Kevin Kosar. Moonshine: A Global History. Reaktion Books Ltd., 2017, 125 pp.
Moonshining is a global phenomenon, a fundamentally illegal act driven by a multiplicity of desires: alcohol, money, heritage preservation, the assertion of anti-authoritarian values, or simply for enjoyment. Kevin Kosar’s Moonshine: A Global History explores the plethora of moonshines across time and space in an effort to disavow his readers of stereotypical American associations of moonshine and moonshiners. Moonshining is lucrative, complex, flexible, and global. Yet, despite varied drinks and distillation methods it is unequivocally subversive. Kosar wades through centuries of illicit liquor production, highlighting tensions between state authorities, market demand, and cultural values. Throughout, he provides vivid pictures of moonshining ranging from medieval drawings to modern stills in Kenya. Connecting his narrative are examples and consequences of failed prohibition accompanied by a plea for governments to replace restrictions with regulations, taboos with taxes. Centrally, Kosar argues for governments to assume a pragmatic stance in regard to alcohol as prohibition in the interest of public global health.
The introduction and first chapter endeavor to define and delineate moonshine. Fundamentally, it is an unaged, high proof, and illicit liquor. Even today, debates over the technical definition of moonshine rage, an irony given the illegal character of the drink. In an effort to free his readers of an Americanized version of moonshine, he traces the linguistic history of moonshine to a fifteenth-century English origin that referred neither to legal nor illegal alcohol. Not until the late eighteenth century did it gain an alcoholic connotation. Building on the word’s interesting history, Kosar suggests that the meaning and definition of moonshine is constantly in flux and malleable.
In the second chapter, Kosar emphasizes the sophistry required for distilling, yet the equipment used is typically cobbled together, second-hand, or otherwise unintended for distilling. Across the world, oil drums, used piping, and sheet metal have all found new purposes in distillation. Moonshining is exacting and precise while at the same time easily improvised with makeshift ingredients and equipment. While moonshiners’ innovation is commendable, this lack of standardization has serious ramifications. The moonshiners’ ingenuity, people’s desire for strong drink, and the easy profits drive moonshiners to distill, distribute, and drink dangerous liquors. He recounts stories of prisoners in Ireland, California, and Brazil distilling in their toilets with secreted stashes of sugary foods, discovered only after explosions or waves of sick prisoners.
The third chapter comprises the core of his argument and recommends moonshine’s usefulness as a lens to understand government policies, priorities, and their popular support. Here, Kosar argues that prohibition fails due to the cheapness, accessibility, and agricultural dimension of moonshine. Prohibition illuminates governments’ failures to understand people’s desires, financial situations, and cultural values. In particular, Kosar suggests that governments take advantage of the burgeoning moonshine industry by regulating, taxing, and profiting while preventing harmful substances from entering the market.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 delve into the nefarious underside of moonshining. Chapter 4 discusses how twentieth-century American media popularized moonshine. Media transformed it from a local product to a popular icon that touted restrictive government policies. All the while, moonshine became more dangerous. No longer do people buy from a local moonshiner; instead the beverage is handled—and cut—by several middlemen. Should the beverage prove poisonous or otherwise harmful, there is no way for consumers to trace it back to the original source. Accountability and consumer safety is impossible, and indeed disdained.
The problematic distance between consumers and producers is further discussed in chapter 5. Makeshift stills contain trace elements of chemicals from their prior usage, which can seriously harm those who drink the end product. Negative public health impacts of risky unregulated moonshine are one of Kosar’s overriding concerns. Turpentine, paint, and other solvents were popular in the early twentieth century to stretch batches of moonshine, with disastrous health consequences. For example, he points to Ecuadorian moonshiners whose products killed 50 and injured 600 before police intervened. Incidents such as this are common in countries around the world. While showing the violence and harm done by criminals, he suggests we should understand them as entrepreneurs working to fill a need denied by the government. For some, this may be a bridge too far in portraying criminals as community-serving individuals that would disappear should their government relinquish liquor laws, but the point is valuable nonetheless.
Hinted at in chapter 5, the response to counterfeit liquor destroying trust in legitimate business is taken up in the final chapter. This chapter turns to the modern phenomenon of legitimate moonshine, arguably a contradiction in terms. Legitimate distillers use the historical memory of moonshine to market it to a growing number of people who want to tap into the history, narratives, and rebellion encapsulated by moonshine.
Moonshine is an act of rebellion, a statement of one’s cultural values, a refutation of unpopular government policies, and a highly technical and challenging creation. Kosar resists presenting moonshiners as folkloric heroes. Instead, he conveys their position across time and place as entrepreneurs filling a need denied by the government, for better or worse. He persuasively and passionately argues against prohibition given the negative societal consequences. Kosar’s exploration of the many iterations of moonshine in world history is filled with interesting anecdotes, careful insight, and policy suggestions.
However, despite its subtitle—A Global History—the book narrowly focuses on western and twentieth century moonshine. When the book does provide limited examples from Africa, Asia, or South America, it draws no further than the mid-twentieth century and even then only from a handful of nations. In trying to paint a broad picture, much of the world’s regions, and moonshining practices, are absent. Rather than global, perhaps A Concise History is a more fitting title. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining, easily accessible read replete with informative pictures and anecdotes. Anyone interested in the history of alcohol, crime, or public health would find something worthwhile. The illustrative images and easy tone could work well for undergraduate courses dealing with state power. Overall, it is a useful contribution to the burgeoning field of the public history of alcohol.
Braden Neihart is a second year graduate student at Colorado State University and will graduate with an M.A. in history. His research focuses on alcohol, specifically beer, as a lens into social and economic worldviews, especially when examined spatially. His thesis was a spatial analysis of Denver breweries from 1859-1876, tracing the development of brewing from the Gold Rush to Colorado statehood. After graduation, he hopes to teach in community colleges.