The Etymology of “Moonshine”

“Moonshine” (unaged spirits illicitly distilled “by the light of the moon”) is thought to be inspired by “moonrakers,” a name for apocryphal English brandy smugglers who raked up kegs from ponds. When caught, they pretended to be fools attempting to rake cheese from the reflection of the moon.

Moonshine, obviously, first referred to the literal light of the moon, arising around the 15th century. It was also used figuratively in poetry and prose to refer to “appearance without substance.”

From the late 18th century onward, the word’s colloquial use in reference to illegally-produced spirits — primarily unaged corn-mash whiskey produced in Appalachia — invokes both the clear color of the liquid and the fact that it was distilled and smuggled at night. While production of moonshine was illegal until 2010, largely due to the fact that producers would distill their own spirits in order to avoid the high taxes on liquor production (and also because it has historically been produced unsafely), the term became especially ubiquitous during the period after the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act initiated Prohibition in 1920 until 1933.

“Moonraker,” which is thought to have inspired the words “moonshine” and “moonshiner,” has stuck around as a nickname for people from the rural English county of Wiltshire thanks to the folk tale mentioned in the title. Wiltshire was situated along the secret routes of a booming brandy smuggling business in the mid- to late-1700s. According to the folk tale, the locals hid contraband barrels of French brandy in ponds from customs officers (or revenue men, which would influence the Appalachian variation “revenooers”). When they were caught attempting to retrieve the brandy with rakes at night, they played dumb, pointing at the reflection of the moon in the pond and saying they were trying to rake in a wheel of cheese. The revenue men laughed at their supposed ignorance and went on their way.

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