Moonshine, white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, and white whiskey are terms used to describe high-proof distilled spirits that are generally produced illicitly. Moonshine is typically made with corn mash as the main ingredient.The word "moonshine" is believed to derive from the term "moonrakers" used for early English smugglers and the clandestine (i.e., by the light of the moon) nature of the operations of illegal Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed whiskey.The distillation was done at night to avoid discovery.
Moonshine was especially important to the Appalachian area. This white whiskey most likely entered the Appalachian region in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Scots-Irish immigrants from the Ulster region of Northern Ireland brought their recipe for their uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life". The settlers made their whiskey without aging it, and this is the same recipe that became traditional in the Appalachian area.
Years after these initial settlers, moonshine served as a source of income for many Appalachian residents. In early 20th century Cocke County, Tennessee, farmers made moonshine from their own corn crop in order to transport more value in a smaller load. Moonshine allowed them to bring in additional income while at the same time cutting down on transportation costs. Moonshiners in Harlan County, Kentucky, like Maggie Bailey, made the whiskey to sell in order to provide for their families.
In modern usage, the term "moonshine" ordinarily implies that the liquor is produced illegally; however, the term has also been used on the labels of some legal products as a way of marketing them as providing a similar drinking experience as found with illegal liquor.
Distilling moonshine is a remarkably simple process, requiring four main ingredients: corn, sugar, yeast, and water. Corn can be substituted with various ingredients, including barley, rye, or fruit, but corn is most often used because it is cheap and easy to obtain. Some shiners used hog feed, which can be bought in large amounts without arousing suspicion. Without going into needless detail, the corn, sugar, and water are combined with the yeast, and the yeast processes the sugars, creating alcohol. The resulting mash is heated nearly to boiling, which hastens the fermentation and releases alcohol steam. The steam is carefully filtered to remove any solid ingredients, then diverted into a device called a “worm.” The worm is a coiled copper pipe bathed in cold water, which causes the alcohol steam to condense into moonshine.
Alcohol concentrations above 50% ABV (alcohol by volume 101 proof) are flammable and therefore dangerous if improperly handled or stored. This is especially true during the distilling process when vaporized alcohol may accumulate in the air to dangerous concentrations if adequate ventilation has not been provided. In our opinion and for this very reason electrically heated boilers have a distinct advantage over a boiler heated with a open flame. In our opinion you have very little control over temperature when heating with wood or propane.
A quick estimate of the alcoholic strength, or proof, of the distillate (the ratio of alcohol to water) was often achieved by shaking a clear container of the distillate. Large bubbles with a short duration indicate a higher alcohol content, while smaller bubbles that disappear more slowly indicate lower alcohol content.
A common folk test for the quality of moonshine was to pour a small quantity of it into a spoon and set it on fire. The theory was that a safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate burns with a yellow flame. Practitioners of this simple test also held that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser, then there would be lead in the distillate, which would give a reddish flame. This led to the mnemonic, "Lead burns red and makes you dead." or "Red means dead."Although the flame test will show the presence of lead and fusel oils, it will not reveal the presence of methanol (also poisonous), which burns with an invisible flame.