Despite its reputation as a product of ramshackle stills hidden away in the Appalachian Mountains, moonshine has a long and storied global history. No matter where you go on earth, there is a local bootleg liquor, whether it’s white lightning, chang’aa, or hjemmebrent.
In Moonshine: A Global History (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press), Kevin R. Kosar tells the colorful and, at times, blinding history of moonshine, which features a crazy cast of crusading lawmen, clever tinkerers, sly smugglers, ruthless gangsters, pontificating poets, mountain men, beleaguered day-laborers and foolhardy frat boys.
Kosar first surveys all the things we’ve made moonshine from, including grapes, grains, sugar, tree bark, horse milk, and much more. But despite the diversity of its possible ingredients, all moonshine has two characteristics: it is extremely alcoholic, and it is, in most places, illegal. Indeed, the history of DIY distilling is a history of criminality and the human ingenuity that has prevailed out of officials’ sights: from cleverly designed stills to the secret smuggling operations that got the goods to market. Kosar also highlights the dark side: completely unregulated, many moonshines are downright toxic and dangerous to drink.
Kosar explains, “Moonshine exists, and always will. So, governments should minimize the damage it can do by letting folks distill for personal consumption and fostering a competitive, legal drinks market that gives consumers a broad range of professionally made beverages.”
The book is a follow-up to Kosar’s Whiskey: A Global History, released in 2010. Kosar founded AlcoholReviews.com in 1998 and contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America in 2004. He currently serves as a Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think-tank based in Washington, D.C., where he oversees the organization’s alcoholic beverages policy program.