All About Moonshine and Alcohol


Moonshine Basics

Moonshine is the basic term for home distilled alcohol. Illegal alcohol acquired the name 'moonshine' because it was distilled late at night, concealed in hollows and working only by moonlight.

Moonshine is fermented corn mash. It contains not less than 80% corn and is distilled to 10 proof, or 80% alcohol. Recipes for corn mash whiskey were brought to America from Europe by the early settlers and in Colonial America whiskey mash was so popular that it was used as currency. It was easier to transport corn mash by wagon than the actual corn so the crop was often distilled before shipping. George Washington made his fortune selling corn whiskey.

As transportation improved a formal liquor industry grew up in America which was highly taxed by the government and home distillers retreated into isolated rural areas where practitioners of the art could escape from 'revenuers', as government enforcement officers came to be known. When the 18th Amendment brought America into the age of Prohibition moonshiners became an even bigger target of law enforcement. Distillers took greater pains to disguise stills and moonshine operations at the same time demand for home distilled liquor exploded. With the repeal of Prohibition, liquor was again legal but moonshine has never gone away.

Making moonshine is a simple concept but not an easy avocation. The basic equipment is the still. Even the simplest of stills had to be constructed airtight. There could be no leaks when the pieces were soldered together with tin. The still would need to be heated and copper would be the material of choice for building the still.

As with all alcohol, water is the primary ingredient in moonshine. The limestone aquifers of the south provide especially pure and flavorful waters contributing to its reputation as a center for alcohol distilling. The other basic ingredient is corn. Pure corn whiskey was made without sugar but it is typically added to increase yield. Yeast and malt will convert the corn to alcohol.

There are many recipes for making moonshine as it is truly an art requiring time and practice. Moonshine begins by mixing all the ingredients into a mixture known as mash. The mash is placed in a still and left to ferment. The exact time will it takes for fermentation depends on the amount of heat applied to the mixture.

The mash is heated to point of vaporization (not quite to the boiling point) which will produce a clear, dark-colored liquid. The vapors from the hood of the still are trapped and transferred to an empty container. This condensation is the moonshine. It is ready to drink or sell.

The mash remaining in the container is known as 'slop'. Additional batches of moonshine can be made from the original mash by re-adding the sugar, water, malt and corn meal. This original mash can be used up to eight times to make new moonshine.

Moonshine - Most Basic Recipe
The basic ingredients:
corn meal

The basic process:
Mix all ingredients together in a large container. After mixing, move the mixture, called "mash," into a still and leave it to ferment. How quickly this process occurs depends on the warmth of the mash.  Heat the mash to the point of vaporization at 173 degrees. The mash will produce a clear liquid, often the color of dark beer. You must watch this process with careful attention.   Trap vapor using a tube or coil. The vapor will be transferred into a second, empty container. The resulting condensation is the moonshine. It is then ready to drink or sell.  Keep mash in container. It is now called "slop." Add more sugar, water, malt, and corn meal and repeat the process.   Repeat the process up to eight times before replacing the mash. 


Types of Alcohol

What is vodka?
Vodka is a clear spirit of high purity. It can be made from a wide range of raw materials, mostly grain is used. Vodka is often considered a tasteless, odorless spirit suitable only for mixing or inducing drunkenness. But there is a lot more to vodka than that. True, the U.S. government might define vodka as a clear neutral spirit of no discernable flavour or aroma, and many vodkas aspire to this standard. But even among these, there is a quite noticable variation in quality. Eastern-style vodkas have a lot more flavour, or "character."
Vodka is one of the commonly homemade spirits, although this practice is illegal in most countries.

Making vodka
The basic steps in vodka-making are:
Distillation and rectification
Filtration and purification
Dilution and bottling
Most vodka is made from cereals. Traditionally, rye was most used, and is still the main ingredient of most Polish vodkas. Wheat is the main cereal used in other countries. Other cereals such as oats and barley are also used.
Many people believe vodka is made only from potatoes; potatoes are used, but are often regarded as inferior raw materials. It is more difficult to make a good vodka from potatoes, but it can be done.

