Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

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Have you ever watched the show “Moonshiners?” Personally, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. I love the humor the cast finds in one another and out in the woods.

However, I also respect their ability to create a beverage and carry on a legacy that was instilled in most of them from a young age.

This is why I’m going to share with you how to make moonshine. Keep in mind, it’s legal to own a moonshine still, but it’s 100% illegal to distill any alcohol without a permit.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational purposes only.

I became curious about the moonshine making process after watching the show and have done some research. I’m amazed at the science it takes to create this beverage.

Once you learn the process, it should give you a greater appreciation for the companies who distill the beverages you buy legally and certainly for the original moonshiners who figured out this process with little knowledge about science and in the woods no less.

Here’s the process of making traditional corn whiskey:

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

It Requires:

  • 5-gallons of water
  • 8.5 pounds of cracked or flaked corn
  • 1.5 pounds of crushed malted barley

1. Make the Mash

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

The process begins by heating 5-gallons of water to 165°F. When the temperature reaches this point, turn off the heat and add the full amount of corn to the water.

It’s important to stir the corn consistently for 5 minutes. After the 5 minutes have passed, stir the corn every 30 seconds to a minute until the temperature has dropped to 152°F.

When the temperature reaches 152°F it’s time to add the malted barley to the mixture. Once the barley has been added, cover the container and let it sit for an hour and a half.

However, during this time be sure to uncover the mixture every 15 minutes to stir. Replace the cover once you’ve stirred the mixture.

The goal for this part of the process is to successfully turn all the starches into sugar. By the end of the hour and a half, you should have confidence this goal has been met.

After the hour and a half is up, allow the mixture to sit for another 2-3 hours to finish cooling fully. You can mix the concoction up with an immersion blender to speed up the cooling process if you’re in a hurry.

When the temperature reaches 70°F, sprinkle yeast over the entire mixture. Be sure the entire top has been covered. Without yeast, there’s no fermentation. Without fermentation, there’s no alcohol.

Obviously, this is an important step. When the yeast has been added, aeration is the next step. Pour the concoction back and forth between 2 containers until you are confident everything has been mixed and aerated well.

After aeration, place an airtight lid on the container holding your mash.

2. Allow the Mash to Ferment

Fermentation is the time when yeast works its magic and turns corn mash into alcohol. It’s important the mash is left to rest for approximately 2 weeks.

At the end of the 2-week waiting period, wait 1 more week to ensure everything is breaking down as it should.

When 3 weeks have passed, open the lid to the container. You should smell alcohol and the mash should have a foamy appearance. This is letting you know the corn and barley have fermented.

Next, strain the mash. You should run everything through a large strainer or cheesecloth to remove any larger chunks of the mash or sediment. You don’t want these items running through your still in the later steps.

When you feel confident you’ve removed all the sediment and large chunks of grain from the fermented liquid, pour the liquid into the still, and move on with the process.

3. Ready the Still

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

If you’re making moonshine, I must assume you’re a legal distributor. Therefore, you probably use your still on a regular basis.

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Whether you use your still daily or not, it’s important to clean it. You don’t want any dust particles or dirt getting into the moonshine you’ve worked hard to make.

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

If you pack your column, now is the proper time to do this. Some people choose to pack their column because it creates higher alcohol proof.

If your still has a condenser, now is also the proper time to get water to the still for water input and output.

Once the still is set-up, the mash has been strained and added, you’re ready to move forward in the process.

4. Start the Distilling Process

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

You’ll begin this step by turning on the heat to the still. The desired temperature is 150°F. If your still has a condenser, you should turn on the water at this point in the process.

Turn the heat up to your still until you begin seeing alcohol being produced. Time the drips of alcohol as they come out.

When the alcohol is dripping 3-5 drips per second, you should turn the heat down.

A common misconception is distilling is what gives you alcohol. This isn’t the case. Distilling is a chemical process that happens in the still. This process allows alcohol to be separated from the other chemical components in the still.

Therefore, this produces a pure alcoholic beverage people have been enjoying for centuries. The alcohol itself was created during the fermentation process by the reaction between the mash and the yeast.

Once the alcohol is flowing from your still, it’s important to pay close attention to the next step. This is what separates the different distillers in this process.

5. The Different Parts of the Moonshine

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

Making moonshine is an art. The more you practice it (legally!) the better you become. However, what makes the difference in one person’s moonshine to the next?

Well, this falls right into knowing the different parts of the product you’re producing. Not only does understanding and identifying the different parts of moonshine produce a better product, but it also ensures the safety of the product as well.

