for me too.


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