Leading on from our alcohols topic in class…

Moonshine.  White lightning. Mountain dew. Hooch. Rotgut. Bathtub gin. Popskull. Panther’s breath. Jet fuel. Corn liquor. Or just plain old shine…

So what is it?

Moonshine is any kind of alcohol, usually whisky or rum, that is made in secret to avoid high taxes or outright bans on alcoholic drinks.

What is it made from?

Corn, sugar, yeast and water.

Although alcohol can be made from nearly any type of grain, Moonshine is usually made from corn.

And how is it made?

In short: The first process is fermentation and involves yeast breaking down sugar to produce alcohol (like we have learnt in class).

The alcohol is then distilled – we have spoken about this too – whereby the fermentation product is heated. The alcohol evaporates off first (lower boiling point than water… I hope you can explain why…) which separates it from the water and other impurities, before it it is condensed back to a liquid. The result? More concentrated alcohol.

In more detail:

But how is it different to the alcohol from the shops?


Aside from the obvious differences between something made in a sanitized production facility and something made at night in the woods, the primary difference is aging. When whisky comes out of the still, it’s so clear it looks like water. Moonshiners bottle it and sell it just like that. Commercial alcohols have an amber or golden color to them — this is because they are aged for years in charred oak barrels. The aging process gives them color and mellows the harsh taste. There’s no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such “kick.”

And some more about moonshine that relates to chemistry…

It is not uncommon to create a poisonous batch of moonshine. A few ways this might happen…

  • It usually takes two or three passes through the still to remove all the impurities from the alcohol. One pass may not be enough to create a safe batch.
  • If the still is too hot, more than alcohol can boil off and ultimately condense — meaning more than alcohol makes it into the finished product.
  • Poisonous ingredients are sometimes added (such as  manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner) in an attempt to increase the “kick”

People have actually died from drinking moonshine…


Although methanol is not produced in toxic amounts by fermentation of sugars from grain starches, contamination is still possible by unscrupulous distillers using cheap methanol to increase the apparent strength of the product. 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. Methanol may be present because it vaporizes at a lower temperature than ethanol. The foreshot also typically contains small amounts of other undesirable compounds such as acetone and various aldehydes.

Alcohol concentrations above about 50% alcohol by volume are flammable and therefore dangerous to handle. This is especially true during the distilling process in which vaporized alcohol can accumulate in the air if there is not enough ventilation.

Hope this covers what you were after…


How Stuff Works – How Moonshine Works by Ed Grabianowski

Wikipedia – Moonshine

Also related and worth a look (although not much chemistry):

Discovery channel – Moonshiners (online videos here)

The Dukes of Hazzard (just for fun!)


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. bootleggerz
    Aug 31, 2012 @ 03:04:52

    “Poisonous ingredients are sometimes added (such as manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner) in an attempt to increase the “kick” –My first time to read about these stuffs added in moonshine, kind of strange I only knew of adulterant (methanol) added in shine to increase ABV. Anyway, this altogether I should say are Prohibition period horrors. Today’s moonshiners make their alcohol in very prudent manners.

    Let me reference this article for additional information: Is Drinking Moonshine Safe?


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