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I’m sure you have heard the word moonshine before all of us know it’s illegal, but few of us really know what it is or how moonshine is made with an alcohol distiller. For most of us it’s just something the moonshiners do in the hill country of Arkansas and Tennessee and doesn’t really affect us. But that’s not really true. This history of moonshining and the science behind it affect our lives today from everything from soda pop to professional racing and a lot of things in between.
First, let’s get a few things about moonshine straight. This whole concept of illegal liquor comes from taxes. What makes a moonshine illegal is not that it was produced stronger or less pure than what is sold in the grocery store, but that it is sold without the government collecting its share of the tax associated with it first. Liquor tax in the United States alone is a multibillion dollar business, and like most governments, ours hates to be short changed. So citing concerns for the safety of the citizenry, moonshine was made illegal since before prohibition. Primary among those concerns is that moonshine (white lightning, hooch, mountain dew) makes you go blind. But it doesn’t.
The way moonshine is made a sill most be used. Distillation is the process of evaporating a liquid to concentrate certain properties of that liquid. Water and ethanol are 100% miscible. That means that they can be dissolved in any quantity of the other one. Because of that it’s impossible to separate them conventionally. However water and alcohol have different boiling points. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and ethanol boils at 178. That mere 34 degrees makes the whole process possible. As you heat a liquid that contains water and alcohol past the 178 degree mark, the alcohol will start to evaporate leaving most of the water behind. Therefore if you hover your temperature between 178 and 212 the majority of the water will be left behind. The moonshine takes a little with it when it evaporates, this is due to the properties of an azeotrope, but that’s not really the point. However once you get it evaporated, you still need to condense moonshine to a liquid. Capture the steam and run it through a condensing coil and it comes out liquid on the other side. (A condensing coil is merely a tube of conducting metal that allows the vapor to cool off and re condense into a liquid.) This is fractional distillation at its most common and it’s been around for 3,000 years in one form or another.