Moonshine: How to Make This Illegal Drink The Right Way

Moonshine in a mason jar - Image via Arkansas Democratic Gazette

Table of Contents

Just like most spirits, moonshine is a product of distillation. The process of making moonshine involves preparing and fermenting the mash, using the still for the distillation process, and then collecting the distillate. But what happens between those steps is what separates the best techniques from the inferior ones.

Before anything else, allow us to preface this by saying that making moonshine is still very much illegal under federal law in the United States. That means one would need a federal license to legally produce moonshine either for personal consumption or distribution.

That being said...

There has been a resurgence in the popularity of moonshine in recent years with bars calling their best cocktails as ‘moonshine’ and introducing them to a whole new generation of alcohol enthusiasts. It’s no surprise that people are curious about how to make moonshine at home.

What is moonshine and what is it made from?

Historically, moonshine is a homemade drink. Farmers in the Appalachian Mountains would use their own still to make their own “shine” and bottle them in mason jars. Eventually, they realized that it could be a steady source of extra income, so they produced larger quantities for sale.

Moonshine is made from any grain or fruit. Traditionally, whatever grain or fruit that is easily accessible in a given place at a given time would be the base ingredient of choice. The moonshine that we know today, however, typically uses corn as the main source of fermentable sugar. Process-wise, there is not much difference between vodka and moonshine, because both are unaged neutral spirits, typically cut with water to add volume and result in an alcoholic beverage that’s safe to drink.

Moonshine makers or “moonshiners” can either base the drink on a fruit or grain mash from which natural sugars are extracted through fermentation, or they can also use commercial sugar. Sugar is vital in the process and there lies a notable distinction from whiskey, which uses 100% grain. Some people actually refer to moonshine as a kind of "clear, unaged whiskey".

Why make your own moonshine?

You love liquor and we liquor lovers have to admit that there’s definitely something special about making your fermented drink from scratch rather than buying it. That’s true even if you haven’t done it — just the mere fantasy of seeing that first drip out from your still and being able to say you made your own moonshine, followed by the image of getting blitzed and blasted with your friends, is already satisfying.

Distilling is the kind of art and craft that allows for experimentation, but not without limits, of course. You can start your journey with the simplest moonshine runs and —  if you’re up for it — work your way up to more sophisticated grain bills, barrel maturations, and many other cool processes that enhance the flavor of the end product. There are a lot of ways to play around with spirits, especially moonshine, that will always give you the thirst for trying out something new.

First, make sure you’re authorized to distill

In the US, you can brew your beer or make your wine at home, but when Johnny Law finds out you’re making moonshine, there are serious penalties. You could go to jail for up to 5 years, pay a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

Why? Well, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter okayed brewing your beer at home without federal taxation, so there’s that. The same goes for wine. All of Europe also allowed homebrewing, and practically anywhere else in the world except for several Middle Eastern nations. 

Distilling alcohol, however, is an entirely different story. 

You see, it’s not just moonshine that’s illegal to make at home; distilling alcohol — any alcohol —  without a permit is illegal, plain and simple. Even producing ethanol that you want to use as fuel will require a license, let alone making alcohol as a beverage. The law does allow you to own a still and use it for distilling water or perhaps use it to produce essential oils. In essence, you can distill all day as long as you don’t distill alcohol without letting the authorities know.

How strong is moonshine?

There’s a scene in the 2012 movie Lawless where Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy’s characters were a couple of alcohol bootleggers who used a jar of moonshine as gasoline to power their automobile when they ran out of gas. This idea was most likely conceived based on the popular perception of moonshine as a drink that possesses that kind of power.

In that particular instance, where moonshine was probably made illicitly, the premise is plausible. During the prohibition, moonshine went as high as 190 proof, whereas a car would only need a minimum of 150 proof to run.

There’s also this Mythbusters episode where they used a 192-proof jar of moonshine to power three cars from different decades (the 70s, 90s, 2010s) and all three were able to run, albeit with varying performance.

