Whiskey Basics: Drinking Moonshine
I’m going to oversimplify some things in a big way here. All of the information I include here is gathered from a handful of books and forums. This is meant to help you understand the basics of how liquor is made.
It won’t make you an expert or prepare you to make any alcohol, but it might give you the ability to answer some questions if you decide to host your own whiskey club.
What is moonshine anyway?
Moonshine is distillate made from grains. Usually in the United States, the grains are corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Distillate is the transparent liquid that comes out of a still during the distillation process.
To further simplify this definition, moonshine is vodka that’s made with corn. It’s sometimes known as white whiskey or un-aged whiskey. Vodka can be made out of anything fermented like fruits, potatoes, cereals, and rice, but moonshine is specifically a grain product and is technically a type of vodka.
How moonshine gets to a drinkable alcohol by volume (ABV)
Distilling separates the alcohol from a batch of beer, which means that it is a concentrated form of the liquid. When it leaves the still it can come out at 90% or more alcohol (that’s 180 proof)! From what I understand, 160 proof is closer to average for someone that knows what they’re doing. As the distilling process continues, more water and other elements from a mash will come out with the alcohol and the ABV will slowly decline.
By law in the United States distillers have to make sure that whiskey is lower than 125 proof before barreling it. That’s way lower than the more common 160 proof that good distillers get out of a still.
The way distillers get the ABV they need is by adding water. This is done before barreling to get the desired and legal result, but some distillers will further add water after barreling is complete. A key factor in the flavor of whiskey is the source of water used in cutting it and at what points in the process water is added.
What's The Best Moonshine For Drinking?
The best moonshine for drinking is the kind that’s been cut down and flavored. Honestly, asking about drinking moonshine is a lot like telling someone that you love cake and then asking what the best kind of flour is to eat raw.
Some common uses of moonshine are infused or flavored by aging in wood. Aging moonshine in wood makes whiskey. Once it’s been brought down to a reasonable proof (usually between 40% ABV and 50% ABV) by adding water you can put fruits, herbs, or toasted wood in it to give it flavor. Otherwise, you’re just sipping on some grain vodka.
I was told that moonshine will make you go blind... why are we using it to make whiskey?
The short answer is that any commercial moonshine won’t make you blind and plain old hillbilly hooch probably won’t either.
The dangerous chemical that is attributed to blindness is called methanol, and it is a naturally occurring chemical in fruits and vegetables. What this means to you is that all alcoholic beverages have some methanol in them but not enough to hurt you. This includes anything from a session lager to grandpa’s dinner wine.
The good news is that distilling alcohol separates each part of the liquid making it easy to toss the methanol and keep the ethanol. Methanol becomes vapor around 148 degrees fahrenheit and ethenol (the part you want to drink) becomes vapor around 174 degrees fahrenheit.
So, during the distilling process, distillers will raise the heat on their still and throw the first bit of liquid from their jars knowing that the first part of the liquid is the poisonous methanol. This makes it safe to drink.
1. Beer is distilled into vodka and that gets aged to become something else.
2. In the case of whiskey, grains (usually including corn, barley, wheat, and rye) are a primary ingredient, the vodka is known as moonshine and it is flavored by exposure to wood.
3. Water is added to moonshine, sometimes multiple times before it is finished with flavoring and bottling to become whiskey.
4. Moonshine won’t make you blind. Concentrated methanol, a naturally occurring chemical in some fruits and vegetables often found in beer and wine, can be dangerous. Methanol is easy to remove from the drink during the distilling process and you really shouldn’t worry about it.
As a note, distilling is heavily regulated and usually requires special permits to do. However, making beer is usually fine in the United States, and that’s a huge amount of the work. In any case, before you actually try to make a beer or something harder, do much, much more research than just reading this and know all your local laws.