As a word, hooch is very amusing to me. And, as I am increasingly interested in etymology, [evidenced by my love for the way the Urban Dictionary demonstrates the transitions of word use] hooch has become even more entertaining. Not to mention, my more concrete experiences with hooch: always amusing, interesting and entertaining.
The term hooch finds it’s origin as a derivative of the name of a Tlingit group from Angoon on Admiralty Island in Alaska (east of better known Sitka for geographers in the house). The Hutsnuwu people (the name literally translates to brown bear’s fort) were the first alcohol entrepreneurs in the area and all locally produced liquor came from there for some time, and so ‘hoochinoo’ came to be metonymic for booze. Hoochinoo, shortened to hooch eventually became the slang term for all home brews, specifically those produced and distributed illicitly. [As an aside, my girlfriends and I used the word hooch to use as a noun/adjective to deal with morally ambiguous girls/behavior – ourselves included of course – in high school and were etymologically correct in our usage as explained here. Clearly we were smart and scandalous, always a winning combination.]
I read about hooch, initially, as a term related to the super successful 18th Amendment to the US Constitution. In efforts to legislate the health and morality of Americans (remember The Drunkard’s Progress?), Prohibition mostly just set the organized crime syndicate up for permanent residency in the US. Bootlegging became the most glamorous sort of way to illegally turn a buck. I mean, Jay Gatsby had it going on for sure.
You could be totally suave and criminal which is great way to combat the limits of mutual exclusivity. And how could providing a service that everyone wanted be all that bad? Okay, well maybe that is overstating it, but regardless the market for hooch was big business. As it remains.
Rum running, or bootlegging was the way hooch became available to all the willing and waiting desperate for a drink. When I hear bootlegger I always visualize the big giant glasses that are shaped like boots that they used to use at Gordon Biersch in San Francisco. (They may still – I have not been there in eons.)
Though I think it is far more likely that flasks were concealed in boots, the above image remains firmly entrenched in my mental files. Most of the liquor was coming from Canada (places aptly named Whiskey Gap, AL) or the Caribbean. But there was a pretty good trade in home brew going on as well. Nearly US$40 million worth of liquor was entering the US by 1924, five years into the Volstead Act and there were estimates of upwards of half a million speakeasies in operation by that time as well. People knew how to get the hooch. The small scale producers were suddenly the go-to guys in a strange industrial reversal. And so the hooch came out of the hills and into the mainstream.
Anyone who has ever had home made spirits is familiar with the flambe sensation that you experience as you knock ’em back. Gives a whole new interpretation to ‘fire in the hole.’ This ethanol based delight is not a new thrill, but has recently been tapped for it’s biofuel potential. I find this funny in light of how people have often referred to these harsh grain alcohols as ‘rocket fuel.’ Perhaps people have been right about it all along. Just think, hillbillies may be leading the way in the biofuel revolution. I love this mental image.
Out of unlabeled bottles, and sometimes jars better suited for preserves, I have sampled my fair share of the hooch. Some of the most memorable include: homemade Everclear at the fairgrounds in Petaluma (not a successful combination); someone’s grandfather’s recipe for mescal outside of Guadalajara (fire on the mountain, seriously); home brewed ouzo in Athens (very questionable decision which led to —>); special recipe unlabeled retsina (and a headache that words will never quite be able to describe); “dad’s raki” offered up to me and my mom by the bartender in the pub in Heraklion – no charge – (I think the first time I was ever intentionally drunk in my mom’s presence); grappa from a street vendor in Brindisi, Italy waiting for a potentially terribly bumpy ferry to the islands; hazipalink from a generous proprietress of a hostel in the dankest part of Budapest; another type of raki swilled surreptitiously behind oil drums in a shipyard with the Russian crew members who sneaked me off of a Princess Cruise ship in St. Petersberg so we could go to an underground club where I have no idea what we drank, but it was definitely on fire; ‘special recipe’ rum from a jam jar in Alice Springs (a ton of potential there… but stymied by the company); something clear (and snake/scorpion free) at an underground pub near Ho Hai Lake in Beijing – no idea of the name, but a familiar game; and most recently, Calvados, made on the neighboring farm of a friend’s wife in France, suffice it to say I am glad there was a limited amount of it and I was walking home.
What is the joy in drinking hooch? I think that is has much to do with the novelty since illegality in the (majority of the) above mentioned examples was not in question. It may be the best way to get sense of the true local flavor. And inevitably leads to new discoveries and adventures. That is definitely worth the headache I woke up with this morning after a couple of my neighbors and I managed to work our way through the Calvados-laden table pictured below.