Journalist and “amateur outlaw” Max Watman offers an irresistible, off-the-wall look at the history, culture, and making of one of America’s oldest and most enduring backwoods industries in his new book, Chasing the white Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine. Beginning with the earliest settlers in this country, Watman tells a little-known story: “We were a nation of distillers”. Nearly every colonial farmer worth his salt converted surplus grain into liquor, including George Washington, who ran a commercial distillery at Mount Vernon.
Liquor was cheap, unfair taxation had been left behind in Europe, and life was good. Everyone drank and they drank quite a bit.
The story of how this profitable national pastime passed from gentlemen farmers to hillbillies in overalls and ended up a crime punishable by real time in a federal prison is just part of this everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-moonshine-but-had-no-clue-what-to-ask. From the days when those farmers became rebels who took to the hills, to the appearance of the internal revenue commission following the Civil War, to the glory days of Prohibition, when everyone went back to making their own hooch, Watman offers fascinating glimpses of the conflict between small business and big government.
A native Virginian, Watman grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, where some of the best moonshine in the country has been made since before the Revolutionary War. It’s no surprise that part of his outlaw status includes making his own white dog, using various stills, some of them pieced together out of spare household parts as diverse as a snare drum and “an old Igloo cooler”.
In experiments that make for some of the finest, funniest moments in the book, he bumbles through messy explosions and goddawful-tasting results. On one occasion, after buying “the most delicious cider I’d ever drunk”, he ends up with “something truly strange, something awful… it was so dry that it seemed to suck the saliva off the top of the mouth, leaving us working our tongues over our palates like dogs lapping at peanut butter.”
Despite its illegal status, today’s moonshine is insanely lucrative. Southern bootleggers are raking in millions of dollars selling illegal whiskey, much of it trafficked up north to unlicensed “nip joints”: houses in depressed neighborhoods where inner-city shine lovers can buy a single shot for anywhere from $1-3. Quality has nosedived as profits have skyrocketed, and most of today’s white dog bears little resemblance to the palatable if fiery product once available in jugs marked ‘XXX.’
Modern-day moonshiners forgo the copper kettles and elaborate pipes for huge metal tanks called “black pots” that rely on straight sugar and cook up to 1,200 gallons at a time. The taste, Watman finds, is gag-inducing: “If you took the stomach acid from acid reflux and strained it through cheesecloth…” Just add sugar and — well, you get the idea.
Fortunately, Watman says, “the tide is turning. The movement is toward local, small” distilleries, who, taking their cue from the microbreweries of the ’80s and ’90s, are now making artisan moonshine infused with everything from grapes to cherries, walnuts to pecans. Watman’s book may well end up in the cookbook section for his descriptions of whiskeys like this one: “Multilayered, with the lightness of a whiskey like Jameson underscored by a toasty, darker depth with distinct campfire notes and a substantial layer of chocolate.”
No matter where the chase takes him, from policing a lobster pot full of boiling molasses to getting schnockered at a conference for hobby distillers, Watman is a hands-on, no-holds-barred participant. He gamely learns to race cars to absorb the moonshine/NASCAR culture, and sits through the trial of a group of large-scale bootleggers in a multistate investigation. He profiles local color like Daytona 500 winner Junior Johnson, one-time moonshiner, famous for inventing the “bootleg turn” to outrun the feds; and “white-collar” distillers like George Stranahan in Colorado.
There’s a little of the likable goofball in him too, and one of the book’s most memorable scenes are ones in which this “bibliophilic, bespectacled Jewish boy” daydreams about his next adventure, such as the artsy, jazzy, juke-joint atmosphere he imagines awaits him inside a derelict shot house in urban Danville, Virginia: “I’d watch and tap my feet, sipping slowly on a half-pint of my own, my notes getting less and less legible… until I’d volley one last blast of free-associative bebop scribblings and pocket my Moleskine notebook…”
Reality often turns out to be colder and more depressing. Saddest is the cultural breakdown Watman observes when a symbiotic community of moonshiners, suppliers, cops and politicians — who once benefited from a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement — is shattered by federal crackdowns. Watman takes a hard look at both sides during the trial following the recent “Operation Lightning Strike”, an investigation that resulted in the arrest of a group charged with avoiding $20 million in taxes on 1.5 million gallons of liquor.
Concludes Watman, “I have yet to resolve the moral ambiguity of moonshining”. Though he believes small-scale moonshining should be legalized, comparable to the 300 gallons of beer and wine the government allows home hobbyists each year, he abandons his own distilling efforts. Thus ends his “outlaw” career, and his promising “Rocket 88” brand of moonshine.
Or so he claims.