So, now that you know something about the process of fermentation you can probably guess what that brown liquid is that collects on top of a bread starter. Yes, that’s right, alcohol. A very impure form of alcohol, otherwise known as hooch. Sure, you can drink it, but one taste will demonstrate all too clearly why hooch is the very last refuge of the buzz-seeker. It is withering, frightful stuff.
People have been making hooch for as long as there have been other people crazy enough to drink it. Yet the word itself is American. Rather, an American corruption of an Indian word…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all started back in 1867, the year Alaska was purchased from the Russians by Secretary of State William Seward. Up until that time, Alaska had been little more than a wilderness whose southern shores and islands were dotted with small Indian and European settlements. The Europeans were mostly fur trappers, a ragtag, hard drinking lot who’d come to Alaska hoping to strike it rich in otter skins. Yet due to the expense of shipping otter fur all the way back to Europe, the trade was never all that profitable. In time the Russia-America company (a Russian-owned trade concern that was entirely responsible for keeping the place running) decided it was for the best if they sold Alaska to the Americans. And so they did, consigning Alaska’s population, which consisted of about 400 miscellaneous Europeans and roughly 30,000 Indians, to the care of the U.S. military.
This immediately curtailed shipments of hard liquor to the region, and left the Tlingit Indians (who had become accustomed to the taste of European alcohol) hanging out to dry, as it were. This displeased them greatly, especially Tlingits on Hootznoowoo Island (now known as Admiralty Island), who decided to take matters into their own hands. Employing any carbohydrate source they could lay their hands on, be it sugar, molasses, beans, potatoes, rice, grain or flour (or a combination of any of the above), they mashed it, mixed it with water and fermented it into the foulest alcoholic beverage north of the 49th parallel.
For a time, all those within paddling distance of Hootznoowoo (by this time known as “Hoochinoo” by the Americans) were happy to leave the locals to their own devices. Yet that soon changed when gold was struck, and the area was flooded with thirsty prospectors. Despite the illegality of alcohol, entrepreneur saloon keepers were all too eager learn the “hooch”-making trade from the Tlingits. And learn they did, turning any and all starches within reach into a river of brown, foul-tasting rotgut that one prospector described as “squirrel whiskey” because “two drinks of it makes you want to climb a tree.”
These days, we use the word “hooch” to describe just about any illegal home-made alcohol (of which there is still plenty here in the state of Kentucky). Nowadays people use comparatively elaborate stills to make it, yet I tend to doubt the quality has improved terribly much.