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What is the History of Moonshine Laws?

Before alcohol was outlawed during The Prohibition, native American Indian tribes have long been producing alcoholic drinks from native plants. (2)

Scottish monks, as early as 1100 A.D., were already concocting a high-alcoholic beverage referred to in Latin as aquae vitae or ”breath of life” which later became popularly known on as Scottish Whiskey. 

Private alcohol stills has also been in existence prior to the creation of the US Constitution. (10)

Much earlier, specifically at the onset of civilization, fermented alcoholic beverages have been created as an alternative to unsuitable drinking water. (10)

Cultural history reveals that alcoholic drinks and its public consumption served as a means to communicate ideas, news or interact with strangers during an age where the travel of information was slow. Sharing a drink and an informative conversation with people was savored and consuming alcoholic beverages was an integral part of this process.

So how and when was the production of alcohol deemed illicit?


The Origin of Moonshining Laws

Moonshining is the process of manufacturing illegal alcohol. As seen from the historical records below, the journey of outlawing the production of alcohol was gradual and took centuries to implement. Even with existing laws to curb its creation, it is impossible to distill the human spirit's need for distilled spirits. 


Records from the Virginia Colonial Assembly in 1629 details specific rules to curb excess alcohol consumption and its associated “evils.” 

"Ministers shall not give themselves to excess in drinkinge, or riott, or spending their tyme idellye day or night,"

In 1637, Massachusetts ordered that no person shall remain in any tavern "longer than necessary occasions"

Plymouth Colony in 1633 prohibited the sale of spirits "more than 2 pence worth to anyone but strangers just arrived" 


The presentation of a permit to sell liquor took effect in 1633 at the Massachusetts Colony.

Drunken behavior were also slapped with fines.

However, these did not lessen the riotous behavior which resulted from alcohol use as indicated by a journal entry from an annoyed traveler named Sarah Kemble Knight. 

I could get no sleep, because of the Clamor of some of the Town Tope-ers in the next room.... I heartily fretted & wish't 'am tongue tyed.... They kept calling for Tother Gill, Wch while they were swallowing, was some Intermission, But presently, like Oyle to fire, encreased the flame 



When it was seen that alcoholic consumption is difficult to control, a John Wesley declared in 1773 that distilling is a sin and so advocated for its Prohibition. (11)

Also, a document dated 1730 details the British Government’s aversion to alcoholic beverage by suggesting the negative ways it affects the human body, society and the economy.

  "that the landed interest suffers greatly by the distilling of spirituous liquors; the malignant effects they (alcoholic beverages)have upon human bodies; and the several disorders and immoralities occasioned by this sort of excess…`all manners of vice increases, such as murders, robberies, and firing of houses’ and alcohol delivers `dreadful consequences to the female sex and their unhappy children’”. 

The same document also describes how farmers cultivated more ingredients for the production of alcohol than for basic food items such as bread. It asserts that the more people drink, the less they will consume food therefore there will be less demand for edible goods resulting to less tax revenue collected by the government from food producers. This viewpoint later gave way to the creation of the 1736 Gin Tax.

The Gin Tax was the British government's way to not necessarily discourage alcoholic drinking but to partake in the increase in sales of gin. However, the Gin Tax did not curb people's consumption of alcohol. It only discouraged the purchase of licenses to sell gin as people opted to buy illegally in the black market where no taxes are involved.


After the United States declared its independence from Britain, the newly formed American government followed the British way of placing federal tax on liquors and spirits in order to pay for the costs of fighting a lengthy war. Displeased with the turn of events, farmers and moonshiners continued on producing whisky completely disregarding the tax they ought to pay. "Revenuers" or federal agents who came to collect were attacked.

In 1794, disgruntled citizens rebelling against the new government battled with George Washington's militiamen in what is termed as the Whisky Rebellion. The moonshiners lost, their mob was dispersed, their leaders were captured but moonshining continued on. 

Even George Washington moonshined in the privacy of his own home. He instructed his farm manager James Anderson:

"I consent to you commencing a distillery, and approve of you purchasing the still, and I shall not object to your converting part of the coopers shop at the mill for this operation"¹.

"The whiskey that Washington produced at that time would be less like today's whiskeys and more like a "moonshine" type of beverage, which was extremely strong. This "white lightning" accounted for approximately 90% of Washington's whiskey sales¹."

Coincidentally, White Lightning is the title of a film Burt Reynolds starred in which features him as an outlawed Moonshiner.


White Lightning never strikes twice because once is enough.



The 1860s saw Moonshiners working with the Ku Klux Klan to fight against the excise tax being collected by the government to fund the Civil War. Efforts of the moonshiners to attack officials of the IRS as well as intimidate locals who are predisposed to give the locations of stills increased.

It was also during the 1800s when the term "Demon Rum" was coined by physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush.


The 20th century

The early 20th century was a golden age for moonshiners despite laws which banned the outright sales and consumption of alcohol. Thanks to the Prohibition imposed in the 1920s where no legal alcohol was made available, demand for moonshine soared. 

However, the demand for moonshine decreased in 1933 when the Prohibition was repealed. 


Current Moonshine Laws By State

It is illegal to distill alcohol in homes as federal law demands that one secure a permit prior to distilling alcohol. However, licensed distilleries produce Moonshine and pay the required state and federal taxes upon its production.

Moonshiners still operate to this day. According to the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission's chief law enforcement officer Mark Hutchens, moonshine is still being made and the market is made up of "good ol’ fellas who are having fun with it more than anything else.."


Moonshine has been around since man craved for a concoction more powerful than water to quench his thirst. As time has shown, it will never lose its appeal.


"Moonshine to quench the devil’s thirst"


Actor Robert Mitchum plays a moonshine runner dodging US Treasury Agents in the movie Thunder Road.


Posted by Jason Stone on

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