Max Watman's latest book chronicles his attempts to distill white whiskey in his basement, the history of ridge-running moonshine in souped-up muscle cars, and the slow renaissance of regional liquors.
Liquor manufacture tends to focus on purity, but there are also regional variations, like peach liquor in Georgia or apple brandy in upstate New York or the Shenandoah Valley. Most ultra-pure vodka is made by just a few companies who slap different labels on their product, but Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog, says that creates a disconnect between how liquor is made, what it's being made from, and what exactly "eight times distilled" even means. He says more regional, small-scale stills would benefit farmers and orchardists. And more amateur moonshiners and commercial microdistillers would undeniably create more interesting spirits, capturing nuanced flavors from wherever the liquor was made. I caught up with Watman at his home in New York's Hudson Valley.
GOOD: When did you start experimenting with moonshine?
Max Watman: Moonshine's been around most of my life. In some areas of the country, it's just part of the culture. I knew a guy who lived down the road from my parents who built a little stovetop. We used to distill alcohol from fancy hard cider in wine bottles. That became a real cornerstone of my education. It can be that simple: you do it once with someone who knows better. If you're paying attention, you'll remember the basics.
GOOD: The New York Times recently wrote that growlers are the new cool accessories in Brooklyn brew pubs-because of this connotation with moonshine. What's with our cultural obsession with moonshine?
Watman: I think because it is undeniably authentic and we are obsessed with finding things that are honest and real. You can only prepackage and polish so much of our life before we start looking for alternatives. I also think it's a comfortable bit of outlawdom.
GOOD: It's illegal.
Watman: Yes, it's illegal, but no one is going to frown on you for drinking it. Well, clearly, the cops are going to frown on you.
GOOD: In your book, you say old-timers complain about the loss of craft in making moonshine. Do they have a right to be complaining?
Watman: I think so. But at the same time, every generation cannot further be degrading the craft. People started complaining right around Prohibition. Since then, someone has been saying, "Oh, people used to make whiskey the right way. Now, you can't trust them." The next generations said the same thing. It's more accurate to assume that craft (or the lack thereof) and industry have always existed next to each other. It's not a chronological progression. People have always made horrible whiskey to sell to people they don't like while they made good whiskey to drink with their friends.
GOOD: In the book, you try to find a nip joint, a sort of underground bar, with a guy named Skillet.
Watman: I really wanted to go to one, but the more I learned about these places, the worse they became. It's a culture where once you start breaking the law, why stop? Once you've set up an illegal bar in your house, people are going to start gambling. Once you start gambling and drinking, someone's going to show up and want to sell drugs. There's no reason to stop any of that stuff. You're already on the wrong side of the tracks. What I thought was going to be a fun adventure, it just quickly dawned on me that it was going to be anything but.
GOOD: Skillet did get you some liquor though…
Watman: He got me a small jug of the absolute worst liquor I've even been near in my life. It was foul. It hurt. It was a turning point for me. I hadn't really considered that liquor could be that bad. When you're staring that stuff down, you feel like it's a violation of someone's safety.
GOOD: Does the fact that this stuff is sold in poor, black neighborhoods in Philadelphia legitimize the crackdown?
Watman: I would hate for it to legitimize the crackdown across the board. I say in the book, if I were selling poisoned carrots at a farmers stand, you wouldn't make carrots illegal. I would be arrested, but not on the illegality of carrots. It should be illegal to hurt people-whether you do it with your fist or whether you do it with booze. I've had plenty that wasn't that bad.
GOOD: Your book also gets into the investigation of the Helms Farmers Exchange, a farm and garden store that provided raw ingredients for illegal moonshiners. The store aroused suspicion because it was the second largest consumer of a certain brand of sugar, which gives you a pretty good sense of what the alcohol actually is.
Watman: Exactly. It's sugar jack. Real commercial, enterprising moonshiners might wave some grain near it, they might throw in some oat bran or cracked-up chicken feed, but it's a misting of grain on top of huge barrel of sugar water.
GOOD: On the other end of the spectrum, it seems like high-end distilling is also coming back. Do you think that is a good sign?
Watman: I do. I would love it to be legalized. I would love to take the lid off it. I think if you can legally make 300 gallons of beer or wine, you should be able to distill that into 30 gallons of spirits for yourself. I don't think you should be able to sell it. Just as you can't sell cheeseburgers without being inspected.
Illustration by Jo Tran.