Chasing the White Dog Author Max Watman Talks Hooch, Cocktologists & the Metaphysical Hangover
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.
Dream (and moonshine) chaser Max Watman
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.