My grandmother liked a nice drop of “shine” during family get-togethers, years ago.
© Photo courtesy of University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. William O'Flaherty
She looked upon it as a mark of honour, as the matriarch of the family, that she was served before anybody else; it was that fact, I suppose, that she enjoyed, rather than the actual taste of the moonshine.
Nevertheless, she would demand that she be served in proper fashion, in her own special cup, with a spoon full of sugar, and hot water in amounts as she directed.
While we children watched, she sipped it in a manner that she deemed right and proper for a lady — teaspoon by teaspoon.
It was just after the war, during a time period that is still vivid in the memories of many of us. Widespread rationing of foodstuffs was in place — tea, butter, sugar, and others — to help a country recover, drained of its resources by a brutal war.
That fact of life was not only present in the country of Newfoundland, but also in the great country of Canada to the west of us, similarly affected by the great conflict of 1939-1945, best known as the Second World War.
As well as foodstuffs, so were alcohol sales rigidly controlled and rationed by several means and for several reasons. On the North Shore of Conception Bay, the nearest retail outlet for the NFLD Liquor Corp. was in St. John’s, a good hundred miles away. That geographical isolation, of itself, was enough to limit sales of the product.
On top of that there was imposed a further limiting factor: the requirement that a special booklet be presented at the time of purchase, imposing limits on the consumption of all forms of alcohol. This booklet became known colloquially as “the likker book.”
Now, mind you, there were various ways of getting around the regulations. A visit to St. John’s was seen as an opportunity to borrow a neighbour’s liquor book to supplant one’s own that was filled out. After all, there were people — a rarity perhaps — in each community whose consumption of alcohol was limited to a drop of homemade blueberry wine, and that ingested only at Christmastime.
Those individuals’ liquor books were often in high demand, often filled out to the limit, the owner of the book having never once darkened the door of a liquor store.
There were other ways to circumvent the restrictions; after all, invention and circumvention are testaments to the imagination, fortitude, and intelligence of the human brain that has profited Homo sapiens since time began for the species.
That drop o’shine that my grandmother drank was purchased from a man living a short ways away who made the best moonshine on the shore, or so ‘twas said by people in the know.
He took advantage of the fact that one foodstuff—molasses — was not rationed (you could buy a puncheon of it if you were so inclined); he made a very decent living using that product to full advantage.
I’ll not go into details, but the process is simple: molasses plus warm water and yeast to produce “home brew,” an awful tasting concoction that only the very brave and those far down on their luck would imbibe.
But, distilled, “home brew” yields “moonshine,” using an apparatus readily available and easily made right there on the shore.
Just after the war, with the Brits in full charge in the country of Newfoundland, sale of alcoholic beverages was a government monopoly (it still is).
The government made fantastic amounts of money from that arrangement: I am told by a reliable, former member of the liquor corporation that Barbados rum was being imported into the country in the period after the war, in large wooden barrels, bottled for a fraction of a dollar, and sold for 10 times that amount.
To protect that monopoly, the power brokers in government outlawed private production of alcohol. They went further, stating that nobody knew what was in the illicit brew (an opinion with some justification) and declared it a health hazard.
The law of the land treated our man as an outlaw — but nobody else regarded him as such. He was looked upon, by most people, as a law abiding, religious man, supplying a product in short supply at a reasonable price.
I talked to him in his later years, when he was crippled and laid low with arthritis. He had given up on the distilling, and was now content to get by on his old age pension, live in his modest bungalow, and “make his soul” with weekly visits to the church up the road.
I asked him if he had ever been ”raided” by the police, looking for his illicit product.
“Yes, twice,” he said. “Once I got wind that they were comin’ and I buried the two gallons that I had in the potato garden. The other time they came they tore apart my manure pile and all they found was worms. After that they left me alone. They had better things to do...” and he laughed, slapping his knee, a twinkle in his aged eyes.
- Dr. William O'Flaherty worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end of Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.