Moonshine Is Not Just an American Thing. For Better and for Worse, It’s Age-old and Global.

Source: Ethiopian Still by David Stanley, WikiCommons.

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.


Today’s Whiskey Is Not Yesterday’s—Thank Goodness

Some years ago, I attended a tasting where the representative of a well-known Scotch company claimed the whisky his firm makes today tastes the same as it did 150 years ago. This was blatant nonsense. The tipple in question is a blended whisky, meaning it was made from the products of numerous other distilleries. Many of the distilleries that supplied this drinks-maker a century ago no longer exist. And the ones that still do have changed their recipes, to say nothing of their stills and various other aspects of their production and aging process.

This hooey-slinger was no exception to the rule. Whiskey-makers and their public relations companies regularly boast of the ancient heritage of their whiskies. They claim they have been making their whiskey the same way forever. Their advertisements depict old men who carry on the heritage, using their burly, gnarled hands to distill whiskey according to a secret, immutable recipe.

Baloney. What constitutes whiskey today is very different from what was called whiskey prior to the twentieth century. Over the past 125 years, governments have enacted laws and regulations that define whiskey’s essential attributes, and set standards for the materials that may be used to make whiskey, what barrels it must be aged in.

Before this happened, in the days of yore so celebrated in whiskey advertisements, rules were few and little enforced. Customers had no idea what was being thrown into the mash. It might be potatoes, sugar, oats, turnips or whatever else the whiskey-maker could get his hands on. Usually, it was not aged in barrels, and when it was, whiskey- makers used whatever barrels they could acquire, whether their interiors were new, charred or saturated with sherry, wine or the stink of pickled fish. Often, this so-called ‘whiskey’ was barely distinguishable from gin or liqueur, having been flavoured with honey, and herbs such as thyme, anise or mint. Continue reading “Today’s Whiskey Is Not Yesterday’s—Thank Goodness”


Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze


Source: National Geographic
Source: National Geographic

drinks are a bit of fancy, something that is peripheral to human existence? Think again.

[Dr.] Zarnkow…. and others have shown that alcohol is one of the most universally produced and enjoyed substances in history—and in prehistory too, because people were imbibing alcohol long before they invented writing. Zarnkow’s Sumerian beer is very far from the oldest. Chemical analysis recently showed that the Chinese were making a kind of wine from rice, honey, and fruit 9,000 years ago. In the Caucasus Mountains of modern-day Georgia and the Zagros Mountains of Iran, grapes were one of the earliest fruits to be domesticated, and wine was made as early as 7,400 years ago.

All over the world, in fact, evidence for alcohol production from all kinds of crops is showing up, dating to near the dawn of civilization. University of Pennsylvania biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern believes that’s not an accident. From the rituals of the Stone Age on, he argues, the mind-altering properties of booze have fired our creativity and fostered the development of language, the arts, and religion. Look closely at great transitions in human history, from the origin of farming to the origin of writing, and you’ll find a possible link to alcohol. “There’s good evidence from all over the world that alcoholic beverages are important to human culture,” McGovern says. “Thirty years ago that fact wasn’t as recognized as it is now.” Drinking is such an integral part of our humanity, according to McGovern, that he only half jokingly suggests our species be called Homo imbibens.

Have a look at this National Geographic essay on drink and its place in human civilization:


ICYMI: The Economist Tells the Early History of IPA Beer


The Economist’s December 24, 2016 copy carries an enjoyable short history of the India Pale Ale:

Beer is for drinking. But beer is also an occasion for conversation—and, if good enough, a subject for it, too. That is where India Pale Ales, or IPAs, come into their own. Few beers incite and enrich conversation as much. Their distinctive character—the “firm bitterness [that] lingers long and clean” in one, the “complex aromatic notes of citrus, berry, tropical fruit and pine” in another—spur discussions that spill over from tap rooms to websites with ease. The plethora of craft brewers that has sprung up over the past few decades provides ample scope for arguments about the relative merits of local brews and far-flung ones—with far-flung, these days, meaning from more or less anywhere on Earth.

And then there is the beer itself. A child of Britain’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion that rose to world-straddling greatness, IPA went on to be humbled by its upstart rival, lager. It had all but vanished when plucky supporters restored it to life and once more put the world at its feet. Here is a beer with a back story.