We’ve all seen the cartoon of the old man hiding a jug of hooch underneath his beard. Those jugs are always labelled “XXX,” giving the impression that it’s a dangerous mixture to consume.
If you have ever considered drinking or making moonshine in your own home distillery, you’ve probably hear someone mention that those who drink moonshine can potentially go blind.
Contrary to the old wives’ tales, moonshine does not make you go blind, especially if it’s made with quality ingredients and professional equipment. Methanol toxicity is the root of the old adage that moonshine makes you go blind. Methanol, a byproduct of the distilling process, is metabolized in the human body and forms formaldehyde, which can damage the liver as well as the optic nerve, resulting in blindness.
There are specific reasons bad moonshine can make you go blind or even cause death, but if you’re drinking quality homemade moonshine, you likely are safe from the problem.
In the distillation process, ethanol and methanol rise out of the fermented alcohol and into the moonshine jug. Although ethanol is safe to consume, methanol is a poisonous byproduct and can cause blindness and death as mentioned above.
Methanol boils and evaporates at a lower temperature than ethanol, so it’s recommended that you dump the first 5% of your distilled moonshine as the initial amount contains a most of your methanol. This batch is called the “foreshot.”
As you take precaution and follow and proper home distillation process, you should have no issues in dealing with methanol.
Lead Contamination from Improper Still Setup
In some rare cases, a batch of moonshine can contain lead. This is almost always, always a result of faulty equipment. Some home distillers would use old automobile radiators to distill their moonshine, and those components are made out of lead-soldered parts. During the distilling process, the alcohol can pick up lead elements.
Once your moonshine has been distilled with lead parts, it’s no longer drinkable.
There was a specific case in Alabama during the early 90s when there were a series of cases where patients showed symptoms of lead poisoning after ingesting anywhere from .2 L to 1.5 L of moonshine per day. They reported symptoms including seizures, anemia, weakness, and abdominal colic.
Luckily, 99% of the time, any readily available moonshine wasn’t distilled using old car radiators so you’re in the clear. As long as you have quality equipment during the distillation process, you moonshine will always be lead-free and safe to consume.
Drinking moonshine will only make you go blind if you get a bad batch. Make sure you trust the person making the moonshine if you don’t want to run into trouble along the way, and you will have nothing about which to worry.
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While it may have a dubious history, moonshining, or “shinin’” has developed into something of an art form. At its essence, moonshine is just unaged and or flavored alcohol fermented from a wide variety of sources. Moonshine is traditionally fermented from corn, but you’ll also find moonshine fermented from other sources, like grain.
There are many different ways to create moonshine and add a personal touch to the end result, however, the traditional method always revolves around three basic steps: fermentation, distillation and collecting the distillate.
The Basics of Making Alcohol
It’s possible to make alcohol out of any grain, fruit or vegetable that goes through fermentation. This process is essentially the chemical reaction that occurs between two basic ingredients – a yeast breaks down sugar.
For moonshiners, the base ingredient of choice is a corn mixture called a “mash.” A 5-gallon mash-yeast mixture will typically take two weeks to ferment.
After the corn mash is fermented, the alcohol must be distilled.
Distillation involves heating the alcohol turning it into steam. This separates the actual alcohol content from the mash. This requires having a still furnace to boil the mash mixture and a still cap with a distilling flute that allows the vapors to filter into a new holding tank. From there, some moonshiners will prime their distillation with more alcohol or cool down the alcohol into a condensed liquid form. The distillation process is based on the fact that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water.
Before you can collect the distillate, the alcohol must run through a condenser that is cooled by water or ice. Bootleggers would often set up their stills along a river or creek and run the distillate through pipes submerged in water to cool the alcohol down. Today, most distillers have a 3rd chamber that has cooled copper tubing running throughout.
Once cooled, the filtered moonshine will then drain out of a spout at the end of the condenser.
Remember, the first 5 percent of your production should be thrown out. This is extra-strong methanol that is dangerous to consume. The trick to making good moonshine is finding the best portion of distillate. Therefore, you should expect a bit of trial and error for your first batch.
What You Need to Make Moonshine
While the basic ingredients and process of making of moonshine are simple, it’s important to have the appropriate equipment available so you can distill effectively and safely.
Typical Distilling Ingredients
To add extra kick or flavor, some moonshiners incorporate certain fruits, yeast nutrients or even more alcohol into the process, called a “thump.”
To successfully do a run of moonshine you’ll need the following equipment:
- Mash pot – used to mix the mash and heat the mixture to generate the alcohol steam
- Heating source – this can be an electric or gas burner underneath the mash pot
- Distilling Column – this is where the the alcohol vapor rises and moves through the cool vertical copper column
- Condenser, or Lyne Arm – once the highest percentage alcohol steam travels through the distilling column it condenses into another cooler metal pipe where the mixture cools down and turns back into a liquid
- Barrel or Aging – the clear ethanol typically needs to go through some sort of flavoring or aging process, so most distilling setups have a post run flavoring/storage component like oak barrels
If you’re interested in getting into moonshine and home distilling, you can get all the essential ingredient and supplies over at Hillbilly Stills.
If you are interested in making moonshine for personal or commercial use, you are likely wondering if this prospective hobby is legal or not. Learning the laws related to moonshine and home distilleries is a wise move that can keep you out of potential trouble when you’re making your own moonshine.
Federal Distilled Spirits Permit
If you’re planning starting a distillery or setting up a large scale home distillery, you will need to get a permit if you would like to distill without violating state or federal laws.
If you would like to make moonshine without any legal risk, getting a federal distilled spirits permit is your first option. Depending on your state, you will need to pay a fee to get started as well as list your equipment and ingredients on your application.
Here’s a link to the federal spirits permit page. You can find out most everything that you need to know, as well as the next steps to take here: https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/spirits-permits.shtml
If you’re properly permitted, inspectors from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will conduct regular inspections of your distillery to check for compliance. Any issues can result in fines or even the shut down of your distillery.
Under federal law, you can also apply for an alcohol fuel producer permit.
These permits are much easier to get, and you won’t need to worry about regular visits from government officials. The catch with this path is that you are not legally allowed to consume the alcohol you produce. Many people, however, opt for this permit and still consume what they make.
Are There Penalties for Making Moonshine Without a Permit?
Like it or not, there are potential penalties for making moonshine without the proper permit.
You might be considering making moonshine without a permit so that you can skip the fee and red tape, but if you’re in violation of state and/or federal laws you’ll be facing fines and potential prison time.
Depending on your setup there’s really a wide scale for the legal repercussions of a non-permitted distillery. Likely for the small home distillery, you’ll get a warning or a small citation.
Worst case scenario, illegal distilleries could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Most people shy away from making moonshine when they hear about the potential fallout, but some people refuse to let legal technicalities get in the way.
Check Your Local Laws
The regulations listed in this guide only relate to federal laws, and it’s important you remember that your local and state laws might be different.
You could feel tempted to overlook some steps so that you can get started with your distillery, but you need to educate yourself on the process and each law that could affect your freedom and financial stability.
If you have more questions about the legality of making your own moonshine and various moonshine laws, get in touch with Hillbilly Stills today!