Serious Eats: Drinks

Serious Reads: Chasing the White Dog by Max Watman

20110308whitedogcoverstory.jpgStarting to read Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine by Max Watman (out in paperback this month) is like taking a shot of stiff liquor. Your senses are heightened. You feel heady, maybe even a tad disoriented.

You keep going back for more.

Part history of illegal alcohol distilling in America, part lurid tale of the research involved in understanding the dark underbelly of white whiskey, and part personal story of the missteps involved in learning to make your own booze, there's a magnetic, intoxicating speed to this book.

It begins in a bar in New York City, that thanks to Watman's sly suggestions, inspires images of Coyote Ugly. There's country on the jukebox, cowboy boots on the ceiling, and rumors of wild, beautiful bar mistresses who light liquor on fire, stare you straight in the eye, and mercilessly demand their tips via bullhorn and public intimidation.

Why Watman, who hardly seems the faux honky-tonk type, is at the bar we never learn. But there's moonshine there, mason-jar moonshine that emerges from the tattered backpack of a traveling friend. The seething clear liquor is sipped and shared with the bartender.

Clearly the afternoon spent drinking illegal liquor in a neon-lit bar was inspiring enough to motivate years of adventures and research, but it's a bit tricky to figure out why.

Much later in the book, there's mention of a neighbor who made hooch when Watman was a youngster. It's a casually mentioned fact, as if everyone has an illegal home distillery right down the block. But I didn't, and maybe as a result I wanted more: a deeper understanding of Watman's passion and the questions that inspired his investigative research.

I also could have used a bit more of the hard facts. It wasn't until page 233 that I got the paragraph that could have, should have, shaped my reading of Chasing the White Dog:

Regarding distillation, lets be clear: It's the making of it that's illegal. Distilling alcohol—any amount of alcohol—is against the law without a registered still and a permit. You can't buy alcohol legally, and then redistill it, because the action of evaporating alcohol is illegal unless it's done in a registered, permitted still. The still itself is illegal if it's set up, and everything that follows your use of it—the transporting, the possessing, the selling, the giving away—is also illegal.

Ah-ha! It all becomes white-whiskey clear. Watman's intrigue was inspired by the allure of the deeply illicit, a desire to know those who break the rules, and understand the science and magic of distilling.

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[Photo: Simon and Schuster]

And now, the best part of Chasing the White Dog, Watman's ferocious storytelling, makes even more sense. Because the real strength in this book is the way Watman makes the merry pranksters of moonshine come alive.

These men—along with the occasional woman—are characters so vivid they hardly seem real. There's Popcorn Sutton, author of Me and My Likker, who has made a career (albeit an illegal one) out of making moonshine. There's the Stanley brothers—wild, booze-running criminals—whose fun was stopped one evening when, in a fit of meanness, Jason Stanley shot and killed his brother.

And there's Skillet, a former paratrooper-crackhead-pot dealer who serves as Watman's tour guide through Danville, Virginia's seedy nip joints. Ultimately, Skillet scores moonshine alone. It's a green plastic Sierra Mist bottle repurposed to hold alcohol so strong, Watman describes it as being like a thin, viscous mix of bile and vomit, that is strained, shaken and served straight up with a dash of simple syrup. This booze and the people who make it are not for the faint of heart.

There are heroes in this book too. It's clear that the author deeply admires the men behind Oregon's House Spirits, who make Aviaton Gin, Krogstad Aquavit, and limited releases including whiskeys, ouzo, rum, and coffee liquor. These fellows have done it right: their distillery is legit and they're making delicious spirits. As a result, they're changing the scope of American distilling.

Watman comes to only one definitive moral conclusion at the end of Chasing the White Dog: hobby distilling should be legalized. I'm not surprised that he's unwilling to completely shun the widespread illegal production and sale of moonshine. Though his book inspires curiosity in chasing the white dog, there's no way I'd want men like Skillet on my trail.

About the Author: Anne Zimmerman's first book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, was recently published by Counterpoint Press. Discover what fuels her writing at the blog Poetic Appetite.

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