No one is really sure where the term “moonshine” comes from. Many people assume it simply comes from the fact that illegal liquor makers worked at night to elude police. The real answer has a few more twists and turns. In the 1811 edition of the slang dictionary, “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” moonshine is defined as “a matter or mouthful of moonshine; a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex [England], and the gin in the north of Yorkshire, are also called moonshine.” This led some to suggest the term came from smugglers who explained away their suspicious barrels as “mere moonshine,” or nothing, nothing at all. However the term came to be, illegal whisky made from corn “mash” became popular in America just after the Revolutionary War, when the funds-strapped government decided to start taxing liquor.
The earliest moonshiners relied on moonshine not for a fun Saturday night but for their very survival. A bad year for corn farmers could be turned around by transforming what corn they managed to harvest into liquid gold. Paying the federal tax would have taken a big chunk out of the money they used to feed their families. Moonshiners often attacked federal agents (known as “revenuers” back then) when they came to collect liquor taxes. Some revenuers were even tarred and feathered for their trouble.
Not surprisingly, these conflicts created a lot of tension. All that tension eventually lead to the Whisky Rebellion, which began in 1791 and led to a huge militia march on Pennsylvania in 1794 during which the government captured many of the moonshiners’ leaders.
Moonshining continued to be popular anyway and was the focus of another uprising in the 1860s. With Civil War on the horizon, the government was on the prowl for more taxes to fund its army. The government enforced nationwide prohibition in 1920 and moonshine became more valuable than ever before.
Speakeasies opened in cities across the country, giving birth to organized crime that took hold and flourished long after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. After liquor became legal, the demand for moonshine steadily decreased and by the late 1970s moonshiners and bootleggers became a distant memory in most county courthouses.