The lesson of Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog is that American history and whiskey are kin. From the Revolution until at least the 1950s, whiskey-making was simply smart farming. Yeoman-distillers used unsold peaches, apples, and corn to make liquor and sell it to neighbors. A North Carolina old-timer named Bluford McGee tells Watman early on that his father, famed for his apple brandy, would blow an industrial whistle to signal townsfolk that the prized first batch was ready. Young McGee’s schoolteacher, his mouth atwitch, would put on his hat mid-lecture and leave a “clear streak of sunshine behind him.” Distilling was universally felt to be legitimate, any law to the contrary notwithstanding.
Whiskey and taxes, locals have long felt, mix none too well. An excise tax provoked the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Where the Treasury Secretary Hamilton saw revenue, Jefferson saw an “armament against the people at their ploughs.” The Internal Revenue Service, established to finance the Civil War, could declare by 1878 that the annual loss from whiskey-tax evasion equaled the annual appropriation for collections nationwide. (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was part of the Treasury Department until 2003.) The South’s backwoods distillers battled irs men for decades after the war. Yet even in 1869 Brooklyn, Marines needed fixed bayonets to overpower a mob defending an illicit distillery.
Odd, then, those thirteen unlucky years of Prohibition (1920–1933, RIP), which proved that tradition will not be legislated away. Watman argues that southern states originally ratified the Eighteenth Amendment because “revenuers” were “foreign”—i.e., Northern. “The South is dry and will vote dry,” said Will Rogers. “That is, everyone sober enough to stagger to the polls.” Yet Prohibition roused the entire nation’s can-do spirit. Hardware stores began to stock mash tuns. Vineyards sent attractive young women into stores to sell raisin juice, solemnly warning customers not to place the liquid into a jug for twenty-one days because—caution!—it could ferment into wine. Prohibition was finally repealed because fdr needed money from an industry that had simply been handed wholesale to gangsters. In other words, Prohibition began in part to end taxes, and ended to resume them.
Chasing the White Dog is a romp through the world—underworld, really—of illegal distilling, stretching from Colonial days to our own time. Watman’s story, excellent and entertaining, is told through loosely connected episodes, mainly through his personal contacts with a number of colorful figures, retellings of notable events in hooch history, and his own misadventures in distilling. Watman is a journalist and the author of Race Day, on horse racing, but he also seems to have done just about everything else: cook, farmer, silversmith, tutor, greenskeeper, warehouseman, web designer, a New Criterion fiction critic, and a Columbia MFA. This book shows us that he is also handy. Whole chapters recount Watman’s science-project attempts at making applejack, whiskey, and fermented cider. We learn of 1,650–gallon stills, condensers, pH levels, reducers, yeast strains, reflux, flake stands, bubble plates, oxidation, thump kegs, and fireboxes. It would be mere jargon if Watman weren’t such a talented narrator—and if he hadn’t mastered it all himself.
Much of the action in Chasing the White Dog centers on Franklin County, Virginia (“Moonshine Capital, usa”), but we also find Watman on the move: in South Carolina shucking oysters or in New Orleans at a table cluttered with fried pigs’ ears and 144-proof Bourbon. He drives stock cars at Pocono Raceway, attends whiskey conventions in Louisville, and strategizes about booze branding in San Francisco. Watman has a fine comic touch and a vivid pen. On a cold February evening, a “little brew shop twinkled with light the color of honey.” The air on a hot Southern day is “thick as soup.” A man cocks his head like a “bird dog listening to the rustle of the leaves.” Nothing, however, rivals the tastes, which often had me reaching thirstily for the liquor cabinet. A peach brandy “tastes like an August day, like the wet ripe juice just under the skin of a perfectly ripe peach.” A Colorado whiskey has “distinct campfire notes.” His own botched first batch tastes like he “dissolved a piece of baguette into a glass of ice water”—before it numbs his mouth—but a later effort evokes “rum-soaked molasses cookies.” The rich descriptions stop just short of fetish.
The people Watman meets are on the fringe. We’re talking “wild-riding Southern ridge runners” and “blue-blooded hard boots.” There is the beflanneled, Methuselah-bearded Popcorn Sutton, author of the celebrated Me and My Likker, “somewhere between 45 and 105 years old,” who receives standing ovations at Willie Nelson concerts. A world-wise old newspaperman named Morris, friend both to moonshiners and the officers who “chase” them, calls his police friends before visiting a still on assignment, just in case a raid leaves him without an alibi. The Colorado distiller Rory Donovan lives “in closer proximity to a bar fight than any man I’ve ever known.”
Distilling hovers in a legal netherworld. Many in the Blue Ridge Mountains insist on “shine” as a charming folkway. This makes the law hard to enforce; one jailed moonshiner was released each afternoon to feed his cows. Prosecutors must persuade jurors that they’re trying a greedy tax-dodger, not a good ole boy aiming to put a loaf on the table. Watman watches a trial in which the prosecutor’s insistence on doing his job was, for locals, “more of a problem than the van sagging beneath the weight of 453 gallons of white liquor.” But this may be changing. Watman ends with a great courtroom drama in which moonshining comes to resemble less a bluegrass pastime than a grubby form of large-scale drug-dealing.
Watman’s feelings on moonshine, unlike his preferred restoratives, are mixed. “If you want to get drunk,” he says, “I have a hard time imagining that someone should tell you not to.” He hopes that home distilling, like home brewing, will be legalized and catch on. But he also finds that moonshine nostalgia, being nostalgia, is romanticized.
Unregulated liquor is often little better than cheap poison—the biggest victims are the poor blacks of North Philadelphia, the world’s moonshine-drinking capital (despite Franklin County’s claims). He tries their stuff, too, and chokes. “It is the only liquor I’ve ever had that made me feel that I was hurting myself.” So perhaps the law does have the public welfare in mind. Individual rights versus the common good? Household makers against a looming government? Despised taxes, reluctant juries, liberty tilting with authority? Why read history when you can drink it?