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The literal meaning of moonshine is the light of the moon, but because the activity of distilling illegal whiskey was usually done at night with as little light as possible, the word became both a verb, meaning making the liquor, and a noun, meaning the liquor that was made. The reason it's done at night, and usually someplace away from houses and buildings, is that the distillation process requires heat to boil the alcoholic liquor from the "mash," so it produces a fair amount of smoke and steam, which can be visible for a great distance if it's done outdoors in the daytime. The fire can be seen at night if the still isn't set up inside a building or someplace where rocks and/or trees block the view, but buildings (and caves) are not considered as safe as outdoor locations, because in case of a raid by the authorities (or a competitor), any enclosure becomes a trap for the moonshiner(s), besides which, inside it there's not enough moonlight to see to work the still and bottle the output.

"Moonshining" means making the whiskey, and selling it is "bootlegging" it, although one person may perform both functions. The rest of this article is about moonshining in the mountains of the southeastern United States.

The grain used to make the mash -- which is the mixture of grain, sugar, water, and yeast that ferments to produce the alcohol -- is virtually always corn, so the product is "corn liquor" (= bourbon), sometimes called "mountain dew" because it appears overnight, or simply "shine." (The clear, potent (= high-proof) liquor is also called "white lightning" because of its effect, or "kick".) Commercial hog chow is often used, because it is readily available, buying it does not attract the attention of law enforcement, and it is primarily corn, but other corn-based animal feeds can be used instead, and differences in the other ingredients in the feed impart slightly different flavors to the finished product. Ordinary white sugar is often the chief ingredient of moonshine mash, in which case the spirit distilled is technically a rum rather than a whiskey.

The federal authorities who police moonshining are traditionally termed "Revenuers" because they work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which was part of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service until July 1972, when it became a separate bureau within the United States Department of the Treasury.

Handling shipments of moonshine is often called "whiskey-running" or simply "running" it, by analogy to "rum-running," which originally meant smuggling rum by ship. The 1958 movie Thunder Road was about running 'shine.

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