The Resurgence of Moonshine
With the drinking-culture that we’ve developed in this century, liquor stores and bars alike have acquired a wide variety of specialty liquors, beers, and wines. One of the growing crazes is the resurgence of moonshine. The prohibition-era liquor was once outlawed by the government for its lack of regulations and its brewers dodging taxes. So, what’s changed in recent years?
How Moonshine Got Its Name
You could argue that the “Moonshine” that you find on the shelf of a liquor store isn’t actually moonshine. The name for the corn whiskey came from the distillers during prohibition, when alcohol was illegal. People would only make it in the middle of the night, working by moonlight. This hid the smoke that would run off the boiling liquor and made it harder for local law enforcement to spot them.
Today, when you see bottles of moonshine available for legal sale, they are referring to a white corn-whiskey that hasn’t been aged. However, there are still real “Moonshiners” out there making their own whiskey, gin, and vodka to dodge taxes and make a profit unregulated by the government.
Methanol: The Toxic Side of Moonshine
You may have heard stories about the dangers of moonshine, or any illegally distilled liquor. The real culprit of these true stories, however, is methanol. Methanol, or methyl alcohol, is a byproduct of the distilling process. A principle ingredient in fuel, pesticides, paint thinners, and much more, consuming methanol isn’t something that should be taken lightly.
The Explosive Power of Moonshine
Methanol and ethanol, the safe-to-consume alcohol, come out during the fermenting process of any alcoholic drink. Both are highly flammable with the potential to explode during distillation if they are not properly sealed and vented. If there is a leak releasing ethanol gas in the still, the equipment used to process moonshine, a single spark could cause an explosion. Without proper ventilation, a tank boiling out the toxic alcohol can easily buckle.
“In an aluminum shed among postcard orchards in Columbia County in New York, Derek Grout inspected a collecting tank of his state-of-the-art copper-pot still. A blocked vent had caused the tank to buckle. “I’m just kind of glad we didn’t kill ourselves,” he said with a laugh.” – Toby Cecchini, Just Don’t Call it Moonshine
Consuming Methanol in Moonshine
Upon first sip, the dangerous potential of methanol is undetectable. It will simply get people drunker. However, after it is metabolized, the methanol can have an extremely harmful effect in someone’s body. 10 milliliters (ml) of methanol is all it takes to permanently damage the optic nerve and cause partial, if not complete, blindness. 30 ml of methanol is lethal. For reference, and standard shot glass in the United States holds 40 ml.
If less than 10 ml of methanol is consumed then the worst someone will experience is a hangover, (albeit, quite possibly the worst hangover of their life). However, if someone consumes 10 ml or more of methanol, even split up among drinks, that can be enough to cause permanent damage or kill them. While there are processes today to discard the toxic alcohol that is visually indistinguishable from water, some illegal Moonshiners will add methanol back in to provide a stronger potency. Obviously, without regulation, there is no way to know if illicit alcohol contains methanol.
Given its lack of regulation, and no effective way to test for methanol, drinking moonshine can be dangerous to anyone. However, if you are someone who has suffered from alcohol use disorder in the past then you could be signing your death certificate. Steer clear of inexperienced distillers, or people you just don’t trust. It could be the difference between life and death.
Cecchini, Toby. (2010). Just Don’t Call it Moonshine. Retrieved May 31st, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/dining/22Distill.html
Clawhammer Supply. (2013). Methanol – Will Moonshine Make You Blind? Retrieved May 31st, 2018 from https://www.clawhammersupply.com/blogs/moonshine-still-blog/7207958-methanol-will-moonshine-make-you-blind
Dillow, Clay. (2012). FYI: Can Drinking Moonshine Really Make Me Go Blind? Retrieved May 31st, from https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-05/fyi-can-drinking-moonshine-really-make-me-go-blind
Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017). Methanol. Retrieved May 31st, 2018 from https://www.britannica.com/science/methanol
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