What is moonshine prohibition and is it still in place? Let’s take a closer look at the history and legalities of making moonshine at home.
Moonshine has always been around. In fact, it was even mentioned in the Bible. But did you know that moonshining was once legal in the United States?
The word moonshine comes from the old English word mune, meaning moonlight. This term was applied to anything that was illegal or illicit. However, moonshine was not always seen as illicit. In fact, homemade whiskey was once even used as a form of currency.
Moonshine was once legal in the US. While moonshine may have seen a rise in popularity Prohibition, it was illegal long before then.
History of Moonshine
Moonshine is a product older than the United States itself. In fact, grain-based whiskey was commonly produced by early American settlers, especially in grain-producing states.
The reason for this is because farmers quickly realized that they could easily distill their excess grain. In fact, these early pioneers could make more money by making whiskey than they could by selling their grain. It was during this time that whiskey could even be used in place of money to purchase goods.
A New Whiskey Tax
In order to make this process more difficult, the government passed a law in 1791 that banned the production of alcohol without a permit. Therefore, when the government prohibited the sale of alcohol, they technically outlawed the making of alcohol as well.
This change did not come without backlash.
The Whiskey Rebellion
As we previously stated, the new law did not come without consequences. In 1794 a group of farmers and distillers created an uprising in western Pennsylvania in protest of a whiskey tax enacted by the federal government. This became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
Did you know that the first recorded moonshiner was George Washington's brother Lawrence? He ran a still on his farm before he died in 1807.
A War Effort
During the American Civil War, many people turned to moonshining due to the war effort. The Union Army needed food and money while their soldiers were away fighting for them. So, they allowed farmers to grow crops such as corn and wheat but not sell the produce at market. Instead, these farmers could only use the grains themselves to create spirits like whiskey and gin.
This practice ended after the war because President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. This act required all farmers to sell their crops at set prices based on the government’s cost of production.
The 18th Amendment
To say the 18th amendment was unpopular would be an understatement. However, Prohibition was enacted in an attempt to assist with many social issues which many religious groups felt would be solved by the prohibition of alcohol.
This was not a quick or easy process. Instead, it was an effort slowly established state by state starting when the state of Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and the Prohibition Party was established in 1869.
The Prohibition movement gained traction and support in the 1880s and 1890s from those who saw alcohol as the cause of poverty, industrial accidents, and the break-up of families. Some saw a link between alcohol and urban immigrant ghettos, criminality, and political corruption.
By 1916, 26 of the then 48 states had already passed prohibition laws.
How WWI Shaped Prohibition
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 the reason for prohibition shifted from social reform to grain conservation. Limits on alcohol production were enacted first as a war measure in 1918, and prohibition became fully established with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and its enforcement from January 1920 onward.
While prohibition did conserve grains for measures outside of distillation, it also had many negative effects. It was catastrophic for the service industry, opened the door for a new ‘criminal activity’ and took away the ability for another to have a legal drink.
Did you know? During prohibition breweries were mandated to produce ‘near-beer’ or beer with 0.5% alcohol.
Many breweries instead chose to get creative with new economic ventures. These included ice cream, pottery, bread and most famously malt extract.
It was well known that this extract could be used in the production of beer. While breweries that produced this malt extract were raided, ultimately it was ruled that malt extract was a cooking ingredient and could legally be sold.
Many soon realized that hardware stores sold the materials needed to make a distiller and libraries gave easy access to instruction materials for making your own spirits. This gave a rise in popularity for those making their own spirits in the comfort of their own homes. This included the popular ‘bathtub gin’ that was often actually made in a bathtub!
While prohibition was designed to curb the sale and consumption of alcohol, it also seemed to also empower Americans to learn how to make their own spirits.
It wasn’t just the average American who decided to make their own spirits. Religious institutions took advantage of the exemptions granted to churches in order to have wine to serve during religious ceremonies, however, they still had to make it themselves.
The churches would receive grape concentrate from the grape industry and would wait for fermentation to occur to turn the juice into wine.
How Did Bootlegging Begin?
While most people associate the term bootlegging with the illegal distribution of alcohol during prohibition, the term is actually believed to be much older. It is believed the word actually came into use in the Midwest in the 1880’s as a means to discourage new settlers from concealing a flask in their boot when trading with Native Americans.
When prohibition ended the legal manufacturing and distribution of alcohol a demand rose for an illicit supply chain. Early bootleggers started smuggling commercially-made spirits from across the border from both Canada and Mexico. There was also an opportunity to get alcohol supplied from foreign ships along the coast.
