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The Boardwalk Empire Top 10 Moonshines of Prohibition: Turnip Still, Corn Liquor, Bathtub Gin, Pumpkin Wine, Yak-Yak Bourbon, Absinthe & Grappa

boardwalk empire hbo poster1 300x180 The Boardwalk Empire Top 10 Moonshines of Prohibition: Turnip Still, Corn Liquor, Bathtub Gin, Pumpkin Wine, Yak Yak Bourbon, Absinthe & Grappa By Tim Rodgers

When the federal government enacted prohibition, folks needed to find other means of getting their fine beverages to which they grew accustomed.  The HBO series, Boardwalk Empire shows us that the production of spirits while concealing it from the G-Men can be tricky and lead to inferior booze.  For example, Chalky is watering down his Canadian Club Whiskey in order to meet the increased Atlantic City demand for spirits.  Other unscrupulous characters on the show were using additives like formaldehyde to supplement that necessary buzz.  Even regular people took it upon themselves in a resourceful American fashion to make their own darn hooch.  So here it is, the top moonshines of Prohibition:  (Disclaimer: these were all bad tasting drinks, so don’t expect the rankings to be of a quality nature, but rather the rankings reflect popularity) Enjoy…

1.      The Turnip Still Moonshine

Your typical whiskey made in Appalachia was distilled in turnip style vats.  A whiskey based moonshine made in a still named for its squatty turnip-shaped boiler (often called the “pot”); the turnip still dates back centuries.  American turnip boilers were traditionally made of copper sheets hammered into shape, riveted and soldered together.  Once properly distilled, carefully dispense the hooch in a jug appropriately marked “X X X.”  

prohibition era pic 200x300 The Boardwalk Empire Top 10 Moonshines of Prohibition: Turnip Still, Corn Liquor, Bathtub Gin, Pumpkin Wine, Yak Yak Bourbon, Absinthe & Grappa 2.      Corn Liquor

Corn liquor is an 80 proof whiskey that does not need to be aged.  Therefore, it was a quick an easy fix for those no longer able to get liquor from their local 5 & Dime.  You often see this made in preserve jars with the screw top lid.  Yummy!

3.      Bathtub Gin

Contrary to popular belief it was not made in a bathtub.  The homemade concoction of grain spirits was flavored with juniper berries to give it that fine gin taste.  It got its name because when being bottled, it needed to be topped off with tap water.  The tap from a typical kitchen sink was not tall enough to fit a bottle underneath.  Therefore, many folks used the bathtub faucet to top off the concoction with the necessary amount of water.  Hence, “Bathtub Gin.”  In most cases, it was so awful in taste, that some of the most creative gin cocktails we enjoy today exist because of the need to mix it with some other stuff to mask the awful taste of the hooch.

4.      Pumpkin Wine

During prohibition, many farmers would make a wine-like concoction from pumpkins to get their drink-on. The method was somewhat primitive.  Interestingly, this recipe dates back to the 1700’s: Take 1 large pumpkin, cut open the top, fill it to the top with sugar, than put the top back on and seal it with wax. Wait a couple of weeks, pop the top and voila! Pumpkin wine!

5.      Yak-Yak Bourbon

A type of homemade liquor that became extremely popular in Philadelphia.  This was one of the types of alcohol that was fermented in old whisky barrels.

6.      Wood Alcohol

The idea of extracting alcohol from wood by subjecting it to hydrolysis and fermentation is quite old.  The process developed in America was to place pine sawdust in rotatory digesters made of sheet steel lined with ceramic tiles, along with dilute suphuric acid.  It was heated using direct steam injection under pressure for one hour.  The steam is exhausted and partially condensed to recover spirits of turpentine or what we know today as paint thinner (Yummy).  Highly toxic wood alcohols found their way into much of the available bootleg liquor.  When denatured industrial alcohol was not sufficiently diluted, or consumed in large quantities, the result was paralysis, blindness, and death. In 1927, almost twelve thousand deaths were attributed to alcohol poisoning, many of these deaths were among the urban poor who could not afford imported liquors. In 1930, U.S. public health officials estimated that fifteen thousand persons were afflicted with “jake foot,” a debilitating paralysis of the hands and feet brought on by drinking denatured alcohol flavored with ginger root.  Congrats, government and temperance movement!  Your prohibition laws worked well!

7.      New Jersey Applejack

During the founding of the United States apples were stored in cold cellars and made into all sort of staples—applesauce, apple butter, apple preserves, apple vinegar, apple juice, apple cider, and most importantly, liquor!  Farmers often distilled their cider into rough, high-proof liquor simply by letting it ferment.  Eventually produced overtime, it became a smooth blend of apple brandy in a base of clear neutral spirits of at least 80 proof.  It comes across as a strong, faintly apple-flavored liquor reminiscent of bourbon or golden rum.

8.      New Orleans absinthe

The anise-flavored spirit has been banned in the United States since 1912, primarily because of overstated concerns about the psychoactive quality of one of its ingredients, thujone, a ketone of wormwood, which is present in true absinthe in small amounts.  It didn’t help the drink’s cause that absinthe was the preferred liquor of Victorian artists and other layabouts, or that there were a few notable cases of people going on murderous rampages after drinking the green spirit.  Cool.  Where can I get some of this?

9.      Oregon Grappa

Before Oregon was even a state, it tried to appease the feds by enacting prohibition in the territory even before the law was federalized.  Therefore, rebellious Oregonians were ahead of the curve engaging in the production and sale of “outlawed” beverages.  Grappa is made from pomace; the discarded seeds from wine making. Grappa has its roots dating back to Italy during the middle ages.  Some of the resourceful wine folks that were legally shut down in Oregon during prohibition took up this venture underground and the rest is history.

10.  Michigan sour cherry brandy

Many of your brandy’s made from fruit originated during prohibition as people became more resourceful because of the federal restriction on alcohol.  Michigan just happens to be known for Cherry Pie and cherry brandy!


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2 comments to The Boardwalk Empire Top 10 Moonshines of Prohibition: Turnip Still, Corn Liquor, Bathtub Gin, Pumpkin Wine, Yak-Yak Bourbon, Absinthe & Grappa

  • Matt Goldstein

    I’ve been actually meaning to try absinthe. Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s not the same formula. You can’t even get real soju in the U.S. let alone absinthe.


  • Franko

    regarding #8, absinthe is legal again in the U.S., since (i believe) 2007. to be fair, though, the stuff allowed here is different than the truer absinthe available in europe and other places.


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