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Can You Really Go Blind from Drinking Moonshine?

It may sound like an urban legend, but drinking the wrong moonshine can actually cause blindness.

Carly Vandergriendt

Health

Though it may have reached its peak consumption during the Prohibition era, moonshine is still around. These days, at least in the U.S., it’s not so much made to avoid prohibitive liquor laws as it is to avoid taxes and regulations.

The bootlegging process is nearly the same as that of any commercial distillery. But drinking liquor doesn’t cause blindness. So how can drinking moonshine cause blindness?

The truth is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with moonshine. It’s a strong drink, but unlike other types of spirits, it hasn’t been aged — that’s what gives it its distinctive taste. At about 75 percent alcohol or 150 proof, it’ll also leave you with a serious hangover.

But the most important difference between store-bought liquor and moonshine is that the latter is unregulated.

In other words, the FDA isn’t going around knocking on the doors of these underground operations to make sure their ingredients are safe for public consumption. Nor are there regular check-ups to make sure employees uphold certain hygiene standards, such as washing their hands or wearing a hairnet.

But while finding a hair in your drink won’t make you go blind, drinking moonshine that’s too high in methanol might.

Methanol, like ethanol found in alcoholic drinks, is a by-product of the distillation process. Also known as wood alcohol or methyl alcohol, methanol is dirt cheap and stronger than ethanol — and at first sip, its effects on the body are virtually indistinguishable from those of ethanol.

A few distillers of moonshine have been known to add methanol to their products to boost that “kick” moonshine is known for. That’s where getting your hooch illegally gets a bit sketchy — within a few hours, methanol is metabolized and can have toxic effects in the body.

Methanol can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve, but drinkers of moonshine laced with methanol are actually getting off lucky. According to Dr. Bruce Goldberger of the University of Florida College of Medicine, as little as a few ounces of methanol will kill the drinker within a matter hours .

Deaths from bootlegged alcohol have been consistently reported abroad. In 2016, alcohol poisoning from bootlegged liquor led to 49 deaths in a Siberian town.

But methanol poisoning isn’t the only health risk moonshine poses. In the early 2000s, it was lead poisoning from moonshine manufactured using lead soldering, pipes, and sometimes even car radiators. And if distillers aren’t careful, manufacturing mistakes — such as a still that’s too hot — can lead to potentially toxic batches.

Naturally, whether moonshine is safe comes down to the trustworthiness of the distiller. But if you don’t know what’s in it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking it.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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