Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor
Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press
206 pp. $18.63/Hardcover
Before Pinterest made mason jars the ‘in’ thing at country-chic events or the go-to jars for anything baked, stored or displayed, it was synonymous with alcohol. Moonshine to be exact. Now, this was before moonshine became a hipster thing to drink. No, the time in question, was when the drink could get you thrown in jail, kill or blind you and was considered a heathen drink. Moonshine has had a long and varied place in United States history. From the days of the colonies, to prohibition and lastly to modern times, Moonshine was there throughout it all. “Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor” by Jaime Joyce tells its story. Zenith Press was gracious enough to offer me a book for review.
What is moonshine?
“Moonshine” intrigued me from the beginning as I have never tried it. The only thing I knew about it was that it was illegal and could blind you. Many consider it a southern drink with the big concentration on the Appalachian area. [It should be noted that it is distilled and enjoyed throughout the country.] Growing up in Minnesota, I do not know of anyone who makes or sells it – let alone anyone who drinks it. I am not much of a connoisseur when it comes to alcohol. I can not even tell you what the difference between the different types nor the history behind them. Last summer, on a vacation to Kentucky, we toured the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. I tried bourbon for the first time.
Bourbon is like moonshine. By like, I mean not like it at all. Confused? I would think so. If, like me, your historical knowledge on alcohol is nonexistent then this is the book for you. Moonshine, whiskey and bourbon are like a tree. The tree’s seed is moonshine. The seed then grows into roots and forms the foundation of the tree. This would be the equivalent of whiskey. The trunk and branches are bourbon. What does this long and somewhat incoherent analogy mean? A tree takes time to grow from a seed to a full grown tree. The same goes for the difference in the three alcohols. Moonshine is un-aged whiskey – meaning you can drink it right after you make it. Whiskey is aged in barrels – the amount of years varies. And lastly, bourbon is whiskey that is aged in charred barrels, sometimes for the same or longer periods than whiskey.
As Joyce’s cover above shows, moonshine goes by MANY names. Some of which are familiar (to me at least) – hooch, shine, white whiskey – while others are more, well, unique. Moonshine was created at night, or before dawn, by illegal distillers with only the moon as their light. For the majority of history, moonshine was illegal since the distillers would not pay tax on it. They would smuggle it from their concealed stills to their paying customers all while the government tried to stop them. This struggle, between distillers and the government, makes up the bulk of moonshine’s history.
Book Structure & Content
There are ten chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Joyce also included Notes & Sources and Photo & Music Credits sections in which she breaks down her chapters and where she found what piece of information. It is obvious in reading “Moonshine” that Joyce thoroughly researched this topic. She pulled in many sources – primary, secondary and visual sources in the book. The visual sources were especially helpful in setting the stage.
“Moonshine” is a quick and easy read. Joyce presents it straight up and does not drag out sections – something I think all readers appreciate. She details moonshine’s history and distilling from early America through Prohibition into how moonshine brought on the creation of NASCAR and ends with a summary of modern, legal, moonshine production. Within each chapter, there were side stories in separate boxes that added to the content on hand.
There were only two things that I thought were distracting. I felt that quotations (both inline and block) were overused. On one hand, it does show the variety of sources used. However, on the flip side, too many quotes break up the sentences and the author’s summary of the sources. I enjoy a good quote but it is important to get the most out of your quotes. Placing a quote every paragraph or every other, takes away from the punch of the quotes. This is something a graduate professor once drilled in me and, perhaps, is merely a personal issue.
The other distracting thing did not occur nearly as often as the quotation issue. At times, I thought the paragraph structure could use some work. For example, when listing statistics about rum in various cities within one paragraph the cities were not listed in chronological order. Also, in a few other cases, she ended a topic and began a new one within the same paragraph. Of course neither issue was enough to take away from the book as a whole, but it did make me notice and have to reread certain sections.
I really enjoyed “Moonshine.” It has always been my stance that if a person learns and takes something away from a book, than it was, on some level, a successful book. If that is the rubric to follow, than “Moonshine” was very successful. I knew very little about the topic. Now I feel I could hold my own in a conversation about it. Joyce’s research was extensive, her chapter breakdown made it easy to follow and, most important, her writing style was unpretentious and inviting. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of distilling, prohibition or just good ole’ American history.