Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

117,271 subscribers and counting ...

By in
| Human World on Oct 25, 2012

How poorly crafted booze can make you sick or dead

From prison wine to bathtub gin, illicit home-brews can be a risky business.

It’s a little inaccurate to call pruno “homemade.” Except perhaps as a science experiment, no sane person would make the stuff at home. Pruno producers aren’t at home, they’re in jail, where ingredients are scarce, wine making equipment even scarcer, and – since drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden – the entire operation must be carried out in secret. The resulting beverage is foul tasting at best, and life threatening when things don’t go as well. In 2011, eight inmates at a Utah prison contracted botulism (a rare and potentially deadly disease caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria) from imbibing the notorious prison wine. And this wasn’t the first time pruno-gulping (it’s allegedly far too nasty a drink to sip) prisoners have succumbed to botulism. Nor was it the last. Just this past August, four Arizona inmates were diagnosed with the disease. Given that fewer than one hundred cases of botulism crop up in the U.S. yearly, these are sizeable outbreaks. Why is prison wine so prone to making people sick?

Terrible tubers

Earlier this month, the CDC released a report on the 2011 Utah prison botulism outbreak fingering as the culprit for the unfortunate episode a baked potato. Since the connection between potatoes, wine, and food borne illness may not be obvious, let’s step back a minute to review a few details about wine-making and the C. botulinum bacterium.

The makings for cranberry wine. Image: Gabriel Amadeus.

Wine (like beer) is made possible by the process of ethanol fermentation, in which the living organism yeast (member of the fungi kingdom, specifically the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae) consumes sugar and craps out the metabolic byproducts carbon dioxide and ethanol (i.e., drinking alcohol), thus turning syrupy fruit mush into a tasty adult beverage. If you were whipping up a batch of no-frills DIY wine in the comfort of your non-incarcerating home, this might involve mixing fruit pulp with sugar and water in a meticulously clean vessel, tearing open a factory-sealed packet of yeast to add to the recipe, and letting the ingredients mingle for a spell in your thoroughly hygienic kitchen pantry. Unfortunately such quality control is difficult to achieve in the pen. There you work with whatever is available, like canned fruit cocktail and ketchup and plastic bags. You might rely on the naturally occurring yeast in whatever fruit you’d procured to do the fermenting, or you could try to help the reaction along by adding some other starchy yeast source such as bread or perhaps a baked potato that you smuggled out of the cafeteria and stored in a jar at “ambient temperature” (i.e., sans refrigeration) for several weeks.

And now the bacteria. I could go on an on about the species C. botulinum, but in case you’re not as entranced with microorganisms as I am, we’ll stick to the essentials. There are two things you need to know: 1) when actively growing and replicating, these bacteria produce botulinum toxin, which causes the disease botulism.* and 2) the bacteria do best in a warm, wet, low acid, and low oxygen environment, but when conditions are unfavorable they can lie dormant in spore form. The spores are nearly indestructible (According to my copy of Prescott’s Microbiology, you’ll need 5 minutes of moist heat at 121C (250F), or 2 hours of dry heat at 160C (320F) to kill the bastards).

Real wine, but with a rather unfortunate moniker. (It’s some kind of shrub in Italian) Image: Jeremy Keith.

Potatoes, and other soil growing veggies, can harbor C. botulinum spores, but these aren’t necessarily a threat to healthy adults.** They’ll remain in benign spore form indefinitely unless their fussy growth conditions are met. So eating a freshly-baked potato is safe, but placing it into an unrefrigerated sealed bag full of sweetened fruit goo has the potential to rouse those sleepy spores into active toxin-producing bacteria.

Botulism is serious business. While all eight of the Utah inmates were treated and eventually recovered, the illness can be fatal and survivors sometimes have lingering fatigue. But jail is said to be a miserable place, so despite boasting poisoning risks and a taste described as “vomit-flavored wine cooler” pruno is probably here to stay. You can almost hear the sigh of resignation in the CDC report, which concludes, “Although illness might be reduced through education of inmates about the association between pruno and botulism, pruno production in prisons likely will not stop.” Btw, if you’re reading this from prison, please at least avoid adding root vegetables to your pruno.

Evil Spirits

The basic still concept: evaporation on the left, condensation on the right. Image: Wikipedia.

Moonshine goes a step further than pruno.*** Instead of making illicit wine, moonshiners produce illicit distilled spirits. The operation begins much like wine making – something gets fermented, often fruit or grain (corn seems to be a popular choice). At this point you already have ethanol, but if you want strong booze (over 20% alcohol) you’ll need to concentrate it by distillation. A hooch-maker’s still takes advantage of the fact that ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water. By heating carefully, glorious ethanol can be evaporated and then condensed back into liquid in a separate part of the still, leaving poor stupid water behind patiently waiting for the temperature to reach 100C. The product isn’t pure ethanol. Some water manages to tag along, but that’s okay because water is generally considered harmless.

Yet you’ve probably heard tales of people going blind from drinking moonshine. And, well, they’re true. The biggest threat posed by illegally made spirits isn’t bacterial, it’s chemical. Specifically, it’s methanol. Like ethanol, methanol is also a type of alcohol. But there are some differences. Ethanol contains two carbon atoms and is somewhat toxic (it’ll kill you if you drink enough of it, so pace yourself) whereas methanol contains one carbon atom and is highly toxic (can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve and death even in fairly low doses, pacing won’t help, best to avoid altogether). So remember – two carbons good, one carbon bad.

