Moonshine blindness is something that many people associate with making or drinking moonshine. So what is it and how can we avoid it? Check out our guide on how to keep the methanol out of moonshine.
Can Moonshine Be Dangerous?
Moonshine can definitely be dangerous, especially if produced or consumed by someone without the proper knowledge required.
One of the most dangerous aspects of moonshine is the fact that it is usually a very high proof alcohol and you can easily be overserved.
Drinking moonshine is not the same as drinking another spirit such as your typical commercially produced vodka or whiskey. Moonshine is much stronger and hits much harder.
With more and more moonshine based cocktails and recipes, there are many opportunities for people to over consume as you may not taste the moonshine in the drink.
When drinking moonshine ‘on the rocks’ or with water you can taste how strong the spirit is and are more likely to sip with caution.
When the taste is masked with other flavors in a cocktail, you may be more likely to drink faster and potentially consume more.
Check out How to Determine Moonshine Proof
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Is Making Moonshine Safe?
In addition to making sure you are not going to suffer the consequences of overconsumption, you also need to make sure that your moonshine is safe to drink.
Any commercially produced moonshine will be safe to drink because of the strict protocols in place and of course, the risk of the company being sued if they actually poison their customers.
When making your own moonshine, the onus is on you to make sure you are producing a spirit that is safe to drink.
Those who jump into making moonshine without the proper knowledge can easily and unknowingly ingest poisonous materials.
So is making moonshine safe? The answer is, you can make moonshine safely, if given the correct tools and information.
What is Moonshine Blindness?
Moonshine blindness is a term related to the effects of methanol poisoning. Methanol poisoning has been linked to the production and consumption of moonshine for many years.
In the 1920’s many false reports of moonshine blindness were spread as propaganda in an effort to curb moonshiners who were operating (illegally of course) during prohibition.
While some of these reports had no merit, others were unfortunately true.
Those who were making moonshine without the proper knowledge were unknowingly selling a product that contained methanol and could potentially cause blindness or even death when consumed.
In addition, many moonshiners would cut corners in order to increase profits. With this in mind, they would not want to discard the methanol in their product and even worse, some would cut their moonshine with antifreeze.
What are the Effects of Methanol Poisoning?
Methanol poisoning will not necessarily show up right away. In fact, you can be asymptomatic between 1 and 72 hours and later develop symptoms.
After ingesting methanol you may experience symptoms that are very similar to excess alcohol consumption, which can make this ailment difficult to spot.
Short Term Effects of Methanol Poisoning Include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Reduced ability to coordinate your movements
- Abdominal pain
Longer Term Effects of Methanol Poisoning Include:
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Abnormal liver function
- Inflammation of the pancreas
- Blurred vision
- Sensitivity to light
- Visual hallucinations
- Partial to total loss of vision
- Muscle death at the cellular level
- Kidney failure
Methanol ingestion hurts the body by creating an accumulation of acid in the blood. As the acid level rises, the symptoms worsen.
If you suspect methanol poisoning, do not induce vomiting and seek medical attention right away.
How Can You Tell if Moonshine Has Methanol in it?
For the average Joe, it is nearly impossible to tell if moonshine has methanol in it. Some say they can tell by smell or taste, but really if you haven’t cut the moonshine yourself there is only one scientific method that is truly effective.
In order to safely test for the presence of methanol you need to:
- Mix 8 mL of a sodium dichromate solution with 4 mL of sulfuric acid.
- Swirl gently to mix, then add 10 drops of the mixed solution to a test tube or other small container containing the alcohol.
- Swirl the container to mix and then place approximately 10 inches from your face and smell the mixture.
- If the scent is pungent and irritating, there is methanol in the mixture. If it is fruity, there is no methanol.
So what can you do if you don’t have these scientific ingredients on hand? Your best bet is to never consume moonshine that you don’t have a 100% guarantee is safe to drink.
How is Methanol Produced in Moonshine?
Methanol is a by-product produced during the fermentation process of making moonshine. During fermentation the enzymes in the yeast are responsible for converting the fermentable sugars into energy for the cell.
The main by-product (and goal of fermentation) is ethanol. However, it is not the only thing produced.
Methanol is not a direct byproduct of this process but rather forms from the breakdown of pectin in corn. However, this does not mean fruit mash will not produce methanol as well.
While methanol is produced during the fermentation process, it was actually ADDED to industrial alcohol during prohibition to discourage would-be bootleggers.
Read More: How to Ferment Your Moonshine Mash
Many bootleggers chose to instead just double their efforts to distill and fraction the alcohol to make it drinkable.
In turn, the government doubled down their efforts and added up to 10% methanol and other toxic ingredients including chloroform, gasoline, and mercury salts.
Unfortunately, instead of discouraging bootleggers, this decision resulted in the poisoning and killing of an estimated 10,000 Americans by the time the Prohibition ended.
While prohibition may seem like a lifetime ago, methanol poisoning still kills many people around the world today.
In India over 180 persons were killed in Bangalore in 2008 and 138 people passed away from methanol poisoning in Gujarat, India in 2009.
25 people passed away in Indonesia after consuming fermented palm wine containing methanol in 2009.
An alert was put out by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2014 which reported there have been increasing outbreaks of methanol poisoning in several countries including Kenya, Gambia, Libya, Uganda, India, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nicaragina, Pakistan, Turkey, Czech Republic, Estonia and Norway.
The size of these outbreaks ranged from 20 to over 800 victims, with case fatality rates of over 30 % in some cases (WHO 2014).
How Much Methanol is in Moonshine?
The amount of methanol produced during methanol can vary based on the strain of yeast used. Typically, about 10% of the alcohol created can be methanol. If your fermentation creates 10% alcohol in total, you are looking at 1% of your total mash to be methanol.
Fortunately, methanol can be removed from moonshine during the distillation process. However, it is not realistic to remove 100% of methanol even during commercial distillation.
So even while drinking commercial spirits, you are still ingesting methanol. Fortunately, there are strict guidelines on the amount allowed in the final product.
The US regulates the amount of allowable ratio of methanol to ethanol in spirits at .7%, in EU the amount is slightly higher at 1%.
The safe level of methanol in ethanol is 2%. This measurement came as a result of testing done on human subjects. While the maximum safe level of daily consumption is 2g a toxic dose is 8 g.
How to Remove Methanol From Moonshine
With the dangers of methanol in mind, it would seem downright foolish to consume any spirit, let alone moonshine. However, there is a way to remove methanol from moonshine.
In order to remove the harmful byproducts from your shine you need to perform what is called cuts and fractions during distillation.
Just like water and ethanol have different boiling points, ethanol and methanol have different boiling points. With this in mind, during distillation ‘cuts’ are created based on the temperature of the output which determine what is kept, what is thrown away, and what is distilled for a second time.
Of course, methanol is one element you want to throw away. Methanol boils at 148F while ethanol boils at 173F. In general, during distillation you can discard any output before your mash reaches 170F.