Although you may not hear it often today, the term hooch used to be popular slang for liquor, and some old-timers may still use it. During 1920’s Prohibition, it became common parlance for any illegal liquor and the term still has a connotation of an illicit, or at least cheap, distilled spirit.
The origin of the term hooch is said to come from the Hoochinoo Indians of Alaska. A small Tlingit tribe, their name Hutsnuwu, in their own language, means brown bear or grizzly bear fort. This tribe, in the 19th century, had a reputation for drunkenness and as a source for illicit liquor, which they distilled themselves from molasses and other ingredients.
It is doubtful that they learned how to make this spirit on their own and it was probably passed to them by Americans of European descent, probably soldiers, who taught them how to distill alcohols using metal coils. Still, the drink became associated with the tribe and was shortened to hooch.
Following the 1867 purchase of the Alaskan territory by America, American soldiers were dispatched to the Alaskan wilderness to out-of-the-way outposts where there was no easy access to alcohol. It is thought that one group of these soldiers, stationed on Admiralty Island near Juneau, began to brew their own extremely potent spirit out of molasses, yeast, berries, sugar, and graham flour. This liquor became a trade item between the soldiers and a nearby Indian tribe, the Hoochinoo. The Indians subsequently learned how to make the liquor for themselves and began trading it with their neighbors.
Other accounts have the story the other way around, saying that the American soldiers discovered the hooch already being made by the Indians and picked up the term after trading for the liquor with the natives. Most accounts seem to agree, however, that the term itself originated with the native liquor. We can only speculate on how the Indians learned to make the liquor. We can find other accounts as well.
For instance, a passage from the book Alaska, by E.R. Scidmore, has a different story to tell:
The liquor that the Hudson Bay Company and the Russian traders furnished to the Indians was very weak and very expensive, and the tribe of Indians known as Kootznahoos rest some of their claims to distinction on the fact that the native drink, or hoochinoo was first distilled by their people. A deserter from a whaling-ship taught them the secret, and from molasses or sugar, with flour, potatoes, and yeast, they distill the vilest, and most powerful spirit. And old oil can serves as a still, and a musket barrel, or a section of the long, hollow pipe of the common seaweed (nereiocistum) furnishes the worm of the apparatus, and the hoochino, quickly distilled, can be used at once. After any quantity has been made, its presence is soon declared, and the Indians are frenzied by it. Hoochinoo is the great enemy of peace and order, and the customs officers can much easier detect a white man smuggling whiskey than catch the Indians in the distilling act… 1
The “worm” that Scidmore writes of is the condensation coil and he is describing a long, hollow, flexible stem of kelp which could be wound into a coiled shape. Scidmore goes on to describe stills hidden in houses and out-of-the-way places in the wood, much like the moonshiners of the U.S.
Around 1877, John G. Braky, who later became governor but at the time was the head of a Presbyterian mission to Sitka, wrote to treasury agent William Governeur Morris about the harm done by sending soldiers to the region, complaining of the evils brought on the natives, including not only the making of the liquor, but syphilis; both of which they were dying from. Morris wrote a report to the Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, in which he recounted a recipe for hooch:
Molasses rum, or hootzenoo, is made by the whites and Indians in Alaska in an empty five-gallon oil can…by the following recipe: One gallon of molasses, five pounds of flour, one half box of yeast-powder, add sufficient water to make a thin batter, place the mixture alongside a fire
He said that a gallon of this mixture, fermented and distilled, made 3/4 gallons of hootzenoo, which, he concluded, “would craze the brains of ten Indians.” 2 Other descriptions of the time, as mentioned above, had potatoes, instead of flour as the starch.
There was speculation that the liquor, which was the only available in Alaska, since all alcohol manufacture and importation was prohibited, has physiological effects other than those of the alcohol, perhaps due to unknown substances of a poisonous nature. The reason for this speculation is the alleged “frenzied madness” that overcame the natives after drinking it. This may have well been a simple racist condemnation, where normal drunkenness was looked on differently in the Indians than in white men, but the presence of toxins in home-brewed liquors is not far-fetched at all.
The liquor that was sold to the Indians probably wasn’t any better, except that it was much weaker. Accounts of the day described water flavored with a small quantity of grain whiskey, being sold as rum, with blue-stone, vitriol, and nitric acid added to give it a boost. The natives were also accused of going-mad on this stuff as well. The constant accounts of “orgies and debauchery” of the tribe lends a sense of propaganda to the accounts.
Later on, in the 1890’s, Klondike gold miners caught on to the cheap and potent liquor. The term hoohchinoo was already a shorthand word for liquor by that time and it was quickly shortened to hooch, which began to be associated with any cheap, low quality, illegal, or extremely potent liquor. Later on, the term was adopted by gin makers and others during Prohibition, and became more or less permanent.
It may seem strange that a term for illegal liquor came about before the age of prohibition, but many do not realize that the smuggling of illicit liquor in America began in colonial days. During Prohibition, the smuggling was done because alcoholic beverages were illegal, but in colonial days, it was to avoid taxes owed to the British government. Even after independence, the new American government put a tax on liquors to help pay the debts incurred from the Revolution, and this was when the American moonshiner was born.
Even after the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the death of prohibition, the U.S government continued to tax liquor, and moonshiners continued to produce their spirits while not paying these taxes. You may have heard about revenuers chasing moonshiners in the old days. These agents were part of the Internal Revenue Service, which congress tasked, in 1863, with enforcing tax laws related to distilled liquors. These Internal Revenue agents were called revenuers for short.
Alaska Hooch: The History of Alcohol In Early Alaska
Of course, there is much more to be learned about the history of alcohol in Alaska, and its relationship to Native Americans. You can do so for free by downloading Alaska Hooch: The History of Alcohol In Early Alaska by Thayne Anderson. The book is in the public domain and the author has made it available in several common digital formats, including Kindle. (Additional sources: 3 4 5)
- Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah. Alaska, Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago,. Boston: D. Lothrop and, 1885.
- Chandonnet, Ann. Gold Rush Grub: From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, 2005.
- The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1991. 223.
- Smith, Chrysti M. Verbivore’s Feast: Second Course : More Word & Phrase Origins. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2006.
- Mallory, Stephen L. Understanding Organized Crime. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2012.