I drank my first moonshine by moonlight, squatting in a culvert behind an elastika, or tire repair shop, on the Bay of Euboea in Greece. I was surrounded by garbage, and enormous fish skeletons kept darting past my head, thrown away by the guests of the party I'd just wandered away from. I clutched to my bosom an unmarked plastic bottle of tsipouro, a spirit (more of a ghoul, really) home-distilled from pomace, the residue left over in a wine press.
I sniffed and took a pull. Then came a lot of choking and spluttering. It reminded me of being tossed into a pool as a child, had that pool been full of iced turpentine. When I returned to the States, my friend Max Watman told me he'd begun distilling moonshine in his backyard. My first thought, even before I considered the legal ramifications, was: "Why would anyone want to do that, when glorious quality-controlled booze is just a Google Map away?"
The answer, in Watman's case, is that he doesn't see the fun in taking the path of least resistance. So he set up his still, as the old song goes, a humble yet gorgeous copper Erector Set of coils and tubs, and proceeded to learn everything about white lightning, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the wretched inner-city "nip joints" of today. His new book, Chasing the White Dog, is calculated to make readers wonder, "Could I get away with that? Would it taste any good?"
Last spring I visited Max in the Hudson Valley, where he resides with his wife, son, a yard full of Araucana, Golden Laced Wyandotes, and a blue-ribbon-winning Buff Orpington hen, and the coolest clubhouse an adult male is allowed to have--a little red barn nicknamed "Kansas City," decorated with skulls, paperbacks, memorabilia from a bar once owned by Al Capone, and, of course, the still. We spent the afternoon drinking Jack Daniel's and Coors Banquet Beer, and by 2 or 3 a.m. Max was trying to convince me to get married and have kids, and I was trying to convince him to run the goddamn still already.
What happened between staggering to the corner gas station for propane and being ordered by an enraged wife to GO TO [expletive deleted] BED, ca. 4:30 a.m., remains a mystery. So I returned to the scene of the crime.
Remind me what we did with the still. I can sort of picture a copper coil, a white or maybe orange bucket, and a clear, hot liquid running directly into my mouth. Then I woke up at noon and found you downstairs with [your son], who was banging a pot with a spoon while you cradled your head in agony.
The keg stand (still stand?) was inadvisable, and I told you not to do it. It's no wonder you slept through all the early morning percussion.
Once the gear is set up, the process is pretty straightforward. You take a mash or a wash--something with an alcohol content in the neighborhood of wine or beer--and boil it slowly, catching the steam in a copper coil, which condenses the steam back into liquid. Since alcohol boils before water, you'll leave most of the water behind, and take out the alcohol. That stuff you were slurping right off the line was probably 150 proof.
What did you expect when you started White Dog, and what were the biggest surprises?
I expected something more pacific and bucolic than what I got. My research led me in strange directions, away from hillbillies, away from the Smoky Mountains. I thought I'd spend a lot of time at a party like the one in the old Mountain Dew commercial--a rope swing, a swimming hole, and cut-off blue jeans. Instead, I spent a lot of time reading federal indictments and working through evidentiary minutiae. I thought that most of the liquor I found would be good stuff made by people who wanted to carry on a mountain tradition. It's not that I didn't find any traditionalists--I did--it's just that they don't actually make much of the illicit booze floating around out there. The biggest still ever busted was a daisy-chained system of 800-gallon boilers in a building in Virginia; there were thirty-six of them. That's 28,800 gallons.
How did [your wife] take the news that you were going to be committing crimes in the backyard?
She's game. And anyway, our relationship is founded upon good-natured ribbing. Throughout the book I have a recurring joke in the footnotes--it's a kind of PSA for aspiring ne'er-do-wells--about "How to be a good criminal." When my wife edited the book, she put in her own series: "How to be a bad parent." Entries included: "Boil highly flammable liquids in the kitchen while everyone is asleep."
You write, "Most moonshine is drunk by African-Americans in unlicensed bars called nip joints or shot houses. . . ." You visited a nip joint with "Skillet," who "has been a paratrooper, a numbers runner, a crackhead, and a marijuana dealer." You also met NASCAR great Junior Johnson and learned to drive a stock car. Which of these two car quests was scarier?
I'm always more afraid of things over which I have no control. It was scarier, for instance, to be a passenger in a stock car than it was to drive one. (Clearly, I overestimate myself.) But these things are fun. They might be edgy, but they aren't scary. Alarm clocks are scary. Politics are scary. Race cars? Nip joints? That's entertainment.
You spent a fair amount of time hanging around both lawmen and moonshiners. Where do your sympathies lie now?
The lawmen I got to know impressed me a great deal. Most of the law enforcement in this country takes place after the crime has been committed. Any time you have a group of people working honestly and hard to find the bad guys, rather than simply to mop up the mess, you've got to respect them. I also visited a big, working moonshine operation. The place was very clean, very well put together, and the product they were making was very obviously high quality. It didn't have to be--it's not as if the health inspector was going to show up. But they had pride in what they do. That's the only way I can divide my sympathies.
Last year a Los Angeles Times article criticized the genre Steve Almond called "shtick lit," i.e., books by people who undertook weird projects in order to write about them. Is moonshining a shtick, or is it a lost art?
There are shtick books, for sure, but that's a dishonest approach to writing. There's only one reason to write a book, and that's because you think you have something to write about. We certainly run the risk of being forced into the artificial fabrication of originality--sort of like what happened with doctoral dissertations, where one must go further and further afield to find something that has gone unsaid. But a book has to be about something, and there's nothing shticky about an authentic experience that resonates. Moonshining is all of the above--a lost art, a trend, a continuing criminal enterprise, and, for some, a shtick.
Why shouldn't we leave whiskey to the big professional distillers?
Most people should. But those of us who want to get our hands on the process should be allowed to do it. I like to cure my own meat. I like my chickens. I think that if we can make 300 gallons of wine per year without legal consequence, we ought to be able to boil the alcohol out of that wine as well. It's an arbitrary line--spirits versus wine and beer--and it should be erased. This is something that people love, and they spend money on it, and if we invigorated the world of hobby distilling, rather than criminalized it, we'd end up with smarter drinkers.