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By the Light of the Moon

Moonshine – the word instantly conjures up images of wily hillbillies, a bygone era of ambient speakeasies populated by highly questionable characters, and big old jugs easily identified by their triple-X emblem.  In the United States, we love our illicit beverages and we’ve romanticized them to the fullest extent.  Our history of producing and consuming such beverages does nothing short of demonstrate that we are a bona fide drinking nation with a hearty rebel character, and more than likely, always will be.

Moonshine, also known as “white lighting,” “mountain dew,” “rot gut” or just plain “hooch,” is a term used to describe very high proof (up to 190, equaling 95%) distilled alcohol, typically made in small batches.  Moonshine is strongly associated with Appalachia and the term is believed to have originated when distillers in the region discreetly produced their illegal beverages “by the light of the moon.”  Unlike popular whiskey brands such as Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, moonshine rarely has the benefit of being aged in proper barrels; rather, it is made in unlicensed stills, stored in improper containers, and as a result often contains an “off” flavor profile and harmful impurities that may lead to blindness or even death.  However, to the distillers in previous generations, the benefits of producing illegal moonshine were numerous, including the avoidance of high alcohol taxes and during certain times in this country’s history, absolute bans.

When the U.S. government was trying to pay off the Revolutionary War, they placed a high federal tax on liquor.  Of course, American colonists who fought to avoid high British taxes were in no mood for such oppression.  The result was the birth of widespread moonshining in the U.S., and it wasn’t all about getting an alcohol fix or saving money.  For many distillers, moonshine meant survival and corn farmers, using their grains to produce moonshine, were able to keep their families fed through tough times.  So what happened when the feds came around to collect taxes from these devious distillers?  They would get shot at, of course.  The Prohibition Era of the 1920s’, when the sale, transportation, importation and production of alcoholic beverages became severely restricted, produced a similarly clandestine approach to illegally producing alcoholic beverages.  During the early days of Prohibition, when it was actually enforced, IRS agents known as “revenuers” were sent to Appalachia and many of the southern states to destroy stills, often resulting in epic gun battles between them and distillers.

Today, we all know that the United States has laws in place that allow us to enjoy our choice of a variety of alcoholic beverages.  The only real moonshiners left are hobbyists and those who want to stick it to “the man” for regulating and taxing alcohol.  In many other countries however, the production of local versions of distilled, moonshine-like beverages is going strong and often the result of prohibition and/or centuries old tradition.

Tunisian Tipple

Bulgaria may have its potent rakia, typically made from grapes or other fruits such as raspberry or peach, and Haiti may have its stupor-inducing clairin, derived from fermented sugarcane.  However, there is perhaps no indigenous distilled beverage that is rooted in greater tradition and lore than boukha (said BOO-khah) – the “moonshine of Tunisia.”

Boukha, meaning “alcohol vapor” in the Tunisian Judeo-Arabic dialect, is produced by distilling Mediterranean figs.  It typically has an alcohol content of 40% and is consumed either by itself at room or cold temperature, or used for mixing cocktails or flavoring foods.  It is distinct for its sweet syrupy quality, derived from actual fig syrup that is added in the process.  In Tunisia, boukha is not merely just a drink, but believed by some to be a vessel for divinity.  Though not commonly known outside of the country, the beverage has been consumed since ancient times.  It has been said that Carthaginian queen Dido, abandoned by her lover Aeneas when he set off for Rome, drowned her sorrows in boukha.

Of course, if you’ve traveled to Tunis or Djerba and popped into one of the many late night drinking establishments that exist today, you’ve probably sampled (or heavily consumed) boukha and have some compassion for the queen and the epic hangovers she must have endured.  Boukha is quite the party drink and Europeans, especially the Greeks, who visit Tunisia often develop quite an affinity for it.  “When I am in Greece, I drink ouzo,” said Stavros Chatzi, a DJ from Athens.  “When I travel through other parts of the world, I sometimes can’t find a suitable replacement.  But when I am in Tunis, sipping the boukha and chatting with a beautiful lady, I am a content man.”

In some other parts of the world, distilled beverages are known for being less a social lubricant and more a social catastrophe.

Chuggin’ the Changaa

Laid out in ditches, pedestrian walkways or sometimes right in the middle of the road are consumers of the illegally distilled alcohol made in Kenya, known as changaa.

Made from maize and corn, and sometime car battery acid by unscrupulous distillers who want to give their customers that extra kick in the pants, changaa is among the most dangerous versions of “moonshine” known in the world today.  Changaa is cheap, gets you drunk fast and by its most loyal users, is referred to as “kill me quick.”  The beverage is responsible for a rapidly increasing death toll in Kenya, both through poisoning and accidents.  Recently, the government legalized the production and distribution of changaa, arguing that their regulations would result in a safer beverage.  However, many poor locals argue that they still end up brewing their own changaa anyway because it’s significantly cheaper.

The social catastrophe caused by abusive changaa consumption, particularly by men, but now even schoolchildren, has resulted in Kenyan women taking a stand.  In Gakawa, women have held demonstrations and blocked transport of changaa into their town.  They protest the fact that many changaa taverns are located near schools and their children come home drunk at night.  They have even accused schoolteachers of escorting students into the taverns.  Many mothers have expressed concern that their children are stealing household goods and selling them just so they can pay for changaa.

Authorities in Gakawa have admitted that illegal taverns near schools have been allowed to operate and they are in the process of being shut down.  Only time will tell if Kenya’s national beverage continues to destroy its people, or if the nation will eventually sober up.

High Value Beverage

Throughout recorded history, humankind has placed a high value on alcoholic beverages.  Their use, at least in moderation, has played a vital role in many major civilizations and has rarely been questioned.  In fact, many cultures have perceived distilled and fermented beverages as elements necessary to survival and preservation, just like food and water.  In modern times however, alcohol consumption has been significantly debated and both legal and illicit alcoholic beverages alike may be considered taboo in some circles.

Still, to modern day rebel distillers around the world who create their small batches of potent, indigenous hooch under the light of the moon, no laws or social stigmas will force them to abandon the old ways of moonshining and the sense of freedom it provides.