“Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine”
By Max Watman
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $25
By Gina Webb
White dog — aka moonshine, hooch, white lightning, rotgut, firewater, tangleleg, popskull, mountain dew, mule kick, bush whiskey. Whatever you call it, it has come a long way from its stereotypical hillbilly past. It’s even gone legal, enjoying a renaissance with “white-collar” moonshiners who label their artisan brews “Catdaddy” and “Georgia Moon.”
In the revealing, sometimes hilarious and fact-filled “Chasing the White Dog,” journalist and native Virginian Max Watman explores moonshine’s long, eventful history.
“White dog” refers to the clear liquor straight from the still, before it’s stored in the charred wood barrels that age it into whiskey. You can make and sell it, as more and more small distillers are now doing. But you better have a license for it and plan to pay the tax — about $13.50 on each gallon. No license and no tax? You don’t even want to get caught giving it away.
Not that anyone in “Chasing the White Dog” is giving it away. Today’s Southern bootleggers are raking in millions of dollars selling illegal whiskey, most of it trafficked to unlicensed “nip joints” tucked away in inner-city neighborhoods as far north as Philadelphia and New York City, where hard-core shine lovers can buy a single shot for $1 to $3.
That is, as long as taste isn’t an issue. Much of contemporary white dog bears little resemblance to the palatable if fiery product once available in jugs labeled XXX. Modern-day moonshiners cook 800 to 1,200 gallons at a time in tanks made out of sheet metal called “black pots” that forgo corn or grains for straight sugar. The taste, Watman says, is gag-inducing: “If you took the stomach acid from acid reflux and strained it through cheesecloth” and sweetened it, you might come close.
Yet there was a time when this enduring backwoods industry once used cherished family recipes and involved respectable distillers. Watman traces whiskey’s history from the earliest settlers, farmers who traditionally converted their surplus grain into liquor. “We were a nation of distillers,” he explains, right up until federalist Alexander Hamilton decided to show the new citizens who was boss by imposing the Whiskey Tax. Understandably, since most Americans had left Europe because of unfair taxation, they weren’t big on splitting their profits with the new government. For some, that feeling has never really changed.
History lessons aside, everything else in the book is hands-on. In search of all there is to know about contemporary moonshine culture, Watman starts by making his own, cobbling together a makeshift still —“a snare drum held the coil in place and an old Igloo cooler elevated the catch jar”—and combing dusty shops for exotic ingredients such as “crystal 6-row malted barley, torrefied wheat, Maris Otter, Belgian candy sugar, and flaked maize.” He befriends a reformed crackhead in search of a nip joint he can sneak into, and he hangs out with Daytona 500 winner Junior Johnson, a one-time moonshiner famous for inventing the “bootleg turn” to outrun the feds. To become one with the moonshine/NASCAR culture, Watman gamely learns to pilot a race car for a day.
Whether policing a lobster pot full of boiling molasses or getting schnockered at a conference for hobby distillers, this “bibliophilic, bespectacled Jewish boy” is an endearing host. Some of the book’s finest, funniest moments occur when Watman, a former literary critic, fantasizes about his next adventure, such as the juke-joint atmosphere he hopes to encounter at 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 turns out to be colder and more profitable. 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 after 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.
“I have yet to resolve the moral ambiguity of moonshining,” Watman concludes, yet he believes it should be legal for home distillers to make whiskey on a small scale. He officially abandons his own still, thus putting an end to his “outlaw” career and his promising “Rocket 88” brand of moonshine.
Or so he claims.