While “moonshine” has always been a part of American history from the 1930s, it’s now become a beverage of choice for those Americans who want a drink and have no greenbacks to buy their booze legally. Blame it on the recession, say moonshiners here in the Eugene suburb who say making jake is “a family tradition.” Meanwhile, there’s news from overseas that a bad batch of “moonshine” – meaning illicit distillation – when Reuters reported Dec. 15 that “an adulterated batch of bootleg liquor has killed at least 125 drinkers in eastern India, with dozens more arriving at a cramped rural hospital with poisoning symptoms. The deaths come just days after a hospital fire killed 93 people in the same state of West Bengal. Both disasters highlight lax health and safety standards as the nation of 1.2 billion people rapidly modernizes. Residents of Mograhat, a town about 50 km (31 miles) south of West Bengal's capital Kolkata, fell severely ill after drinking liquor from several illegal shops. Ambulances brought more patients from villages to the town every few minutes on Thursday.”
Moonshine, also called “white lighting, mountain dew and hooch”
Moonshine, meaning the illicit distillation of illegally produced beverages known as: white lighting, mountain dew and hooch is on the rise, say those who make a blend they dub as “jake” here in the wilds of western Oregon.
One reason why moonshine has been outlawed is it can kill.
“It's probably obvious that there are no health standards, no regulatory bodies that govern the production of moonshine. For generations, moonshine has been made in home- made stills, hidden from sight. The forest, or a swamp, is often the easiest place to locate a still; those located closer to home can be found in barns, chicken coops, or buried underground,” added the Reuters report from India Dec. 15, while noting that “quality control and sanitation are probably not of the utmost importance to many people who drink moonshine (after all, alcohol kills many bacteria, right?), people are sometimes concerned about whether or not the moonshine they just bought is safe to drink. After all, people go blind from drinking bad moonshine, and it has also been known to cause neurological damage, including paralysis. “
Moonshine’s dark history in the U.S.
In 1930, thousands of people in the southeast were afflicted with a partial paralysis of their feet and legs as a result of drinking a concoction known as “jake,” stated a public health site at ibiblio.org.
This health site quoted one reporter in the 1920's described drinking moonshine this way:
"The instant he swallowed the stuff he feels as if he were sunburned all over, his head begins to buzz as if a hive of bees had swarmed there, when he closed his eyes, he sees six hundred million torch-light processions all charging at him, ten abreast, and when he opens his eyes the light blinds him and everything seems dancing about."
Moonshiners often add some "extra" ingredients, either intentionally or accidently, in the process of distilling their liquor. Some of these include:
-- rubbing alcohol
-- wood alcohol
-- paint thinner
-- embalming fluid
-- chemical fertilizers manure
Depending on the type of still used, reported ibiblio.org, “pine pitch or lead often leeches into the liquor. The lead is particularly dangerous because it is virtually undectable, and if consumed lead has a cumulative effect in the human body. While the mash is fermenting in a still in the woods, it is not uncommon for insects and small animals to come and drink from the still. They can fall in and sink to the bottom of the mash.”
Red Moon Rising is both the moon and “moonshine”
It was the last lunar eclipse until April, 2014, that’s why “moonshiners” down in southern California where brewing their mash on Dec. 9 when a rare lunar eclipse was seen down the West coast.
According to NASA, the “moon takes on this new color because sunlight is still able to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and cast a red glow on the moon.”
Thus, it's no surprise that moonshiners are now talking about a special holiday blend called "Red Moon Rising."
"That's a dandy name for it," quipped one local Deadwood man who said he used to make it, but no more saying "it's not worth it. It's cheaper to buy a jug than to make it. They only do that up in the hills where there's no store to get it."
In turn, Hollywood has always been interested in “moonshiner” stories; thus a new TV show dubbed “moonshiners” is the latest product of reality TV’s fixation on regular Joe Six Packs who do such stuff as making moonshine.
For instance, the Discovery Channel’s new Appalachia-set “Moonshiners” – that premiered last night (Wednesday) night at 10 p.m. – viewers got a rare treat to see “Tim the Moonshiner” and “Tickle the Sidekick,” and “Popcorn the Legend,” as they make moonshine and talk blue collar trash while seeming high.
It's also noted in history of moonshiners that part of the fun of minking the stuff is calling yourself crazy names so the law won't "no nothing."
What happens when you drink bad moonshine?
"He drank the alcohol late in the afternoon yesterday...we didn't realize his health was deteriorating," Zamir Sardar said about his 32-year-old uncle Jahangir Sardar, a leather cutter, who passed away on Thursday in the Reuters report Dec. 15.
"In the morning, his condition seemed very unusual, he cried out in pain. Then we brought him to the hospital as soon as we could, but he passed away within a couple of hours," he told Reuters on Thursday. “The victims were mostly poor laborers, rickshaw drivers and hawkers, the news channel CNN-IBN reported. It put the death toll at 131 people. Half-conscious patients were carried into hospitals on stretchers, and treated on the floor as there were not enough beds. A senior hospital official, who did not want to be quoted by name, said patients were in critical condition. "More and more victims are coming. Many are waiting for treatment, but with a lack of beds it'll take time to manage," the official told Reuters by phone.”
Also, health officials noted that “mass deaths from drinking moonshine are common in India, where the poor often drink ‘country liquor’ which is cheaper than alcohol from licensed shops.”
Image source of former West Virginia moonshiner John Bowman explaining the workings of a still. Photo courtesy American Folklife Center and Wikipedia