top of page
  • Writer's pictureTom Fowler

Why Is Moonshine Illegal?

The distilling of liquor out with licensed and regulated premises is illegal in the USA. The ban is imposed by the federal government, meaning the law applies to all 50 states. Some states would, in theory, legally allow moonshine in one way or another if the federal rules were removed.

Illegal moonshine is heavily rooted in America's history, from long before the days of prohibition. In short, despite the unwavering illegality and constant threat of danger and punishment, the nation has been brewing, selling, and drinking moonshine for centuries.

"Moonshine" to Describe Illegal Homemade Alcohol

"Moonshine" to Describe Illegal Homemade Alcohol

The phrase moonshine is a slang term for unlicensed home-brew liquor. According to the US government, is it "a fanciful term" rooted in nostalgia and is not recognized as an official definition.

Apparently, the name was given in the early days of people making their own alcohol, as they would make it under the light of the moon to avoid detection. Earlier references in Britain suggest the name reflected the hallucinogenic properties of the un-tested and often dangerous spirit.

White lightning, hooch, mountain dew, white whiskey, and firewater are alternative commonly used nicknames to describe illegal liquor.

Is Moonshine Unaged Whiskey?

In short, yes. Although in the early days of black-market liquor distilling, the spirits produced were clear in color and closer to vodka in taste, moonshine in its true form is essentially whiskey. The process is exactly the same, but lack of aging means it does not have as deep a taste as the real thing.

A Brief History of Moonshine and the Law

Moonshine history is fraught with legal turmoil and notorious reputation in equal measure. The 21st century has a new culture of urban moonshining emerge, bringing legal hooch into the mainstream bar culture. To gain a better understanding of moonshine laws and why they exist, consider the past.

Early American History

From the very first appointed US government, illegally brewed spirits have been part of the culture. The alcohol and tobacco tax imposed to generate revenue drove bootleggers into existence. Unwilling to pay high taxes- but equally unwilling to stop drinking alcohol- people turned to home brews.

Moonshining was originally brought the country by Scottish immigrants to the Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century, according to historical resources available at the Appalachian State University.

It was common practice across the country throughout the 1800s, although predominantly for personal consumption. The second half of the century saw an increase in home brew liquor being bought and sold on the black market. However, it wasn't until after World War One that moonshine production and distribution gained notoriety.

The Prohibition Era

1920 saw the beginning of the prohibition era- the golden age of illegal moonshine. Because it was not possible to buy any alcohol legally, everyone who wanted to drink whiskey had only one way to get it. Moonshine producers and bootleggers made incredible amounts of money through this highly dangerous practice, all without paying any taxes.

By the time prohibition ended, around 75% of all alcohol consumption in the USA was illegally brewed vodka-like moonshine. Although beer and wine were also moving around the backchannels, neither were nearly as lucrative.

Modern-Day Laws

Since the darkest and most dangerous days of bootlegging on hooch, the distilling process still exists, but in a very different way. Many countries allow some version of moonshine, and home brewing is a popular hobby and cultural activity.

Although the federal government enforces a blanket restriction on all home-brewing, some state governments choose to allow specialized permits to allow for safe, responsible, and taxable distilling. In other words, whiskey enthusiasts and amateur distillers may be able to legally make moonshine under certain conditions.

One recent development can be when beer and wine enthusiasts helped pressure Congress to decriminalize home brews. Beer connoisseurs wanted lighter restrictions on personal root beer, ale, and other beer production. Now, two adults can legally brew 200 gallons of beer or wine each year.

Reasons Behind the Current USA Moonshine Laws

Reasons Behind the Current USA Moonshine Laws

Why is moonshine illegal? Ultimately, it comes down to the same two things as almost anything else: money and health. Without proper permitting, both traceability and quality control are next to impossible.


Uncle Sam does not stand for tax evasion, and that is the main reason making moonshine has been illegal since the very beginning. Wine, beer, and spirits that people buy in the liquor store are heavily taxed, which originally created the moonshine movement.

Strong distilled spirits such as whiskey are worth the most to the US government. Anyone making and selling moonshine without paying taxes is, legally speaking, costing the country money and breaking federal law. The offense is punishable by law, carrying penalties of up to $10,000 and potential jail time.

Another similar situation is why Cuban cigars are illegal.


Both drinking and distilling moonshine can be dangerous. Poorly made alcoholic spirits have been known to cause serious harm to the human body, including blindness, stomach ruptures, and even death. Methanol vaporizes at a lower temperature than alcohol, which can lead to a poisoned first batch. Without proper testing, things like this may slip through the cracks.

Anyone planning to sell beverages that are not regulated should be prepared for the legal consequence if harm comes to any customer.

Additionally, the devices used to distill moonshine- a still- are highly explosive. If not properly cared for, serious accidents can occur. The buying, selling, or importing of stills is highly regulated and restricted by the trade bureau, and it is illegal to own one without a permit.


Because of the federal ruling against the production of any type of unregulated distilling, moonshining remains illegal across all of the USA. Although there are now multiple licensed hooch manufacturers, the home-brewing tradition is not allowed under federal law, despite some states having independent opposing laws.

The two primary reasons moonshine remains illegal are the tax consequences and the potential danger to human life. It may be a time-honored and traditional hobby in many parts of the world- including the US- but failure to comply with the law is likely to result in steep fines and jail time up to five years.

For answers to your general legal questions, contact the best Iowa personal injury attorneys at Tom Fowler Law.



bottom of page