Can moonshine really make you go blind?
“Moonshine” can be seen on modern commercially made unaged whiskies these days as a sort of tongue in cheek marketing term. Those available for sale in the USA are of course totally safe – because they are in fact not truly moonshine.
Real moonshine, a colloquial term for homemade or bootleg spirits, can indeed be extremely dangerous. Blindness is one effect from poisoning by moonshine and unfortunately a dose of moonshine strong enough to blind is also very often lethal as well. Moonshine was (necessarily) wildly popular during American Prohibition and thousands actually died from tainted and/or lethal moonshine during those years. This is by no means an old problem either, with high profile incidents of methanol-related deaths happening as recently as 2011 in India and 2012 in Prague.
The toxicity of moonshine is mostly due to the presence of methanol in the spirit, a highly toxic type of alcohol that is the first byproduct during the distillation process. Methanol at first glance acts very similar to ethanol (the type of alcohol that is safe for you to drink), making it hard to detect or notice. Experienced and/or professional distilleries are careful to discard methanol, bottling only the ethanol byproducts from distillation. Less experienced distillers and/or makeshift distilling equipment are less likely to safely remove the dangerous methanol – which is potentially lethal even in very small amounts – and further can inadvertently add other toxic materials to their moonshine like lead.
I definitely don’t recommend trying to make your own spirits or tasting any that get passed your direction. And be wary of bottom-shelf booze when traveling (see story about Prague above).
I do however think that it merits differentiating between amateurs making dangerous “moonshine” versus many cultures’ traditional homemade spirits. There are certainly many examples of these, which have been safely home-distilling for centuries by using methods and practices that have been passed on generation to generation.
Aubrie Talarico is part of Eno’s team that answers your toughest questions or curiosities about wine, beer, spirits, sake, and cider. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and read the answers in Eno’s E-newsletter!
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