Growing up in the United States, I got the impression that moonshine was a peculiarly American phenomenon. The Dukes of Hazzard television show (1979-1985) and films like Gator served up a simple story. Moonshiners lived in America’s mountains and back roads. They are honest country folk who make ‘likker’ from cherished family recipes. Moonshiners, this story goes, are poor people whose days are spent trying to outfox the police so as to carry on the traditions of their forebears and earn a living by selling white lightning to their friends and neighbors, and college students looking for a thrill.
Judging by the many books on moonshine that have been written in recent years, this “moonshine as an American thing” notion is pretty widespread. Which is understandable, because there are and have been a lot of overall-wearing, tobacco-spitting moonshiners.
But there is way more to moonshine than mason jars and fiddle music. We got a distressing reminder of that truth this past week, when the U.S. State Department warned the public about toxic liquor being peddled in Mexico. One of its victims was a 20-year old woman from Wisconsin.
Moonshine has a global history, one that goes back 600 years, and probably even further. Most certainly, moonshine is not an American invention.
Moonshine is most accurately defined as a “distilled spirit made illegally.” Like any liquor, moonshine is made by first producing a fermented beverage (a beer or wine). Thereafter, the distiller heats the beer or wine, captures the alcoholic vapors, and then condenses them into spirit.
Moonshine was born the moment that government declared that individuals needed a license to produce it. That first happened in the 1400s in Europe, although it is entirely possible the date is earlier. Government rules on strong drink date to the reign of Hammurabi, and the process of distillation was known in the days of Aristotle.
Contrary to popular myth, the word “moonshine” is not an American term used because moonshine was made under the light of the moon. The term “moonshine” hails from the British Isles. Initially, that is, starting in the 1400s, moonshine referred to the light of the moon. Over time the term evolved to mean illusory or deceptive. By the 1780s, moonshine took on alcoholic content. Lexicographer Francis Grose, who prowled the seedier parts of London in search for slang, heard moonshine used to mean unlicensed booze. His Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) includes an entry for moonshine that captures both its earliest and emergent meaning. Moonshine is: “a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, are also called moonshine.’
And contrary to the often-peddled proposition that moonshine is synonymous with corn liquor, moonshine has been made from just about every foodstuff imaginable, and nearly every nation has its own version of moonshine. Kenya has Changaa’, made from sorghum and corn. Uganda has Waragi, AKA war gin, made from bananas. Myanmar has toddy made from Palm tree sap, and Mongolia has Arkhi, a horse-milk-based distilled spirit. In prisons, moonshine has been made from catsup packets, fruit juices, and other things I shall not mention.
These days, all sorts of folks moonshine. Hobbyists and foodies in search of “authentic drink” buy stills online and learn how to distill from YouTube videos. Some of these newbies eventually open licit craft distilleries. Some indigenous cultures still produce their own spirits for use in ceremonies.
All too often, unfortunately, moonshining is a criminal racket that imperils public health. Rarely a week goes by without the media abroad reporting on people getting sick, going blind, or dying from toxic moonshine. Criminals, unsurprisingly, have no reservations about swindling customers and peddling poisonous methyl alcohol (commonly called wood alcohol) and other toxic chemicals. A century ago, many western nations enacted prohibition in a religious hissyfit, and criminal gangs rushed in to serve the market. Today, moonshining is rampant in failed states with collapsed currencies and corrupt governments, and in nations where radical Islamic regimes have banned drink or heavily taxed it.
All of which is to say is that the story of moonshine is way more complicated than often portrayed. Illicit liquor flows all about the globe, and has for centuries. Which should be unsurprising, as moonshine expresses both the admirable and rascally characteristics sown in our nature.
Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This column also was published by the American Spectator.