Other materials such as molasses are also used.

A wort is made from the grain or potatoes crushed up and heated to convert their starches into fermentable sugars. This is then fermented to produce what is known as a wash.

Distillation and rectification
The next step is to distill the wash to produce a high-proof spirit. Distillation is the process of obtaining a high-alcohol mixture from the wash, rectification is the process of removing undesirable components such as methanol from this distillate. This can be done with a simple pot still by discarding the first and last parts of the distillate produced; a modern continuous still can do this more efficiently. Higher purity and alcohol content can be obtained by multiple distillations; many vodkas are triple distilled, some even more.

Filtration and purification
The distillate is then filtered, usually through charcoal. Other materials, such as river sand, have been used in the past, but charcoal is superior. Sometimes coagulants are used to bind impurities so that they can be filtered out more readily. Smirnoff proudly proclaims that each drop of their vodka passes through seven tons of charcoal.

Dilution and bottling
The spirit after purification is at a very high proof, often 190 proof or so (95% alcohol). This is diluted, usually to about 80 proof (40% alcohol) for bottling. Obviously, the water that is used for this dilution must also be properly purified. Distilled water can be used, but it is cheaper to deionize and filter the water. This is also considered to produce a better flavoured vodka.

Other Flavorings
Most vodka will be sold as plain vodka. Other vodka, however, is flavoured. There are many traditional Polish and Russian flavoured vodkas, and in recent years, many Western producers have released many flavoured vodkas, typically flavoured with citrus, pepper, or fruits.   Most vodka is unaged. A few varieties are aged in wooden barrels.

Fermented from sugar or molasses or other sugar industry by-products. Rum starts off clear; white rum remains so, while golden and dark rums gain colour from cask aging or added colouring. Rum tends to be a tropical product, made in sugar cane growing areas, with the Caribbean islands being particularly famous for their rum. Here in the southern end of Queensland cane country, there's no shortage of rum.

What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made from grain or malt. It differs from other types of grain alcohol in that it absorbs colour and flavour from the barrels during aging, it retains more flavour from the fermented mash by being distilled at a lower proof and being less thoroughly filtered. As a result, it is much more flavoursome than vodka. Unlike gin and akvavit, it doesn't have other flavourings added.

Different types of whiskey
There are many different types of whiskey. These are distinguished from each other by the way in which they are made, what they are made from, and where they are made.
American blended whiskey must be at least 20% straight whiskey. Bulked out with neutral grain spirit, sherry can be added for colour. If it contains 51% or more of the appropriate straight whiskey, it can be designated as blended bourbon or blended rye.

Australian whiskey is made from barley, maize and millet. Australian malt whiskey must be 100% barley malt, and must be aged for at least two years. Australian blended whiskey must be 25% or more malt, and also be aged for at least two years. Most Australian whiskey drinkers opt for Scotch or bourbon.

Bonded whiskey, or bottled in bond, is a whiskey produced in the USA aged under government supervision. Must be 100 proof, and aged for at least four years, and is produced from a single distillation.

Bourbon is produced in the USA, and must be distilled from a mash containing 51-79% maize (corn). It must be aged a minimum of two years. It must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol. If it is younger than four years, this must be stated on the bottle. Bourbon is usually double-distilled, to about 65% alcohol. The mash is often over 75% maize, with the remainder being malted barley and rye. All bourbons today are sour mash bourbons.

Canadian whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, and can be made from rye, maize and barley or barley malt. Most Canadian whiskies are blends with a very high content of neutral spirit. Up to 2% by volume can be added flavourings, such as sherry, plum wine, etc.

Corn whiskey is US whiskey distilled from 80% or more maize. The legal version of moonshine.

De Luxe whisky - some blends are described as "De Luxe"; currently all De Luxe Scotch is at least 35% malt whisky, but this is not required, and in any case, is sometimes exceeded by non-de luxe blends.

Irish whiskey is made in Ireland, aged for a minimum of three years. Most Irish whiskies are blends, Irish malts are usually unpeated.

