I had the good fortune to be introduced to the wonders of good homemade liquor through my grandmother-in-law, in the front lines of Slovenian schnapps tasting competitions. Back home, in the US, homemade liquor is largely illegal, and associated with “moonshine,” which was usually more functional than tasty, if you catch my meaning. Little attention was paid to detail, because this practice of making your own booze (alternatively known in the US as hooch, mountain dew, white whiskey, homebrew and white lightning) was to skirt Prohibition, and the 18th amendment of the Constitution banned it.
At the beginning it was "moonshine"
Probably called “moonshine” because it was made in seclusion, by the light of the moon, it was typically made with a corn mash that was distilled into a high-test alcohol which, frankly, tasted pretty darn bad. In the Appalachian mountains of the US, a finer variety of moonshine was produced by immigrants from Ulster, who imported a recipe for uisce beatha, “water of life” in Gaelic, which was a transparent, unaged form of whiskey.
This mountain range had patchy fields that produced corn, but it was a logistical nightmare to bring the corn to market, through winding paths and steep drops, by horse and wagon. So converting the corn into hooch was an easier, and more pleasurable, backup plan.
During Prohibition, when all alcohol was briefly banned in the US, there was still plenty of booze to be had – it was just illegally imported by organised crime groups or made by night in backyard distilleries. Still, nobody thought it tasted very good, and you’d be likely to receive a stern glare (or perhaps a punch in the nose) if you complained of the taste, which was entirely beside the point.
Which brings me back to the good stuff, and this wonderful Slovenian tradition of making completely delicious “hooch.” Schnapps is ubiquitous here, as in so many countries, particularly where it is cold, and particularly in former socialist countries, where homemade versions of just about anything was the currency of choice, bartering eggs for cured meat, or coffee for homemade schnapps.
Whatever you had an abundance of, after making it yourself, could be swapped for whatever you didn’t have, and that meant that the meagre and (theoretically) equal cash income of every citizen was not wasted on goods that could be made and/or bartered for. If Slovenian schnapps (made of fermented apples) and old tales of Appalachian moonshiners (working with fermented corn) are one part of the story, they inspired me to research what other tasty homemade liquor traditions are in place elsewhere around the world.
22 Homemade Liquors from Around the world
Afghani zarbali: a brew made from fermented raisins.
Colombian chirrinchi: a descendant with a rich tradition, the original natives of Colombia made an alcoholic beverage called chicha long before Europeans arrived. The ancient version was made of chewed and spewed corn that was buried for weeks in a terracotta container to ferment (I know, doesn’t sound that pleasant, but who are we to judge before sipping?)
Croatian rakija: variations on this word can be found throughout the Eastern bloc, and it is the general term for schnappses, mostly made with plums (in which case it is called sljivovica, see below). But a version with wine grapes, like Italian grappa, is called lozovaca, and an herbal one, which aids digestion, is called travarica.
Bosnian sljivovica: plum schnapps (often mistranslated as plum brandy).
Brazilian cachaça: sugarcane juice fire water, based on a process imported from Portugal in 1532. But the more exciting version of this is called Maria Louca, and is brewed by prisoners!
Armenian oghee: the speciality here is made with white mulberries.
Cuban gualfarina: a sugarcane liquor made with yeast and often augmented with medical rubbing alcohol!
Greek tsipouro: usually made from pomace grapes, with higher quality versions using the whole grape, and lower quality using the leftovers after grapes have been pressed for wine – the stems and skins.
Danish hjemmebraendt: homemade alcohol is illegal if it’s got more than 14% alcohol (meaning anything stronger than wine is a no-no). That does not, however, stop enterprising Danes…
Polish bimber: produced since the Middle Ages as grain and fruit vodkas, the plum version from Lacko is the target of many a tourist (who may have to smuggle bottles home).
Estonian puskar: potato-based liquor, like the less expensive vodkas.
Thai lao khao: brewed from glutinous rice (and therefore happily gluten-free!) Kenyan kumi kumi: the name translates as “kill me quickly,” which may not be the best advertisement for something that several websites warned “has been known to cause blindness and death.” Another round, bartender!
German Schwarzengebrannter: certainly the most fun to say on this list, the Schwartz part (black) refers to its being sold on the black market.
Congo lotoko: a homemade whiskey made of cassava or corn, and officially banned because the cob of the corn, when distilled, can produce toxic methanol. Drinkers beware!
Panamanian chirrisco: rice or corn-based liquor, which is illegal because some very naughty distillers have been known to store the liquor in empty (but still funky) herbicide containers, or to add car battery acid to give it a little extra oomph. Mama Tonchka definitely does not recommend this recipe.
Guatemalan cusha: an ancient Mayan tradition often used in shamanistic rituals, one of which includes spitting on one’s patients with a mouthful of cusha. Hard to imagine that can be healthy, but what do we know?
Indian tharra: sugar cane pulp is fermented in spherical terracotta pots. In Goa, cashew is a preferred flavouring.
Sardinian filuferru: illegally-made, grape-based grappa, put in bottles that were buried underground to hide them from authorities, linked together by an iron thread (hence the name) that would sit above the ground and facilitate retrieval when the coast was clear, and you were sufficiently thirsty.
French eau de vie: “water of life” is any French home distillate, of which perhaps the most famous is Mirabelle, made from that variety of plums.
Georgian chacha: a homemade version of Italian grappa. Also a lively South American dance.
Finnish pontikka: a homemade vodka with a funny origin story – the name makes fun of the bad taste of the liquor, which recalls a particularly bad French wine from Pontacq. The Finns produce so much of this stuff that the entire city of Kitee is renowned as the “moonshine city.”
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