Sun, May 07, 2000 - Page 17 News List

Mainstreaming mooshine

With WTO plans on the horizon, the monopoly long held by the Taiwan Tobacco & Wine Board over the production of alcoholic beverages may dissolve, opening the way for free-flowing moonshine at the local level

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Coming down Highway 14 through Kuohsing township (國姓鄉) anytime between November and as late as the end of April, the roadside is dotted with stands selling fresh picked strawberries.

They also sell something a little less sweet -- moonshine. Discretely displayed on the farmers' racks are liquor bottles, some shaded red by homemade wine, others clear as ice, filled with liquor strong enough to send chills shuddering through an unseasoned drinker.

"It's made from the strawberries we can't sell," says a vendor, pointing to a bucket of damaged fruit. "We collect these, cover them in sugar, and let them ferment." It's a simple distillation process with straightforward results: a strawberry tinged liquor with the kick of a mule.

"We've been making it for over 10 years and never had any problems," says the vendor, who tends the roadside stand with his wife.

The moonshine of Nantou County has long been highly regarded by locals and the deep-rooted wine culture of the region has pretty much kept at bay the Taiwan Tobacco & Wine Board (TTWB, 台灣煙酒公賣局), the island's alcohol monopoly. Brewing and distilling go back a long way in Nantou, and the Bunun Aboriginal people (布農族) who still account for nearly half the population of the county, continue to make millet wine as they have for hundreds of years, despite the rules of the TTWB.

But in the near future, the moonshiners may find reason to pop open a few bottles in celebration. Taiwan's plans for entering the World Trade Organization mean a gradual dissolution of the monopoly that the TTWB has long held over production of alcoholic beverages. And that is giving residents hope that the area's drinking culture may be further developed at the local level.

The Hsinyi Farmers Association has already purchased land in preparation of setting up a tourist winery within the next year when the regulations for the management of private wineries are sorted out.

Hsinyi (信義), a small town to the south of Puli (埔里), is the heart of plum growing country. The association retails a plum wine made by soaking ripe plums in strong rice spirit (米酒頭). "This kind of wine is now legal," says Chang Sheng-cheng (張勝正), the manager of the association's food processing plant. "But we don't go out of our way to draw attention to ourselves."

This is because some of the products still made, while not of the paint thinner variety, are just outside the letter of the law. For instance, Crazy, a hard-hitting 50-percent-by-volume plum spirit only for hardened drinkers, is technically illegal. "But the government understands our problem," Chang says. "One of the best things to do with surplus production is to turn it into wine. It is a product which already has a clear market."

For the moment, Chang and his fellow moonshiners are happy to maintain a low profile. They've been quietly doing it for generations and the government rules won't fully phase-out for about five years. But while people aren't offering tours of their stills yet, they also aren't afraid of government interference. Huang Kuo-chung, a local fertilizer dealer who makes his own wines and spirits, says that "if they wanted to make a point of it, they would have to arrest virtually everyone in the village."

One of the sticking points for the successful development of the local industry is coming up with an acceptable standard of quality. With no labels, or labels that are no more than decorative, the only test of quality is in the drinking. This applies to most of the brews and distillations sold in and around the fruit orchards of Nantou.

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