So is moonshine that strong?

A lot of people talk about the burn or the strong taste associated with drinking moonshine, but not a lot of people know that good quality moonshine is quite smooth and drinkable. In fact, it is considered to be a great platform for flavoring. It doesn’t have color so when you’re a distiller and want to create a perfect fusion of fruit and explosive flavor - moonshine is your drink of choice.

Distilling moonshine at home - Image by Mashed.com

How to make moonshine

To be completely fair, making moonshine is not rocket science. However, it can get rather stressful, especially if you’re not doing it properly right from the get-go. It’s also quite rare for someone to get good marks the first time around, and the quality may be far from perfect even on your second or third attempts.

Here’s a list of what you’ll need to prepare for your moonshine run:

Ingredients:

1. Preparing and fermenting the mash

The first thing you need to do is to hear 5 gallons of water. Turn off the heat only when the temperature reaches 165°F (74°C). Then, add the entire volume of corn to the water and stir regularly for about 5 minutes. After the 5-minute mark, you will only need to stir the corn every 3 seconds until it cools down to 152°F (67°C).

The next step is to add the malted barley into the container. Cover it and let it sit for an hour and a half, but you need to stir the mix every 15 minutes and cover it back when you’re done stirring. The reason for this is to convert all the starches into sugar. 

After one and a half hours, you need to allow the mixture to fully cool down. You can set the timer for another 2-3 hours, or you can use an immersion blender to mix it up and make the cooling process a lot quicker. The goal is to reach a temperature of 70°F (21°C).

Corn mash mixture - Image by Mile HI Distilling

Next, sprinkle yeast over the entire concoction, making sure that the top surface has been fully covered with yeast. Yeast is crucial in the fermentation process; without it, no alcohol will be produced. After adding the yeast, the next step will be aeration. Do this by pouring the mix back and forth between 2 containers until sufficient mixing and aeration are achieved. 

Then, place an airtight lid on the mash container. It’s now ready to ferment.

Fermentation is when fungi or bacteria and other microorganisms — in this case, yeast —  converts sugar into alcohol. For fermentation to happen, it’s vital that the mash is left to rest for roughly 2 weeks. Some people give it one extra week to see to it that everything is breaking down as it should.

When the waiting period has passed, you should smell alcohol as soon as you open the lid. You will also notice that the mash looks foamy or looks whisked, which means the corn and barley have fermented successfully. You can now strain the mash using a large strainer or cheesecloth to make sure chunks of the mash or sediment are separated and not included in the distillation process. After thoroughly straining, you can now prepare to pour the liquid into the still.

2. Setting up the still and starting the distilling process

Whether you’re using a new still or an old one, it’s crucial that you clean it first. The last thing you want is dirt and dust particles getting mixed into the moonshine that you’ve spent hours trying to perfect.

Different stills work differently and have different components. There are also different methods for operating stills too.

Packing a distillation column is the best and simplest way to boost the final proof of moonshine while making it taste better. You can do this using copper scrubbers, raschig rings, or glass distilling beads. If packing columns is part of your plan, this is the stage for that.

20-Gallon Copper Moonshine Still - Image by Amazon.com

Once you’ve finished setting up the still, you can now start distilling.

Turn the heat to 150°F (66°C). Turn on the water if your still has a condenser. You can use a basic garden hose with a slow trickle of cool water. Then, turn the heat up to your still until you begin seeing alcohol being produced. When the temperature reaches around 190°F (87°C), you should start getting the first drips of alcohol from the still. 

Time the drips. If you see the alcohol is dripping 3-5 drips per second, turn the heat down. At this point, it’s crucial to keep the heat intensity at medium. You need to provide just the right amount of heat to keep the wash within a consistent temperature throughout the entire process.

Prepare the mason jars for collecting the distillate. As you will only be collecting a few drops of distillate per second, the entire process will take hours.

