Moonshine: A Global History review: Drink up before your head explodes
Call it poitín, hooch, white lightning: Illicit booze has always driven us to madness
Illicit poitín distillers in Connemara, 1912. Photograph: Daily Mirror/ via Getty Images
Moonshine: A Global History
Kevin R Koshar
In July 2011, on an industrial estate in the market town of Boston, Lincolnshire, an explosion occurred whose force was so great it was heard some five miles from the point of detonation. Fire officials reported that the blast left the steel unit in which it took place looking warped and buckled. Within its shell, five men were burned to death. Outside, a car was incinerated. A survivor was seen staggering from the scene in flaming clothes, having suffered burns to more than 75 per cent of his body. To the incident’s most distant auditors, it sounded as if “the world was coming to an end”.
The cause of this moment of apparent apocalypse? A handful of enterprising young men were attempting to make moonshine, in this instance blindingly strong vodka (and I mean “blinding” literally) for distribution to individuals and local shops.
Moonshine was termed as such because it was a spirit that was illicitly produced outdoors, under the light of the moon
Yet it qualifies as moonshine because, as Kevin R Kosar succinctly puts it in this vibrant and and entertaining new study of the drink’s 600-year history: “Any hard alcohol produced that fails to fall within the legal definitions for distilled beverages, or any hooch produced by an unlicensed distiller, can rightly be called moonshine.”
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This broad and sensible definition helps to account for the origin of the drink’s name (“moonshine was termed as such because it was a spirit that was illicitly produced outdoors, under the light of the moon”), while situating the product in a manageable and well-defined historical context: the birth of moonshine arrives with the advent of government lawmaking concerning the production and distribution of distilled drink.
There is evidence of alcohol legislation dating as far back as Hammurabi’s rule (1792-1750 BC) of the First Babylonian Dynasty. Russia first imposed taxes on booze in in 1474, while Scotland was differentiating licit spirits from moonshine by 1494. In 1506, James IV claimed a monopoly on the monopoly and distilling of aqua vitae.
Kosar, an authority on booze and a director of alcohol policy at the R Street Institute in Washington, DC, discusses this aspect of his subject with pace, learning, insight and good sense. He is convincing when he argues that “the more a government’s policies reduce access to affordable, safe, licit alcoholic drinks, the more it encourages the production of cheap, dangerous, illicit booze”. And he is arresting when he links the production of moonshine to moments of political resistance.
In his analysis of the history of distillation in Ireland, which probably began around 1100, he records that as British rule over the country intensified over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, so did efforts “to control and impede the production of Irish moonshine, then called poitín or potcheen”. Accordingly, moonshining became “a form of nationalist opposition”.
We meet Irish prisoners making moonshine out of scraps of food and discarded tins.
These portions of Kosar’s narrative are integrated elegantly with absorbing discussions of the difficulties involved in producing moonshine (if you are thinking of trying it at home, refrain), and of its inscription in cultural and literary history. But the book is at its most grimly arresting when Koshar describes the pernicious effects of the drink, and the extremes to which people will go to create and consume it.
We encounter American submariners, in the midst of the second World War, harnessing apparatus on their vessel to concoct an edifying tipple known as “torpedo juice” – which is one way of using the 190-proof ethanol designed to propel the machine’s weaponry. We meet Irish prisoners making moonshine out of scraps of food and discarded tins. We are visited by a near-relentless procession of the maimed and the dead.
And all of this for a drink that, in addition to proving fatal, has caused countless cases of blindness, mania, botulism and bodily disfigurement. Stalin once thought that, under communist rule, distilled spirits could be abolished on the grounds that his people would be so happy that they wouldn’t need them. And moonlighting flourished.
Why? Because, in some ways, the story of moonshine is the story of being human, and of the human determination to be free. It shows our ingenuity; our folly; our resilience; our need for oblivion. Even, or perhaps especially, when the oblivion might turn out to be total.