The history of moonshine took me to Johnston County, North Carolina, in the spring of 2023. Here’s what I learned.

In the history of moonshine, it’s only truly a spirits that is made illicitly. Moonshine is unaged spirits made from corn, otherwise known as corn whiskey. Today, many distilleries in North Carolina produce moonshine legally with permits.

The History Of Moonshine

Moonshine is most often distilled from sugar and corn. Native Americans were distilling liquor from native plants long before America was colonized.

While records are scarce, there are a few references to American slaves being skilled in distilling in the 1800s.

Farmers in the Appalachian Mountains would use their stills to make moonshine and bottle it in mason jars. Then, they realized it could be a steady source of income, so they made larger quantities for sale.

Why Moonshine Was Illegal In The United States

This history of moonshine takes us back to the 1800s. Making moonshine became illegal when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) passed the 1862 Revenue Act. The U.S. started taxing liquors and spirits soon after the American Revolution to pay off its war debt and imposed excise taxes on alcohol.

Moonshiners are the people who made the alcohol. Bootleggers were the smugglers who transported the moonshine and sold it. The origin of concealing illegal alcohol in boot tops during distribution or trade is where it all began.

Bootlegger (illicit) whiskey producers would work in the woods, under cover of darkness, in the moonlight to avoid detection by law enforcement. Hence, the name moonshine.

Here’s a list of nicknames that you might recognize for moonshine

  • White Lightning
  • Stump water
  • Ruckus juice
  • Corn liquor
  • Skullcracker
  • Wildcat
  • Mountain Dew
  • Firewater
  • Hooch
  • Rotgut
  • Bathtub gin
  • Homebrew
  • Bootleg
  • White Whiskey

How To Make Moonshine

The following is my elementary description of how moonshine is made.

Moonshine is made by heating mashed corn in water with barley and yeast, stirring it until the starches turn to sugar, and then fermenting the mixture in an airtight container until the sugar is converted to alcohol. After two to three weeks, strain the mash and place it into the still with a distillation column. Heat it so the alcohol drips out, which you can catch in mason jars or other containers.

Stills use copper coils because it cools efficiently and neutralizes any sulfur in the moonshine. Copper can conduct heat, reduce sulfur, and resist corrosion very well. Experienced shiners insist on copper to produce better-tasting moonshine.

How Does Moonshine Taste

Moonshine is a strong alcohol with a harsh taste because of its lack of aging. It can be as strong as 150 proof (or more), about 75% alcohol. It has a similar taste to vodka.

A good-quality moonshine is smooth and drinkable. It doesn’t have a color, so combine it with fruit and achieve an explosive flavor.

Moonshine Production Today

Some states today do not allow distilling your own alcohol without a permit. You must have a federal license to produce moonshine for personal use or commercial distribution.

Final Thoughts

You are probably wondering why all this discussion about the history of moonshine. I was fascinated by the history of moonshine, and when I had the opportunity to visit North Carolina and interview a real moonshiner, I jumped at the chance. I’ll share what I learned in another article. Until then…

Here’s how to learn more firsthand and meet a 5th Generation moonshiner. Visit Broadslab Distillery at Benson, North Carolina.


Read another article from my recent travels.