The first 5% of the moonshine flowing from your still is known as the foreshots. This is a lethal product that contains methanol. It has been known to cause blindness and shouldn’t be consumed.

Perceptive Travel

Why Make Moonshine In The Woods

Bright colors sparkle through glass jars lining the warm wooden shelves around the walls of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Tasting Room. The sunshine yellow of Lemon Drop Shine, the sensuous red of Moonshine Cherries, and the lively tint of Peach Lightnin' contrast with the Old Original—clear as the glass Mason jars that hold the hooch.

Here in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, some moonshine whiskey has emerged from the shadow of thick wooded hills and hollers. No longer the secretive business run by hillbillies hiding from “revenooers,” one company produces copious tax revenues for the city and state.

While travelers come to eastern Tennessee for many reasons—Dollywood Amusement Park, mountain music performances and entertainment venues— the original draw of the region was and still is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is the most visited U.S. National Park. It displaced many of the independent hill people who lived deep in the woods. Some of the old cabins remain, but you will not find the remains of their main source of income: the homemade still.

As I watch city slickers belly up to the tasting bar on Gatlinburg's main drag and choose which moonshine flavor they want to sample, I'm thinking about how far moonshine has traveled from corn likker concoctions made on homemade contraptions hidden in the hills to become an officially sanctioned craft distillery. Good grief, moonshine has become, dare I say it, trendy.

Tennessee Moonshine Surprises

Is Moonshiners real? Does the TV show make real moonshine?

Whether you happened upon this phenomenon randomly while channel surfing or you’ve been a long-time fan of Discovery Channel’s hit TV show “Moonshiners” you may have pondered at some point: Is this real life?

The short answer is: No, it’s television. This is not reality. 

  • But here’s the question you should be asking: Is any of it real? 
  • When shows like “The Real World” “Survivor” “Fear Factor” and “American Idol” debuted generations ago, the concept of Reality TV was groundbreaking. 
  • Now, with hundreds if not thousands of reality shows coming and going in the intervening years, viewers are savvier and our expectations have changed. 
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Do we still think that everyone who brings an exotic item into Rick’s pawn shop just walked in off the street? Have we ever found it odd that every time the “American Pickers” arrive at someone’s house, even on “surprise” visits, the homeowner is all mic’d up?

Do we think if the cast of the Discovery Network show “Moonshiners” had really been thumbing their nose at the revenuers for eight seasons, somebody, somewhere wouldn’t have gotten busted? 

So is Moonshiners real?

That, my friend, is a complicated question that includes a discussion about the very nature of reality, the intertwining of myth and legend with expectation. And, of course, just how much folks want to accept a level of fakeness and believe their own bull.

We’ll start with the obvious. The very act of observing reality changes it.

This is a TV show with cameras and producers, directors and editors. In fact, it is produced by Magilla Entertainment, a production company that is also associated with other reality TV shows. In addition, many of the cast members are referred to as actors.  

These are people, doing a portrayal that is some version of themselves. Probably fairly close versions of themselves.

Tickle, for instance, is probably not going to the opera or spending a lot of time in the library when not running shine. 

Is moonshining legal? What the law says about making moonshine

It’s also important to note that historically, what makes moonshine distillers illegal isn’t the illicit nature of the whiskey cooking. It’s untaxed sales.

That is why so many moonshine distilleries openly make and sell moonshine. And it is why moonshiners historically battle the IRS and not say, ATF. 

So if the moonshiners on the show obtain the proper permits and pay the appropriate taxes, they can walk around in the woods making as much corn mash alcohol as they want without ever breaking a law. 

The show is centered around the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky and in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

And so in March of 2012, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement confirmed this. They indicated that if illegal liquor activities were going on, they’d have made some arrests. They also stated in the Associated Press that they were not taking part in the false depiction of moonshine manufacturing.

In trying to defend themselves as true outlaws, many of the “Moonshiners” cast members have indicated that television footage isn’t evidence. They could just have water in those stills, after all.

Cast members, whose apparent legal expertise is quite impressive, also empirically state that they have to be caught in the act. 

But there’s an easier explanation that doesn’t require a law degree.

In the mountains, local law enforcement and the police don’t really care that much about moonshine investigations. As long as someone’s not being egregious and selling it to kids, law enforcement has better things to do than run the hollers chasing bootleggers.

Every once in a while, around election time, you’ll see a good gambling or moonshine bust. However, the rest of the time, the moonshiner really has to be doing something else. In fact, the only reason Tickle was arrested was for possession of a sawed-off shotgun. 

