Everyone at some point in their life, probably several points really, will stop and ask, “Why is such and such called X, Y, or Z?” Sometimes the answer is pretty straightforward, like pizza being the Italian word for pie. Other times, the answer isn’t so simple. Case in point – the word moonshine. The origin and meaning may not be what you expect, or even what you think you might know.
England Circa 18th Century
The origin of the word moonshine as we know it today comes from England in the 18th century. It's meaning derives from the notion of light without heat, or light from the moon. It meant illicit or smuggled liquor.
Moonshiner was a term that described any persons doing illegal activities under the cover of darkness. It could mean anything - robbery, burglary, grave robbing.
After the American Revolution, the US started taxing liquor and spirits to help pay the debts from the war. Corn was relatively low value but could be turned into a highly profitable whiskey. Tensions over these new taxes grew into the Whiskey Rebellion, which led to 13,000 troops to be dispatched to Pennsylvania.
In 1801 however, Jefferson repealed the tax. But that wasn't long lasting. By the Civil War new excise taxes gained general support and moonshiners were no longer viewed as heroes defeating their government but as criminals. Once prohibition passed, moonshiners were making barrel loads of cash with their secret moonshine operations under the light of the moon.
A fascinating history, the term moonshine has stuck around and has seen more use than any other term for unaged and illegally distilled spirits. That's excluding Mountain Dew though, of course few people know that was originally slang for moonshine way back before it was known as a neon soda.