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8 october 2017

I've had moonshine exactly once: a glass of poteen, in Ireland, in the early 1980s. My ex-brother-in-law the priest had a supplier, and I reckoned that the Catholic Church wouldn't poison an American visitor. Despite the raw reputation of the liquor, it was mild and tasteless. But undeniably alcoholic.

Thirty-five years later, a friend insisted I try a "Moontang," the signature cocktail of an upscale burger restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. And on a recent drive across the Ohio Valley, sticking to US highways and smaller country roads, I came across moonshine for sale in mason jars at many a convenience store. But of course, if you can sell it in restaurants or stores, such stuff by definition isn't moonshine.

Kevin Kosar confronts this paradox head-on in his global history of hootch, even including a chapter called "Moonshine Goes Legit." "Licit moonshine," according to Kosar and to my informal survey of convenience stores, is now big business. Moonshine is technically any untaxed (or otherwise illegal) distilled liquor. The practicalities of illicit distilling have usually meant that moonshine is unaged and highly potent. Thus by backformation, licit moonshine is unaged, high-proof liquor made with anything distillable. Truckstop moonshine often includes some flavors, whether the residue of the distilling process, or added after distilling. But actually, the long-available "Everclear" (as Kosar notes) is akin to classic moonshine, at a tasteless 190 proof.

The key feature of Everclear and its relatives is that they won't kill you via impurity (though they can kill you via sheer alcohol content quickly enough). Moonshine's bad reputation, worldwide, comes from poisons that accumulate in the early stages of the distilling process. When these are included in the retail product, by moonshiners greedy to get as much liquor into consumers as fast as possible, they can blind or kill you – and they continue to do so, in places as far-flung as east Africa, Russia, and India, to this day.

Much of Kosar's book is about the romance of moonshine. Since the distinction between reputable moonshine and bottled-in-bond is arbitrary, it has often been perceived by distillers as governmental rent-seeking. Eliminating both middlemen and excise officers, good-old-boy country moonshiners have been heroes of legend, from Ireland to Appalachia. Taking a historical perspective, Kosar suggests that prohibition, proscription, and excessive taxation have always brought about unintended consequences. Any legal system that wraps liquor in red tape, and makes it expensive to consumers while unprofitable to suppliers, risks incentivizing large-scale moonshining. But large-scale moonshining is immune to market constraints based on trust. Distilling operation that are faceless by necessity can blind or kill their customers and then move on to another local market or another ephemeral "brand." And drinkers are notoriously just interested in drink, not in spending a lot to ensure they'll outlive tonight's pint.

Kosar includes some cocktail recipes that are basically standard bar-guide drinks, substituting moonshine for gin, vodka, or whiskey. He doesn't tell you how to make your own moonshine. The Internet is for that, he notes, and instead of instructions, he conveys several cautionary tales about how home distillers are much likelier to blow up, set fire to, hideously pollute, or otherwise mangle themselves and their kitchens in pursuit of a few tablespoonsful of liquid that is likely to revulse even if it does not maim. It really does seem like a mason jar full of tax-paid Ol' Pappy's Happy-Sappy Brandy is the better option.

Kosar, Kevin R. Moonshine: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.