This week’s entry: Moonshine by country
What it’s about: Hooch! In every corner of the globe, enterprising distillers make their own homemade alcohol—usually for sale as well as personal consumption, and almost always illegally. In some places, alcohol is banned; in others, taxation makes legal booze far more expensive than the homemade variety. As moonshine is by its nature unregulated, it can be dangerous: Some brewers add dangerous levels of methanol to strengthen the drink, and some stills incorporate old car radiators, which can leak lead or antifreeze into the finished product. Different cultures use different names and ferment different plants, but the results are the same. Wikipedia takes us on a tour of 79 countries that brew up one form or another of white lightning.
Strangest fact: Absinthe. One character on Black Books called it “the drink that makes you want to kill yourself instantly,” and its reputation elsewhere is not far from that assessment. The liquor was first created in Switzerland, but it was actually banned in that country’s national constitution for nearly a century. Because of the high alcohol content, absinthe was singled out among alcoholic drinks as causing “violent crimes and social disorder,” and at the peak of its popularity, the Swiss held a public referendum to outlaw the green liquor, and its prohibition was written into the constitution in 1910. The constitutional ban was repealed in 2000, but replaced by a regular law, which was lifted in 2005. In the interim, underground distillers made illegal absinthe with a stunning 67-70 percent alcohol content. The legal variety is in the area of 45 percent.
Biggest controversy: In predominantly Muslim countries where alcohol is forbidden, drinking still takes place, thanks to moonshiners. Rural Pakistanis brew beer and tharra (similar to rum). In Saudi Arabia, they make fermented sugar water called Aragh (and South Korean immigrants have brought their own hooch made from fruit juice and yeast). In Iran, the penalty for drinking Arak (made from fruit liqueurs) is so severe that a thirsty few resort to drinking pure ethanol, despite the high risk of alcohol poisoning.
Thing we were happiest to learn: In Soviet Russia, moonshine distills you! Okay, that’s not true and doesn’t really make any sense, but who can resist a Yakov Smirnoff joke? Samogon, which translates to “self-distilled,” is a catchall term for any Russian moonshine. Traditionally, it was made from malted grain, but in recent years, cheaper and more easily available sugar has been the base ingredient. As Russia has begun to license the sale of samogon, its popularity has increased steadily, surpassing vodka among rural Russians. In fact, Wikipedia mentions a prediction that samogon consumption might overtake vodka by the end of this year.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Like everything else, moonshine has been co-opted by hipsters. Despite traditionally having a target audience that’s more Larry The Cable Guy than David Cross, distilled moonshine-like drinks have become trendy in recent years, with names like Virginia Lightning, Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, or Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, and some varieties sold in a clay jug or Mason jar. As they are legal drinks made under government supervision, these aren’t actually moonshine in the traditional sense, but they still carry more cachet than PBR.
Also noteworthy: New Zealand is one of the few countries where home distillation is legal—for personal use, at least—so stills are available for sale, complete with instructions. The Hokonui Hills have a long history of moonshining back when it was illegal (much like the Appalachians, the remote mountains provide ample hiding places for a bootlegging outfit), and brands of legal alcohol now reference Hokonui.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: On the surface, stock car racing doesn’t seem to have much in common with bootlegging. But in fact, they’re inexorably linked. Almost as long as the automobile as existed, moonshine has been used as a powerful fuel, and moonshiners would often need a burst of speed to evade the law. Stock car racing grew out of moonshiners modifying their cars to go faster and faster, in an effort to outrun the law.
Side note: while the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it, The Dukes Of Hazzard was originally about moonshiners (and was based almost directly on the 1975 film Moonrunners), until CBS sensed it had a potential family-friendly hit on its hands and played down the moonshine angle in favor of the Duke boys taking on corrupt local government.
Further down the wormhole: The story of American moonshine can’t be told without Appalachia, the region that has always been the heart of our illegal liquor production. That page mentions a period of violence between moonshiners and authorities in the 1870s when Rutherford B. Hayes, the most mediocre of mediocre presidents, attempted to enforce a whiskey tax. While Hayes is barely more than a footnote in his own country’s history, he’s still a national hero in Paraguay, because of his role as arbiter during the Paraguayan War, one of the most disastrous military conflicts of all time and a story we’ll explore next week.