Making moonshine is an American tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the United States of America. Back in the colonial days, a lot of farmers lived in extremely rural areas, and it was often difficult and expensive for them to transport their crops to marketplaces. Frequently, the excess grain that they were unable to get to the markets in time to still be fresh enough to sell was used to make moonshine, because whiskey, obviously, has a longer shelf life than grains. This practice was so prevalent that whiskey was often used as a form of currency!
Back then, of course, it was just called whiskey, not moonshine. The men who made it, however, were already called bootleggers. This term came about because distillers who carry liquor in their boots to sell to Native Americans. The moonshine moniker label came after the ratification of the Constitution and the formation of the federal government. The early congress levied a high tax on alcohol to fund the struggling new federal government, and whiskey-makers went into hiding to make their liquor, frequently hiding their best moonshine stills deep in the wilderness and sneaking out at night to operate them. Of course, it did not take long for news of these clandestine operations to reach law enforcement, and they began to look for these illegal operations. Using lanterns at night was a dead giveaway for distillers, so they started running their stills only on moonlit nights when they did not need lanterns to see, thus giving birth to the “moonshine” label. Eventually this conflict between the law and moonshiners led to a full-blown insurrection called the Whiskey Rebellion, and the moonshiners who joined the rebellion were called whiskey rebels. The insurrection became an early test of the power of the newly founded Federal Government of the United States. President George Washington eventually succeeded in quelling the rebellion, and alcohol distillation has been under federal control ever since. If you are interested in this part of American history, or want to know more about the origins of your hobby, you might want to read the novel The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss.
Today, the production of alcohol is governed by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which for permit purposes classifies alcohol producers in three diferent categories: alcohol fuel producers, breweries, and distilled spirits plants. If you wish to run a small home distillery, you can only obtain a permit to run a small alcohol fuel plant, and your produce cannot technically be used for drinking purposes. At the state level, however, some states will allow you to produce a certain amount of liquor each year for your own personal consumption. In other states, it is illegal to produce moonshine, but it is not illegal to own a still. You should always check your state and local laws for any regulations governing the production of alcohol or whiskey. If you live in a state that does not permit you to distill moonshine for your own personal consumption, you should consider getting a federal alcohol fuel plant permit.