Witblits, araqi, and schwarzgebrannter: Moonshine around the world
I feel a bit strange to be writing an article about moonshine (or homemade alcohol) while living in Czech Republic. This part of the world recently made headlines for not entirely succeeding at separating methanol from ethanol, and the results were predictably disastrous: multiple deaths, victims with permanent eyesight damage, and an ensuing ban on the sale of all hard alcohol throughout the country.
The case has more or less been closed now, and we’re back to drinking shots in relative safety over here. Though in this case the culprits were what the local press fondly refer to as “an industrial methanol mafia” and not moonshine, the episode does make one rather acutely aware of the dangers inherent in the idea of home-distilled alcohol. Sometimes, an extra carbon atom really does make all the difference.
Anyway, here is a very incomplete list of various forms of moonshine from around the world.
Slivovice (Czech Republic)
Small home operations making slivovice, or brandy made from plums (slívy), can be found all over Czech Republic, especially in Moravia, the country’s eastern half. The result, also known colloquially as pálenka (which roughly translates to “burned stuff”), is delicious and has not been implicated in any methanol scandals — in fact, locals turned to trusted slivovice when the sale of hard alcohol was banned here for a few weeks.
Lotoko (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Lotoko is a home-brewed corn or cassava whiskey. It’s officially banned but both stronger and cheaper than legal alcohol and therefore flourishes. A slang term for lotoko is, appropriately, pétrole.
Germans being as usual masters of long words, this name for alcohol comes from “blackly burned” or “illegally burned.” In Germany, small stills of up to a half-liter capacity are legal, though the market for moonshine is limited because of the relative cheapness of alcohol in general.
Distilled palm wine called akpeteshie is a popular liquor in Ghana. It has many other names, one being simply the descriptive “hot drink.” Following European arrival, the British colonialists and the locals argued thoroughly about the legality of local alcohol, a micro-history of colonialism well worth looking into. The name akpeteshie means “they are hiding,” referring to the colonially enforced secrecy of its consumption.
Raksi is Nepalese and Tibetan grain alcohol, home-distilled usually from rice or millet. On special occasions its pouring is often a theatrical performance.
Witblits (South Africa)
Witblits, whose name comes from the Afrikaans for “white lightning,” is a strong unaged grape brandy. The town of Philippolis hosts a yearly witblits festival that features a witblits drinking competition and a Mr. and Mrs. Witblits contest. Good times for all, I’m sure.
Sharia, or Islamic law, is the legal code of Sudan, making the sale and consumption of all alcohol illegal. Nonetheless, illegally distilled alcohol exists. Araqi, gin made of dates, is a popular form.
Illegally produced Scottish whiskey is called peatreek, a word derived from the smell of the peat fire over which it is distilled. Scotland also has the poet Robert Burns and celebrates Robert Burns day, which consists of eating a supper of haggis, drinking whiskey, and appreciating the poetry of Robert Burns. Scotland is great.
The birth country of absinthe banned its production in 1910, but illegal distilling continued throughout the twentieth century. Absinthe was finally legalized in 2005, after nearly a century of prohibition. Today, it’s distilled again in its birthplace of Val-de-Travers, a district in the Neuchâtel canton famous for its absinthe and its clocks.
This list would not be complete without an American contribution, as the word “moonshine” is after all American in origin. The fascinating social experiment known as Prohibition created a vast lore around the distilling of illegal alcohol. The term “moonshine” logically refers to the moon that lit the clandestine operations of illegal home distillers hidden deep in the brambly forests of the Appalachian mountains.
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