Outrunning the Coast Guard
Their favorite sources of supply were the Bahamas, Cuba, and the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the southern coast of Newfoundland.
One popular drop point was an area in the water about three miles outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey just outside of the limits where the United States had jurisdiction. The ships were docked and the alcohol was packed onto boats designed to outrun the U.S. Coast Guard .
However, it wasn’t long before the Coast Guard caught onto this scheme and started searching ships farther out from the coast and increasing the motor speeds on their boats to keep up with the smugglers.
Local Sources of Whiskey
While the sources of smuggling from outside the country may have gotten more difficult to obtain, there were still many local sources of spirits.
Many pharmacies still provided ‘medicinal’ whiskey for those who had real (or forged) prescriptions.
In addition, many industries were allowed to produce alcohol as long as it had ingredients added that made it unfit for drinking. It was common for this supply chain to be diverted and for the alcohol to be ‘washed’ of their additional ingredients and sold at the speakeasy.
Moonshiners and Prohibition
By the late 1920’s local moonshiners became major suppliers by making their own corn-based spirits. However, there was much concern over how faulty distillation practices could cause blindness, paralysis and even death.
While prohibition was originally enacted to encourage better morals among Americans, the subsequent bootlegging actually established American organized crime.
This was largely due to the complexity of the bootlegging operation. They had to establish a connection between concealed distilleries and breweries to transport channels and restaurants, nightclubs and speakeasies. Gangs began to establish territories in order to get a monopoly over distribution.
Of course, this fight for power led to many murders and gang wars. One of the most famous instances is the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929. During this incident, the Al Capone gang shot to death seven members of the rival George “Bugs” Moran gang.
While the gangs eventually learned to work with one another, their criminal activity expanded to include narcotics, prostition, extortion, loan sharking and gambling.
What Was the Punishment for Bootlegging During Prohibition?
While it may have seemed that bootlegging was a common occurrence, it was not without its punishment. Bootleggers and moonshiners producers faced heavy penalties during the prohibition age. These were increased substantially by Congress in 1929 when they passed the Increased Penalties Act.
At the time, anyone convicted of bootlegging would be punished for each offense by a fine not exceeding $5,000 or by imprisonment for not exceeding one year, or both.
What Was Illegal During Prohibition?
Ironically enough, drinking alcohol was not illegal during prohibition. The 18th amendment that created the ban on liquor only banned the “ manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors .”
This made way for people to consume alcohol that was obtained illegally. However, there were also several loopholes that allowed people to obtain spirits.
As alcohol was seen as medicinal at the time, it could be prescribed by your doctor. Many doctors at the time would exchange prescriptions for cash.
In addition, while prohibition was ratified in 1919, it did not begin until 1920. This gave landowners plenty of time to distill large amounts of whiskey to carry them through.
How Much did Moonshine Cost in Prohibition?
As making and transporting moonshine came with a considerable risk, spirits were priced high to entice bootleggers.
When prohibition began the typical price per gallon of spirits would be about $25, which when adjusted for inflation would be over $325. Considering this is about three times the cost of a premium whiskey today, it was a high ticket item.
Considering that the product you received could possibly cause sickness, blindness or even death, it doesn’t seem like a fair trade.
However, these high profits were the reason bootleggers were willing to take these risks. The general public were likely paying far more than $25 a gallon as this was only the price that the moonshiners were selling it to the bootleggers for.
However, as prohibition continued prices began to fall. By 1927, the price had declined substantially and was $12 a gallon, which would be $180 today.
How Prohibition Gave Birth to NASCAR
Running moonshine wasn’t only a means of making a good profit during prohibition, it also served as the training grounds for NASCAR.
Successfully running moonshine required both a fast car and the ability to drive well and elude authorities. This required those who were transporting moonshine from rural areas or across the border to alter their vehicles to make them faster and better able to handle hairpin turns.
Moonshiners found their perfect engine in the Ford V-8. It was fast enough to stay one step ahead of the law, rugged enough for the mountain roads and had a big enough trunk and back seat to squeeze in moonshine.
Bootleggers were able to have their engine modified easily to gain a few extra miles per hour of speed, which could make all the difference in car chases.
For many during the depression, running moonshine offered a way out of extreme poverty. In fact, Appalachian moonshining did not stop with the repeal of Prohibition.
In fact, moonshining continued to thrive thanks to the persistence of dry counties and a desire to evade hefty federal alcohol taxes.