Moonshine: An Introduction
Since the dawn of American history, people have been home-making alcoholic beverages. Moonshine is characterized by two ideas: freedom and craftsmanship. After the American Revolution, the federal government placed a tax on liquor production to pay for expenses made by the war. It was a heavy tax, and for some American people, it was the difference between being able to feed their family or not. To evade this tax, people turned to moonshining. Since then, throughout American history, people have been moonshining for various reasons: to avoid taxation, to make and enjoy liquor during the Prohibition, or to exercise their own personal right to create a superb craft. What the idea of moonshining boils down to is the freedom to create your own craft and the freedom to create your craft whatever way you want. Moonshining as a hobby gives you the freedom to create your own one-of-a-kind liquor. Though traditionally whiskey, moonshining does not specifically refer to any particular kind of distilled liquor. You can make rum, vodka, or gin to a name a few and use practically any kind of grain or fruit. Your craft is totally up to you!
Let’s Get Started- The Basics
Making moonshine is very simple and is made up of two major steps:
1. Fermentation- the creation of alcohol
2. Distillation- the collection of alcohol by evaporation
Fermentation is the creation of alcohol. Fermentation is a chemical reaction that occurs when yeast ( a type of fungi) breaks down sugars found in fruits or grains like corn, wheat, and barley and converts these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is how wine (made with fruit) and beer (made with grains) are made; wine and beer are actually pre-distilled forms of liquor. What separates wine and beer from moonshine and other liquors is the distillation process.
Distillation is the collection of alcohol from the mix of yeast and grain or fruit from the previous step of fermentation. The mixture of yeast, grain or fruit, and water is heated to 173 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the ethanol alcohol- alcohol people consume- to turn into gas. This temperature is important because, since water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, only the alcohol will evaporate and turn into gas and the water won’t. After the ethanol alcohol turns into gas, the gas is collected and cooled, turning the alcohol gas into clear liquid, or moonshine!
Now that you know the basics, let’s take a closer look at the steps.
First, the grain is ground up. Traditionally, moonshiners would use corn and grind it up into corn mash. Then, the ground-up grain is added to the still and is soaked in hot water. Some people choose to add sugar at this stage to increase the amount of alcohol made in the end; traditional moonshiners would add malt to convert the starch in the corn into sugar to increase their alcohol yield. The yeast is added to this mixture, and the final mixture of ground grain, water, and sugar or malt is called mash. This mash is stirred thoroughly and heated gently in the still for some time to allow the yeast to process the sugars in the mash. After a set time passes, the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol. Now, to separate the alcohol from the mash, we go to step two: distillation.
After the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol, the pot still is heated on a stone furnace until the mash is 173 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes the alcohol evaporate and turn into gas. As more and more alcohol gas forms, pressure rises in the still and forces the alcohol gas out of the top of the still through a thin tube called the cap arm. At this point, some moonshiners choose to use a thump keg. A thump keg is a heated barrel that holds the alcohol gas and filters out any solid mash that comes out of the still with the gas. The alcohol gas comes into the thump keg through the cap arm and any mash that comes with it “thumps” to the bottom of the barrel. The heat of the barrel causes any extra alcohol to evaporate from the dropped mash and the created gas along with the gas from the still is pushed out of the thump keg through a tube into a third container called the worm box. Inside the worm box, the alcohol gas is cooled and transformed into liquid alcohol. The worm box is made up of a large barrel or box full of cold water; historically, this cold water was diverted from a freshwater stream nearby. The cold water flows into the worm box from an separate opening at the top of the box and out through a hole in the bottom to keep a constant circulation of cool water flowing through the box/barrel. The alcohol gas enters the worm box from the thump keg or straight from the still, and travels through a long, coiled tube called the worm. As the alcohol gas travels through the worm, it gets cooled by the bath of cool water surrounding the worm. This cooling makes the gas turn into a liquid, forming liquid alcohol. Then, the liquid alcohol drips out of the worm box by means of a spout into a pail. There’s your moonshine!
From ground up grain to finished liquor, moonshining is a simple and easy to learn hobby with its roots deep in American history. Don’t let complicated terms like pH or sparging scare you off; moonshining is straightforward. As you can see from the above description, the methods are clear and accessible. While you learn, practice, and make moonshine, you can experiment with different types of grain, fruit, or even yeast. Once you get started, you’ll realize drinking it is only half the fun! No matter what your skill level, from beginner all the way up to expert artisan, moonshining will quench your thirst for creation and craftsmanship. All of our moonshine stills come with a detailed, step-by-step guide to making moonshine. Also be sure and check out homedistiller.org, they're the single best resource there is for home distilling!
“Who needs sunshine when there’s moonshine?” - Anonymous