Moonshine around the world: the good, the bad and the ugly

Brad Cohen

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Moonshine is a broad term with a negative connotation. While in the U.S. it is generally made from corn or sugar – and infused with any number of fruits – moonshine is basically just a sweeping term for unregulated booze the world over. But does moonshine deserve its bad rap? Well, yes and no.


As evidenced by the recent legal ‘moonshine’ fad that went out fashion almost as quickly as it came in, American moonshine – and ‘white whiskey’ – is mostly just swill (they age whiskey for a reason). And yes, people all over the world have health complications or die from poorly made, unregulated booze.

But there’s also plenty of homemade hooch that’s excellent, and these days, in some countries, the word ‘moonshine’ is just as synonymous with ‘handcrafted, artisanal’ booze as it is with bathtub gin.

Here are eight types of moonshine around the world, from the poisonous to the downright delicious:

Rakija/raki | The Balkans

Drinking rakija in the Balkans is kind of like playing shot roulette – you never know what you’re going to get. Rakija/raki – depending on where you are – is THE drink of Serbia, Albania and other former Yugoslavian countries. And while you can find legally distilled and labeled bottles in stores, virtually everyone has “a guy” who supplies them. Even bars serve homemade rakija, the name for (generally unaged) brandy made most commonly out of grapes or plums – again, depending on where you are – but often made out of everything from apples to quinces to walnuts. The quality and taste varies greatly from liquid fruit to gasoline. 

Raksi | Nepal

Go to the burning ghats at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu and you might see brahmins (priests) pouring raksi over pujas (sacrificial offerings) as an offering to the gods, or families of the deceased dumping raksi directly on top of bodies before they're burned. That's why in Nepal, raksi is known as “the drink of the gods” or “the water of the gods.” The Nepalese offer this home-brewed drink to the deities at religious ceremonies and funerals, and serve it during holidays or at feasts. Homebrewed all over the country from millet or rice, raksi tastes similar to sake. Just proceed with caution before drinking: not all raksi is quality controlled. 

Mezcal | Mexico

If you needed any proof that moonshine can be great, it’s in the mezcal bottle at your local liquor store. Mezcal – made from distilled and smoked agave – has taken the spirits world by storm, but 20 years ago, hardly anybody outside of Mexico had ever even heard of mezcal, and if they had, they probably would have (inaccurately) told you it contained hallucinogenic mescaline. Even within Mexico, mezcal was recently known more or less poor man’s tequila. Yet, a booze that just a short time ago was nothing more than some moonshine made by a farmer for a couple bucks a bottle now has “single-farm, artisianally made” label slapped on a bottle that will run you $80. What a difference a few years and great marketing makes.

Landi | Iceland

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably been to Iceland in the last two years. And if you haven’t, you probably feel like you have because your Instagram feed is covered with every one of your friends’ photos of glaciers and volcanoes and waterfalls (enough already!) If this country has somehow still passed you by, here’s the one pro-tip you should definitely listen to when you do go: buy all the booze you can at the airport, because liquor on this island is outrageously expensive. Before 1989, no drinks stronger than 2.25% alcohol were allowed in the country (which is why Iceland celebrates Beer Day on March 1 to commemorate the end of the prohibition of beer). While that prohibition was still in tact, people started resorting to moonshine – much like they did in the U.S. – and many still do thanks to those outrageous price tags of legal alcohol. Iceland’s particular brand of moonshine –  landi – is a small-batch potato liquor that runs around 40% alcohol. Consider it a bit of a more, um, flavorful vodka.

Chacha |  Georgia

Georgians have been making wine the same way for thousands of years: in clay pots that have been buried underground for fermentation; in fact, the oldest evidence of wine making on earth is from an 8,000-year-old batch of vino in Georgia. So it’s no surprise that Georgians know their way around a grape. Factory bottles of chacha, Geoergia’s answer to moonshine, have become available in the last 20 years or so, but people throughout the countryside have been making this grape-distilled brandy for ages. Chacha is also made from other various fruits like mulberries, tangerines and figs, but grape is what you’re most likely to find.

Laolao | Laos

If you’ve ever backpacked across Southeast Asia, there’s a good chance the mere mention of laolao has you hugging the toilet bowl. What has been called the cheapest booze in the world costs less than $1 a bottle. And it can reach upwards of 45% alcohol. Technically considered a rice whiskey, this high-octane liquor is made with sticky rice or rice husks, and while it can be relatively smooth, it can also taste like jet fuel. Thanks to its ubiquity, cheap price tag and potency, it’s also quite the recipe for budget backpackers to experience crippling hangovers.

Chang’aa | Kenya

Kenya’s moonshine, chang'aa, literally translates to “Kill me quick” – and for good reason. While its main ingredients are maize and sorghum (at least in theory), it’s often fortified with everything from jet fuel to embalming fluid – and even without those additions, chang’aa has still been known to blind drinkers if not kill them. So why do people continue to drink it? In this poor country, many can’t afford to drink the heavily taxed legal booze.

Poitin | Ireland

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Grain out @westerngael!

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Much like American moonshine, this Irish equivalent has recently gone legit thanks to a newly burgeoning craft whiskey industry that needs something to sell in order to pay the bills while the whiskey matures. But this potato-based spirit has been satiating the needs of Irish drinkers throughout Irish villages for centuries. Go to Ireland and you're as likely to find legal versions of poitin on the menus of the fanciest cocktail bars in Dublin as you are illegal versions at the pubs in the middle of nowhere in the countryside.


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