3. Collecting the distillate

The process is almost over, but the most important part is just beginning. Every distiller needs to understand and identify the different parts of moonshine to know which is safe and which is not.

You will need to discard the first 5% of the moonshine dripping from your still. This portion is known as the foreshots. This contains methanol which is a substance known to cause blindness and shouldn’t be consumed. It can also be potentially lethal. The recommendation is collecting and discarding foreshots of at least 4 ounces for every 5 gallons that you're distilling.

After the foreshots, out comes the heads. This portion takes up the next 30% of the moonshine dripping from your still. The heads still have methanol in it, but this time in lesser volumes. It will smell like nail polish remover. 

The heads shouldn’t be consumed either. It may not cause blindness, but it can leave you feeling queasy the next day. There’s no reason to risk it by consuming this portion when the next one is the finished product that you’ve been waiting for.

Collecting the hearts - Image by Claw Hammer Supply

It’s called the hearts. It’s the next 30% produced by the still following the heads. The sweet aroma will immediately tell you that you’re in the right stage to collect drips for consumption.

The last portion of the moonshine run is known as the tails. This portion won’t be as sweet-smelling as the hearts. If you touch it, you’ll notice a bit of greasiness which is due to the significant decrease in the amount of ethanol and has been replaced by water, carbs, and proteins. Most likely, you’re not going to have any problem distinguishing the tails from the hearts.

As a general rule of thumb, only the heart portion is collected for consumption, whereas the tails are set aside to be distilled again in the future. It’s not very dangerous to have some of the tails getting mixed into your drink. It does taste pretty bad, though. People describe it as having a funky, vegetable-like taste that could ruin your moonshine’s overall taste and give you a raging headache in the morning.

Here’s a recap on how to make moonshine:

    1. Prepare and ferment the mash
    2. Set up the still and start the distillation process
    3. Collect the distillate

    Safety is the #1 priority

    We all know that alcohol and carelessness are popular recipes for epic misadventures. Here are fundamental safety measures you can take when making your moonshine.

        • Do not distill inside an enclosed space. There’s the risk of causing an open fire as well as spontaneous combustion caused by the liquor fumes escaping the still. The thing is, you don’t want to turn your home into a bomb factory. If you’re planning to distill a lot, set up space outside your home. Also, you never know what can catch fire near the still, so it’s best to always have a fire extinguisher nearby so you can put it out quickly.
        • Invest in appropriate protective gear. And wear gloves, unless you’re planning to touch a boiling hot copper still with your bare hands.
        • Do not get intoxicated while making moonshine. Drinking while waiting for the process to finish may be tempting and may even seem standard to a lot of people, but the process requires you to stay sharp and be able to address potential problems on the go. Checking the flavor of the hearts will give you a good idea if you’re doing things right, but this should not take more than a sip or two.
        • Ask someone to help you. You should at least have one person with you in case you need help. Better yet, seek out a mentor that has a legit moonshine-making experience or at least some knowledge about the process. Moonshining continues to be a tradition mainly because of people mentoring others and keeping it alive.

    What makes a moonshine recipe better than others?

    Most distillers agree that the unique thing that separates the quality of moonshine between two different moonshiners is the way they separate the drink. After all, the purer the product, the richer and more flavorsome the drink becomes.

    This means that making moonshine is just like most endeavors in life: the ones with more practice is the one who gets better. For one, a distiller would have to smell the product to know which step of the process he’s in, and it would take a lot of experience for him to master the process of separating the product with better precision. 

    Specifically, the more confident you are in smelling the difference between the part where the heads no longer drip and the hearts start flowing, the better the flavor of your moonshine.

    The Bottom Line

    Our objective in this post is not to encourage illegal moonshining, but for you to have a better understanding of how to make moonshine - the same way legal distributors do. Again, there’s nothing like being able to distill your spirit, and that satisfaction entails preparation, knowledge, and safety.


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