The Master Fact-Check: Can you make moonshine from paint thinner?

As I stated in my review, my biggest question coming out of The Master was whether Joaquin Phoenix’s character was more of a gas-huffing pussy lover or a pussy-loving gas huffer. I actually just assumed Freddy Quell was getting high off small amounts of household products, as hobos and Nick Nolte are wont to do, but others assumed he was making actual moonshine (a strange assumption, he blatantly drank lysol at one point, didn’t he?), and from that jumping off point, Vulture asked an actual moonshiner about the feasibility of making moonshine out of paint thinner and such.

I’m interested in your professional take on the ways that Joaquin Phoenix made moonshine in the film. Let’s start with the naval ship, where it looked like he was tapping into a torpedo.
Torpedoes, from what I understand, had motors in them that were fueled with ethanol, the most common type of alcohol. It’s what we drink, and it’s the same type of alcohol that you can use in your car, so historically, it’s been used for fuel. But to make sure that people don’t drink it, the government would often denature the alcohol by including methanol with it, which poisons it. It’s a way for them to separate out food grade ethanol from industrial ethanol. But chemically, they are the same. During Prohibition, the government did the same thing, and when you hear about people going blind from bootleg alcohol, generally that’s what it refers to: traces of methanol that were added to increase the toxicity of the alcohol.

But because the methanol has a lower boiling point, if you were just to boil it and then condense it back down with a really simple mechanism, you could re-separate out the methanol. He’s not really making alcohol so much as recovering it from another source. And that did happen. There’s even a name for it: “Torpedo juice.”

You know who loves torpedo juice? Your mom. She developed a taste for it from some dirty seamen. God, my jokes are almost too fresh this morning.

So how did he make whiskey in the photo lab?
I looked for photo chemicals to see what was used in processing, and nothing really jumped out at me as something that would be similar to ethanol, or involving ethanol. One thing that I think is used in photo processing is acetic acid, which can sometimes be a byproduct of fermentation, such as when your wine goes bad and turns into vinegar. But it’s not toxic per se; it’s really just vinegar. So maybe that was like a flavoring agent, to give it a little kick? I don’t know, but then, I don’t know as much about photo processing. I’m guessing that Paul [Thomas Anderson] did research and has a pretty good precedent for that; I just didn’t personally find it.

How about the migrant farm?
So that’s the one that’s most credible, because you can generally ferment anything organic, or anything with sugar in it. So I’m guessing he was just on a farm surrounded by fruits and vegetables, and just making a really conventional moonshine, probably from fruit. I mean, it would be hard to make it from cabbage, but not impossible.

Let’s talk about the stuff he made aboard the boat. It definitely had paint thinner in it.
Right. The paint thinner is pretty plausible. There are a lot of different things you can use as a paint thinner: acetone (which is more commonly nail polish remover) is a pretty common one. I don’t know how toxic it is if you were just to drink your nail polish remover. But there are other paint thinner ingredients, like mineral spirits, that are very toxic, and if you consumed enough of them you would kill yourself. I guess if you consumed a very small amount of them, you might make yourself dizzy and delirious; sort of like being drunk, but more on the way to death. The paint thinner at that time could have been an organic solvent compound, so that one is very credible. [Vulture]

Yeah, I’m going to be honest, I don’t think any of this was that complicated. He didn’t seem like he was even on the farm long enough to ferment and distill booze, not to mention the fact that they never showed him doing either. He was just drinking small amounts of poison to get f*cked up. You figure out what’ll kill you, and then dial it back a notch, people have been doing it since caveman times. He would get high on paint thinner and lysol and daydream about poontang. Livin’ the dream, basically.