Hooch, Firewater and Moonshine
It’s a beverage that deepens the friendships and strengthens the spines of mountain people from the Appalachians to the Urals. Its producers have been discussed and celebrated in books, movies and reality television for decades. It’s also illegal and producing it without a license can result in jail time.
The product goes by many names—poteen in Ireland, samogon in Russia, “funeral tomorrow at 2 o’clock” in Tanzania. It’s moonshine, an unaged distilled drink that scores of countries produce as a cheap and often nasty way to get blasted. In "Moonshine: A Global History" (Reaktion, 2017), Kevin R. Kosar, a fellow at the R Street Institute, has produced an amiable little book that delves deeply into the culture and history of this ancient beverage.
Moonshine is at least 600 years old. Russia began taxing vodka in 1474 and Scotland began taxing whisky in 1506, and tax collectors made firm distinctions between legal and illicit spirits. There’s evidence of distillation going back to Babylonian times, but it’s unclear when alchemists discovered that distillation could be used to produce alcohol.
The first known use of the term “moonshine” to apply to illicit alcohol comes in Francis Grose’s 1785 collection Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where he defines the word as “a matter of mouthful of moonshine; a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, are also called moonshine.”
Today, moonshine is made in nearly every country, but it thrives in areas where the sale of alcohol is prohibited. The Indian state of Gujarat, for example, has been dry since 1958, but moonshine is easily available from small corner shops, “and some sellers take orders by cellular phones and make home deliveries.” One resident of the state told The Hindu that, despite prohibition, “it’s easier to get booze than food” in Gujarat.
But moonshine also thrives in areas in America with strict alcohol control. My stepmother, for example, attended the University of Mississippi in the early 1950s. Mississippi did not end Prohibition until 1966. She told me that everyone on campus knew how to get to the bootlegger, located a few miles away in the sticks. Desperate students would chug mouthwash to get their booze.
Moonshine in America has the reputation of being made by hayseeds out of “corn squeezings.” Some former illicit moonshiners are eager to preserve that legend. The great stock car driver Junior Johnson, for example, got his expertise driving cars along narrow mountain roads in North Carolina. He now sells legal moonshine. You can also buy Hatfield and McCoy Moonshine, produced in a micro-distillery in Gilbert, West Virginia, “on original Hatfield land.”
State departments of tourism are eager to promote the myth of the romantic moonshiner if it gets travellers heading to the hills. Tennessee, for example, has the “White Lightning” trail, sending tourists to the twisty mountain roads used by moonshiners 60 years ago. Hollywood turned the exploits of these Tennessee moonshiners into the 1958 film Thunder Road, which starred Robert Mitchum.
Yet Kosar finds it paradoxical that state tourist departments are promoting an illegal product. Although homebrewing was legalized in the United States in 1978, home distilling remains banned.
Kosar thinks it’s important to separate the amateur distiller from the professional. He calls on the US to follow New Zealand’s example and legalize home distilling, provided that there are strict limits on production and sale of a home-distilled product remains banned. He believes this deregulation is productive because “New Zealand’s problems with illicit alcohol are few.”
Commercial production of moonshine is a different matter. Most commercial moonshine is sugar water made in industrial parks. It can also be quite dangerous. In 2002 a derelict garage in North Philadelphia exploded, and federal and state investigators discovered a sophisticated operation capable of producing several million shots of moonshine a year. In his 2010 book "Chasing the White Dog," author Max Watman calculates that, at a dollar a shot, the street value of the hooch produced by the Philadelphia still was over $50 million a year.
Consumers, particularly in the Third World, often contend with moonshiners whose unregulated products often contain deadly compounds such as methanol. India has had scores of people die from methanol-laced moonshine. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry reported in 2015 that moonshine consumption in that country had risen by 150 percent since 2012 and that sales of moonshine in that country was over $2 billion annually.
Counterfeiters also take moonshine and re-label it as something more expensive. In 2012, the Czech Republic temporarily suspended liquor sales in that nation after 38 people died and 79 more got very sick from moonshine repackaged as fake rum and vodka. Georgetown University economist Mark L. Busch reports that most of the Johnnie Walker whisky sold in China is counterfeit.
While governments should continue to fight illicit moonshine, Kosar suggests that moonshine should be legalized, regulated, and taxed. By buying legal moonshine, consumers know what they’re purchasing. Distillers can also use sales of moonshine, an unaged spirit, to provide cash flow for production of whiskies that have to be stored in a cask for several years.
"Moonshine" is an informative look at one of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages.