In his book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, Max Watman traces the history of distillation in America, from the Whiskey Rebellion to today’s rogue bootleggers and artisanal moonshiners. Along the way, he learns how to make his own hooch (a.k.a. white lightning, firewater, rotgut, bush whiskey) and fraternizes with a ragtag cast of colorful characters. At next month’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic, he’ll lead a panel discussion with legendary moonshiner Junior Johnson and craft distiller Joe Michalek about the South’s distilling roots and today’s moonshining Renaissance.
Moonshining is still quite illegal, isn’t it?
Do you fear arrest now that you’ve gone public with your moonshining exploits?
I don’t feel like I’ll get arrested now because I don’t do it anymore. It’s a nerve-racking hobby for sure because it is illegal. And certainly you can run afoul of the law, but it’s rare unless you’re really drawing attention to yourself. One of the things that reassures me is that… it’s not a wise use of public money to pursue hobbyists.
You talk in the book about how you got into this. Can you recap for our readers?
The main motivation in moving from idle fan to somebody who really wanted to know and write about it was surprise. I was amazed by the scale of the moonshine world and how big the market was for it. The first thing that was the real spark (no pun, surely, intended)… was the still that blew up in Philadelphia. That place had a capacity larger than any micro-distillery I’ve visited in America. They can put 4,200 gallons of moonshine on the street every week. So, I thought there would be more to the story and I would probably continue to be surprised. And that turned out to be true.
The word “artisanal” gets slapped on a lot of things these days. Does it surprise you to find products are marketed as artisanal moonshine?
What’s coming out as artisanal is exactly that. It doesn’t surprise me that our cultural obsession for authenticity would have transferred over into the spirits world. At the same time, the moonshine world divides pretty easily into the makers of rotgut and the makers of quality goods. Usually, the makers of quality goods are much smaller producers. It’s usually hobbyists or, at the most, bluegrass jam suppliers. Guys who make a little bit to preserve a tradition that they probably inherited from a neighbor or their own family.
It seems like, in the book, you’re in favor of small producers going legit.
It’s very hard to make the transition from hobbyist to supplier. Certainly the regulations have relaxed and it’s easier to get licenses than it once was, but it’s still pretty serious stuff. It’s hundreds of pages of applications and it takes a lot of money. I don’t think it would make sense for those guys with 10-gallon pot stills in the Smoky Mountains to go legit. I do think that regulation of the trade is important because it’s important for people to be selling things that are clean and good. Frankly, I don’t think the hobby world should be regulated at all, or at least should be legalized. Just as it is for home brewers. It’s illegal for them to sell their beer because they haven’t been inspected by the health inspector, [but they can still make it for private use].
Why is it so different for spirits?
I don’t think it’s as much about the reasoning as it is about tradition. The tax on spirits, as you’ve read, is the first tax levied on American citizens. Spirits have been separated from beer and wine from the get go. There’s a lot of language that it’s for the protection of the public safety or it’s for the public good. Again, that doesn’t seem like it would warrant the criminalization of the process. We didn’t make chili illegal. We made it illegal to sell chili to people if you weren’t doing it in a licensed and inspected environment.
You saw some pretty sketchy things over the course of your research, especially when it comes to the people making rotgut. What was the worst?
I came across some wretched booze and that’s the stuff that really started to change my mind about regulation. I got some stuff out of the nip joints — an illegal bar run out of a house — right north of the North Carolina border in Virginia that was, without a doubt, the worst booze I’ve ever tasted in my life. It tasted like poison and I’m sure it was. In a technical sense, it had clearly been quickly distilled with no care for the process, no culinary motivation at all. No gastronomic intention. It tasted like it was hurting me. Drinking it felt like I was taking many years of happy drinking off my life with every sip. Have you seen evidence of moonshine crossing over into the current cocktail culture?
Absolutely. My first clue was a few years ago when I was at the American Distilling Institute Conference held in Louisville. A friend of mine, having learned that I was writing a book about moonshine, said, “Oh, I’m going to bring you something tomorrow,” and brought in a little box full of a couple of jars of fruit brandy. When he it took it out the box, it was as if somebody had magnetized our table in a room full of distillers. Everyone turned and focused on us. Since then, many micro-distillers have started making legitimate versions of white dog, and then people started making cocktails with them.