Villainous methanol (L) and heroic ethanol (R).

But legal booze is also made by distillation, so why would there be methanol in your moonshine? Well, there are at least three ways this could happen.

1) Fermentation. While ethanol fermentation mostly generates ethanol, it can also result in a smaller amount of methanol, particularly when items high in pectin are fermented (e.g. grapes). However, much of this can be removed in the distilling process. Methanol boils at an even lower temperature than ethanol, so it exits the still early on. Proponents of homemade hooch recommend discarding the first few ounces to condense out of the still in order to reduce chances of methanol poisoning. (And, for the record, even government approved legal alcoholic beverages can harbor small amounts of methanol.)

2) Foolhardy attempts to extract ethanol from “denatured” aka methylated spirits. To keep people from drinking it, manufacturers sometimes add methanol – along with some unpleasant tasting chemical and a warning label – to ethanol intended for industrial uses (it can power machines and such). I know I just told you in the previous paragraph that methanol and ethanol have different boiling points, and you’re probably thinking that a still could totally separate them. In theory, yes, it could. In practice, not well enough. And methanol isn’t necessarily the only denaturant added. It’s just a bad idea. Don’t try this at home.

3) The person selling you moonshine is an unscrupulous dick, and he or she deliberately added methanol to the concoction to make it more potent (methanol is intoxicating, and easier to procure than ethanol in some places). Sadly this is the most common cause of methanol poisoning from illicit booze. Home distillation thrives in areas where alcoholic beverages are prohibited or heavily taxed. Thanks to the repeal of prohibition, the prevalence of moonshine in the U.S. is down, but it remains popular parts of Asia and Africa. A moonshiner’s recklessness can result in mass casualties. In 2011, well over a hundred people died after drinking methanol-laced bootleg booze in eastern India. And more recently, toxic spirits injured and killed dozens in the Czech Republic (A popular travel destination, in case you were thinking of filing this problem under “Doesn’t affect me.”)

Ye olde still. Quaint. May contain lead. Image: Velo Steve.

Homemade liquor isn’t inherently unsafe. The often illicit nature of the product is more a danger than the process of production.**** Safety regulations don’t really apply to things that aren’t legal to begin with. Just as drug dealers might cut their product with cheaper chemicals to increase profits, moonshiners may augment their booze with the wrong kind of alcohol. In the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master, Joaquin Phoenix’s character is shown crafting spirits from all manner of god knows what. You get the sense he’s pretty creative with his hooch, which is about the last thing you want in a moonshiner.

Those intrigued by the idea of handcrafted firewater, but wary of putting their trust in bootleggers will be glad to know that “micro-distilleries” are on the rise. Finally licensed and regulated distillers can attend to all your artisanal moonshine needs.

I should also mention that while methanol contamination can have disastrous effects, it’s not the only thing potentially fouling up illicit spirits. A 2004 analysis of U.S. moonshines published in the Journal of Toxicology found lead levels in 60% of its samples equal or above (sometimes over ten times above) what the EPA permits in drinking water. Here the problem is more equipment than charlatanism. In stills with lead parts or solder, the metal can leach into the beverage during distillation.

Afternoon tea

Someone else’s kombucha. Mine still has a week or so before it looks this fabulous. Image: Mgarten.

As I write this, a large glass jar of kombucha sits fermenting in my kitchen. For those unfamiliar with this item, kombucha is a fermented tea with only trace alcohol content. All the risk of wine or beer brewing with none of the buzz. I know, why would I bother? Oddly, I like how the stuff tastes (and it’s too expensive to buy regularly in stores). There are those who find kombucha disgusting in taste, smell, and appearance. I can’t argue with the last part. The fermenting is carried out by a blob that looks like a mushroom but is actually a slimy matrix of yeast and bacteria. What’s not to love? In order to foster growth of these friendly microbes and prevent contamination with less desirable ones, I’m very careful with hygiene and ingredients. The kombucha lives a pampered life. It gets higher quality water and sugar than I would give myself. It’s protected from harsh light and metal utensils and the stress of having to earn a living.

The thing to keep in mind when doing any kind of home-brewing is that you’re essentially trying to feed one type (or a few types) of microorganism while keeping others at bay. You don’t want to take shortcuts with the ingredients. If the recipe says “distilled water” don’t use tap water. If it says “sugar”, don’t use honey. If it says “yeast”, don’t just throw in some croutons. Don’t add random crap from the medicine cabinet even if you saw it done in the movies. And lastly, if you’re ever over at my house you might want to BYOB. Anything I serve is consumed at your peril.

* Bonus trivia: Botulinum toxin also has some therapeutic and cosmetic applications. Does the name Botox sound familiar? I’m not making this up. You can actually pay a doctor to inject botulinum toxin into your face.

** Infant botulism is another matter. Babies are delicate and can get the disease from ingesting C. botulinum spores rather than toxin. That’s why you shouldn’t feed them potentially spore harboring foods like honey, or baked potatoes smuggled out of the slammer.

*** Moonshine goes by a number of aliases – white lightning, bathtub gin (and those are just some of the American names) – but I’m mostly going to stick with the term moonshine in this article because I think it sounds cool. Moonshine…

**** In the U.S., you can homebrew wine and beer for “personal use” (as opposed to selling it on street corners) but home distilling looks a bit more red tapey.