The truth about moonshine culture in Appalachia

Finally, there’s one last layer to reality that we have to address. It’s the history of moonshine aka white lightning and the influence of the culture upon itself.

They say a lot of mobsters adjusted the way they talked, acted and conducted themselves in the wake of the Godfather movies.

Are these moonshiners really portraying the truest versions of themselves or are they acting how they have been taught a moonshiner acts? 

In the first season, “Moonshiners” relied heavily on footage from the documentary “Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” with (Marvin) Popcorn Sutton. Sutton was not around for filming of “Moonshiners” though.

Sutton was a shrewd man who was a natural-born marketer.

He was of the mountains, of course, but I think he found behaving a certain way increased his notoriety and his marketability.

How much of what Sutton showed the world was authentic Marvin and how much was a created character? By the end, I’m not sure Sutton himself even knew. 

Read Also: Legend or lawbreaker: The real story of Popcorn Sutton

Sutton’s legacy looms large over the Moonshine community.

Popcorn Sutton poses with one of his moonshine stills (photo courtesy of Sucker Punch Pictures)

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How much are others influenced by the way he talked, the way he carried himself or the way he operated? How many are trying to be authentic by imitating, even subconsciously the Godfather of the moonshine community?

Read Also: 6 surprising facts about Popcorn Sutton and his moonshine

Ultimately, that’s a secret that producers don’t want us to know. I suspect most moonshiners would tell you they present their authentic selves to the world. But ego and id are strange, capricious things. 

Is this real life? 

Maybe none of us really know.  

Have you seen the show Moonshiners on Discovery Channel? Are you a fan? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

Moonshine: From Woods To Whiskey

Throughout its storied past, moonshine has been called many things: shine, white lightning, hooch, fire water, white dog, or bathtub gin.  Without regulation, there was no standardization to the methods or monikers of “moonshine”.  Currently, to be called “moonshine”, there are some loose qualifications the spirit must meet.  Ultimately, moonshine is grain alcohol at its purest form.

Moonshine was originally made in secret during the prohibition era and, to contemporary purists, it’s not considered “moonshine” unless it’s clandestine.  However, most distilleries now legally produce moonshine, regardless of whether they bottle and sell a product labeled as “moonshine.”  Whiskey, prior to aging, is moonshine!

So, What is Moonshine?

Moonshine is defined as a homemade, un-aged whiskey, marked by its clear color, corn base, and high alcohol content (sometimes peaking as high as 190 proof). Traditionally, it was produced in a homemade still and bottled in a mason jar.

 For most of its history, moonshine was distilled in secret to avoid taxes and alcohol bans (specifically during the Prohibition Era).

 The term “moonshiner” was popularized in the 18th century, where individuals deep in the woods of the Appalachia attempting to avoid being caught by police distilled under the light of the moon.

How it’s Made

Moonshine consists of:

  • Corn
  • Barley
  • Wheat or Rye (optional)
  • Yeast
  • Water

While distillate or moonshine can be made from pretty much any type of grain, it originally was made from barley or rye.  Moonshine at its purest form, is whiskey, or bourbon distillate.

  It is un-aged, high in proof, and clear in color.

  During the Prohibition Era, if grains were unavailable or too expensive, moonshiners would use white sugar which still gave them that alcohol “kick” they were looking for, but with a sweeter taste to it.

Making moonshine has two main steps: fermentation and distillation.  Fermentation is the process of yeast breaking down the sugars in the grains to produce alcohol.  Once the fermentation process is complete, the “moonshine mash” (fermented grains and yeast) is sent to the still.

   As the temperature rises in the still, the steam is forced through the top of the still into the worm box.  The worm box is typically a barrel with cold water flowing through it and a metal coil pipe down the center.  Alcohol vapors flow through the coil pipe where they cool and condense back into a liquid.

  The last part of distillation is the spout or valve that leads from the worm box to a bucket or steel drum.  Typically this would be sent through at least one filter, but potentially more.

  The “XXX” label, that has been popularized in moonshine imagery, was originally an indication of quality; each “X” represented a time that it had been distilled.

Moonshine Today

Moonshine has changed quite a bit since the backyard bottlers of Prohibition. In 1933, U.S. alcohol production became legal, as long as you paid the appropriate taxes and had the correct permits.  While this makes moonshine legal, you are still prohibited from distilling some at home.

  Why is this?  Mainly for safety reasons.  Distilling is a very precise chemical process that, when done incorrectly, can create a dangerous environment or produce a toxic libation.

 Governmental regulations are not just for tax purposes, but to protect the consumer from drinking something that could cause serious health issues.


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