How to Determine Moonshine Alcohol Content

Published Categorized as Ingredients, Guide

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In this article, we are going to talk about moonshine and how you can find out what its alcohol content is. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but with a little practice, you should be able to determine the alcohol content.

Table of Contents

What is Moonshine?

Alcohol can be distilled from any type of grain including wheat, rye, barley, and corn. Moonshine is made at home and is an unaged whiskey that is clear in color. It is made from corn and has a high alcohol content while being clear in color. It can be as high as 150 proof which is about 75% alcohol. If you consider that most legal spirits are 40% alcohol you can imagine how potent moonshine is.

Moonshine was brought to the US by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 18th century. It was illegal and was produced in a homemade still. It became exceedingly popular as no tax was paid. However, the government became aware of the production of moonshine and started looking out for it and imposing taxes. It became illegal to produce untaxed moonshine, so people began making it at night under the light of the moon. This is where it got its name from. Moonshine was of course popular during Prohibition in the US between 1920 and 1933. The illegalization of untaxed moonshine still goes on today, but it doesn’t have the best reputation as some of it can be quite rough. 

In addition, moonshine is illegal because the government believes that it is unsafe to drink. It can be tainted by toxic heavy metal particles and methanol which can cause blindness. 

Because its unaged, moonshine is not easy to make palatable. Normal whiskey is aged in oak barrels which corrects the flavor.

It is still illegal to distill liquor without a distilled spirits license. However, many genuine liquor companies have started making moonshine so you can drink it legally. However, is it still worthy of the name ‘moonshine’? It is, in reality, an illegal spirit produced at home in secret.

What is Alcohol Proof and Volume?

We have two figures to look at, alcohol by volume and alcohol proof. Alcohol proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. When we buy a bottle of spirit, it will have alcohol by volume on it. So, if, for example, moonshine has a proof of 140, it contains 70% alcohol by volume.

How the Alcohol Content in Moonshine is Measured Using the Shake Test

A couple of centuries ago there weren’t the same instruments to determine alcohol content as there are now. So how did old school moonshiners do it? Well, they couldn’t get a completely accurate reading, but they would shake the jar the spirit was in. If large bubbles appeared and disappeared quickly this meant that the moonshine had a high alcohol content. If it had small bubbles that didn’t disappear so quickly, the moonshine had a low alcohol count. For example, a bottle of 80 proof moonshine will have small bubbles that take a little while to disappear. A bottle of 180 moonshine will have large bubbles that disappear straight away. It will probably take a bit of practice for you to be able to measure the proof of moonshine accurately in this way.

How the Alcohol Content in Moonshine is Measured with the Gunpowder Test

This sounds dangerous, but only a little gunpowder is used. This method began with the British navy a few centuries ago. They discovered that if you mixed gunpowder with alcohol you could predict the proof. The gunpowder will only ignite if the proof is above 100 which equals 57.1% ethanol by volume. Anything below these figures won’t allow the gunpowder to ignite. To try out this method, put a teaspoon of gunpowder in a small bowl and then add 10 drops of moonshine. Stir them together and then try to ignite the mixture. Of course, this method only gives you a rough idea of the proof. 

How to Test for the Alcohol Content of Moonshine with a Hydrometer

The way the alcohol content of moonshine is mostly determined today is with a hydrometer. This is a piece of equipment that measures the density of a liquid compared to the density of water. 

There are two types of hydrometers, one that is used during brewing and one that is used for proofing at the end of the process. It isn’t possible to get a completely accurate reading, but it will be close enough.

Brewing hydrometers are used while you are making the moonshine. They can measure a mash-up to an alcohol level of 20% ABV which is far lower than the finished product. 

Proofing hydrometers are used at the end of the process to measure the final proof of the product. They can measure up to 200 proof or 100% ABV which is extremely high, and you certainly wouldn’t want anything higher. 

The proofing hydrometer is simple to use and is the best way to measure the proof of your moonshine. What you need in addition to the hydrometer is a copper moonshine parrot. Put the hydrometer into the parrot while the drip arm from the moonshine still drips into the parrot. The parrot will fill up and the hydrometer will float and then show the alcohol content of the moonshine. The liquid then leaves the parrot and goes into a collection vessel, usually a mason jar. 

Final Thoughts, Why Should You Proof Moonshine?

It is a good idea to proof moonshine so as to know exactly what you are dealing with. Moonshine can be extremely high in alcohol so can be dangerous if used recklessly.