Malt whisk(e)y is distilled from barley malt. A large number of malt whiskies are made in Scotland, others in other countries, such as Japan, New Zealand and Germany.

Rye whiskey is distilled from a mash containing at least 51% rye.

Scotch whisky is distilled in Scotland, and aged a minumum of three years. Scotch can be either malt or grain whisky; the overwhelming majority of Scotch sold is a blend of both. Some blends have caramel added to colour them. Most Scotch is double-distilled. Scottish malts are often heavily flavoured with peat smoke.

Sour mash whiskey is made by adding some of the previous batch to the new mash. All bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys today are sour mash whiskeys.

Straight Whiskey is pure whiskey, undiluted by neutral spirit or other flavourings. In the USA, straight whiskey must be aged in charred barrels.

Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, with same 51-79% corn mash, minimum of two years aging. However, it is also charcoal filtered, or charcoal mellowed by the Lincoln County process, adding extra flavour and smoothness.

Making whiskey
The first step is producing the mash, either from grain, heated and treated with enzymes, or barley malt, or a mixture of both. In a sour mash whiskey, some of the last batch is added to the new mash. Once this is fermented, it is distilled.
Distillation can either be in pot stills, or continuous stills (Coffey stills). Double distillation is usual, Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled. Distillation to about 60% -80% alcohol is usual. If it is distilled to too high a proof, too much flavour is lost.

Once distilled, the new spirit is aged in barrels, usually oak barrels. Sometimes old barrels previously used for port, sherry or bourbon are used, sometimes new barrels are used. Barrels are usually charred on the inside. A relatively new development is the stainless steel barrel with an oak lid, with a few pieces of charred wood tossed in for more effect.

Drinking whiskey
At one end of the scale are whiskeys usually drunk mixed, either simply with Coke, or in some of the traditional whiskey cocktails. At the other extreme are whiskies usually drunk straight. Sometimes with ice, sometimes with a little water added to help liberate the flavour.   At any rate, if you enjoy it, you must be doing it right.

Some people might try to tell you that bourbon must be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Not true, as it can be made anywhere in the USA, even Alaska if you wished. There are currently no whiskey distilleries in Bourbon County.   The Baptist preacher Elijah Craig is rumoured to be the inventor of bourbon. At any rate, he was an early distiller, and is sometimes credited with the invention of charred barrel aging.  The founder of the Laphroaig Distillery, Donald Johnston, died a true distiller's death when he drowned in a barrel of half-finished whisky.   The Tomatin Distillery in Scotland uses some of their cooling water for a heated eel farm.

Gin is a flavoured white spirit. All gin is flavoured with juniper berries, and usually other things too, like lemon, coriander seeds, and so on. Unlike liqueurs, where flavourings are added to the distilled spirits, gin is made by re-distilling the spirit with the flavourings, either with the flavouring ingredients in the still, or by passing the vapour through the flavouring agents during distillation. The name comes from genievre, French for juniper.

Brandies are distilled wines. Brandy can be used either specifically to refer to distillates of grape wines, or, more generally, to spirits distilled from any fermented fruit. Another generic term that can be used is eau de vie (French for water of life). Some fruit liqueurs are labelled as brandies, but, not being distilled from fruit, aren't true brandies. The word brandy comes the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. Brandy is often made from thin, harsh, acidic wine; bad wine can make good brandy.
Many varieties of brandies have their own specific names:
Applejack - apple brandy
Armagnac - grape brandy from the Pays de Gascogne in south-west France
Calvados - apple brandy from Normandy
Cognac - grape brandy from a region in western France consisting of the départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime
Grappa - made from grape skins, stems, seeds etc., the residue of wine-making (Italian)
Marc - made from grape skins, stems, seeds etc., the residue of wine-making (French)
Metaxa - Greek grape brandy
Pisco - clear grape brandy from South America

Some useful brandy terms:
V.S. - minimum age of any brandy in the blend is 3 years, also known as three-star
V.S.O.P. - five years old; also *****
X.O. - six years and older

Mezcal and Tequila
Mezcal and tequila are Mexican spirits distilled from agaves (those spiky plants, also known as maguey). Mezcal (or mescal) is the generic term, tequila being a regional type of mezcal. The name mezcal comes from mexcalmetl, Nahuatl for agave.

Making mezcal
Once the agave, or maguey, has reached maturity, it is harvested. The leaves are cut off; the heart of the agave, called the piņa is used. Traditionally, the piņas are baked in rock-lined conical pits, or palenques, and then ground to a mash with a stone grinding wheel. The modern industrial producers cook the piņas in stainless steel steam ovens and use mechanical crushers. The mash is then fermented and double-distilled. The mezcal may be bottled immediately, or aged. Aging times are quite short compared to some other spirits (a 4 year old whiskey is young, a 4 year old mezcal is old).

Tequila is mezcal made in an area near the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Tequila is made from the blue agave, Agave tequilana. Tequila only needs to be made from 51% agave, the remainder usually being corn or cane sugar. Of course, there are 100% agave tequilas as well.

Worms in tequila? Well, no, since worms are not on the list of ingredients allowed in tequila by the Mexican government. Worms in mezcal, yes, sometimes. The worm is an agave worm, or gusano. There is a lot of folklore surrounding the worm, with rumours that the worm is hallucinogenic, or a source of great heroism, or simply that the pickling of the worm is a proof of potency of the spirit. In any case, the eating of the worm is often made into a ritual of machismo. However, the worm isn't particularly traditional; it's a modern marketing gimmick.

The True Story of the Worm
In 1940 Jacobo Lozano Páez moved to Mexico City from Parras, Coahuila, Mexico to study painting in the National School of Arts of San Carlos. He got a job at the historic liquor store "La Minita" affiliated with "La Economica" in downtown Mexico City . This experience changed his artistic aspirations to those of a successful bottler and trader of mezcal, an activity initiated in the same liquor store. Jacobo met his future wife working there. In 1942 he started a small bottling facility and entrusted into it his wife's hands. They collected used bottles and cleaned them for their operation. The couple bought mezcal from the Méndez family in Matatlan, Oaxaca. In 1950 the then inexperienced entrepreneur, now owner of Atlántida, S.A., a small alcoholic beverage bottling company located downtown, AND a (self-proclaimed) connoisseur of the mezcal's production process (?) discovered in tasting, that the maguey (agave) worms gave the mezcal a different flavor, since when the plant was cut for cooking a lot of these creatures remained in the heart during production (a bad choice of plagued magueys). This is how he got the idea to give his product a distinctive marketing touch; adding a worm to the beverage and including with the bottle a small sack with salt, seasoned with the same larva, dehydrated and ground. Ultimately these ingredients determined the identification of the mezcals "Gusano de Oro" and "Gusano Rojo."

Some tequila and mezcal terms:
añejo - aged for more than a year, in barrels of 350 litres or smaller
blanco - white tequila, aged less than 2 months
reposado - rested - aged for between 2 months and years

Add flavourings to a base spirit, and you have a liqueur. Usually sweetened, too. Grape spirit, brandy, neutral grain spirit, whisky (whiskey), rum, whatever, can be used as the base. The flavourings can be herbs, flowers, barks, roots, nuts, fruits, or even entirely artificial. Often regarded as the spirits for casual drinkers to drink, they offer a lot of variety. Many traditional liqueurs started life as medicines.

Gins are not liqueurs, since the flavouring isn't added to the final liquor. Flavoured vodkas and akvavits are liqueurs (at least by the definition above), but are not usually considered as such (so they're in the vodka category).

Some common types of liqueurs are:
Cream liqueurs: Liqueurs with cream, thick and usually mild and very easy drinking. Drink straight or mix with milk. Won't keep too long, especially after being opened. Keep in the fridge.
Creme liqueurs: Liqueurs with enough sugar to become thick and creamy in texture. No cream in these.
Triple sec: Sweet orange liqueur. Curaçao is triple sec. Cointreau is widely regarded as the best brand.


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