Why does it work so well in cocktails?
It has a true authenticity and craft. What’s interesting about it to me is that it is almost entirely an expression of a distiller’s art rather than the cooper’s art. What you get in a bottle of white whiskey hasn’t been put into a barrel and gotten those wonderful rich vanilla, caramel flavors that we love from oak. It also hasn’t had the impurities removed. So, you’ve got this agricultural spirit that comes directly from the product from which it was distilled.
Are moonshiners treating their base ingredient the way winemakers do grapes?
Actually, I think they always have. Some of them have started to grow their own or at least do it in partnership with farmers. House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Ore., for instance, has 52 acres of barley that they’re growing with a farmer in Oregon. It’s very cool. It’s clear to anybody who knows the difference between rye and bourbon, for instance, that the grain has a huge affect on the flavor profile of the end product.
What are some of your favorite small-batch bottlings?
You know, I’d be hard pressed to find one I didn’t like really. I love the guys I write about. I love Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and Peach Street Distillers, also in Colorado. Koval Distillery in Chicago is wonderful as is North Shore, also in Chicago. But I couldn’t possibly list all them. I love them all. These guys are certainly among the best.
When you’re in the city, where do you like to drink?
I’m in the Hudson Valley, but [I come to New York City often.] I like Back Forty a lot. I think that they’ve managed to nail a kind of “what’s next?” I like all the bars you’d expect me to like. I love going to Death & Co. I love the super-cocktail bars. I think we’ve made the point that the cocktail revolution worked, and now it’s important to be able to get a shot and a beer. It’s important to be able to relax in a bar. What are you sick of seeing in bars?
Sick of it would be strong, but yeah, I’m tired of guys in arm garters and handlebar mustaches. I can hold my own in a fancy speakeasy, but I feel bad for people who are going in there to have a drink and they expect to be welcomed, as they should be, and they’re not because the menu is difficult and the bartenders aren’t always the friendliest. I was in a bar once that I won’t name — suffice it to say, it’s one of those bars where you need a reservation. The guy who was waiting on us actually came over and apologized about another party in the room. He said, “I’m sorry these guys are here. They must be driving you crazy.” I just think that’s not the way to treat people. They’re just in a bar. They’re just having fun.
Aside from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, what else do you have coming up?
I’m working on another book. It’s about the culinary experiences of Southern Jews. That’s going to be a little ways off, but I’m looking forward to it.
Is that squawking I hear in the background?
Yeah, I have three chickens. They’re lots of fun, except when they attack each other.
And they lay eggs for you and everything?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
So, you’re something of a foodie, then?
Yeah, as icky as that label has become, you can’t deny it… Enthusiast sounds awful, too. You don’t want to sit down with that person for dinner. Foodie is really broad these days. I was just eating with someone who was a self-proclaimed foodie and as a justification for that talked only about the latest food documentary she’d seen, which doesn’t seem very foodie to me. But what can we replace foodie with? I guess we just have to live with it.
Kind of like the term mixologist. Or worse: cocktologist.
I still don’t really understand what’s wrong with bartender. I know guys want to differentiate themselves from guys slinging Red Bull and vodka, so call yourself a good bartender. With mixologist and the new awful “cocktologist,” which is absurd, I guess they’re trying to include bloggers and writers. Maybe you don’t have to be behind the stick to be one of those folks. Or is that “cocktailian?” That sounds a little better, right? It is prettier. I wouldn’t trust anybody who said they were a cocktologist.
Favorite hangover cure?
The only thing that can keep you from getting a hangover is not drinking. But that’s obviously not going to happen. I think that Kingsley Amis was right when he talked about the metaphysical hangover being the worst part of the hangover. You feel bad obviously physically, but mostly I find you feel bad psychologically. A hangover can make you feel like you’ve wasted your entire life. And one of the best ways out of that is to do something productive. Even if it’s, you know, plant your tomatoes. Get something done.
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