Review: Chasing the White Dog

My brother Bill runs a still on the hill
Where he turns out a gallon or two
And the buzzards in the sky get so drunk they can not fly
Just from sniffing that good old mountain dew.

In popular conception, moonshine is a hillbilly thing. Imagine a bearded, overall-clad, avuncular fellow manning his still. Meanwhile, his good-ol’-boy nephews are straightenin’ the curves, staying one step ahead of the county sheriff while delivering the goods. If that’s your view of ‘shine, well, you’re not alone.

In his book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, author Max Watman explores this view of ‘shine and finds that it’s far from the whole picture. In researching his book, released February 2010 in hardback and earlier this year in paperback, Watman shadowed prosecutors and federal agents, talked to the legendary Junior Johnson, and drove through the hills and forests of Virginia and the Carolinas on the trail of hooch.

As Watman recounts in this entertaining and well-researched book, however, there’s far more to illegal distillation than just podunk corn likker. Watman recounts his own efforts to get an illegal still going, and the sometimes-comical, sometimes-delicious results. He tracks down microdistillers–places like Colorado’s Stranahan’s–that specialize in small-batch, craft distilling.

Many of the folks involved in the craft distilling scene started out making artisan spirits at home, prior to going pro, and Watman speaks to a few of these people as well–men and women making whiskeys, eaux de vie, and applejack for their own use or to share with friends.

Now Preacher John walked by, with a tear in his eye
Said that his wife had the flu
And hadn’t I ought just to give him a quart
Of that good old mountain dew

But Watman also examines an area of illegal distillation that few people are paying attention to–one that’s become a serious problem in urban areas. Y’see, Uncle Jesse’s been branching out. Ol’ Jess learned a few years ago that there’s not much money in making a few gallons for his neighbors in Hazzard County. So Jesse’s gone big.

He invested in an industrial-quality still and started buying pallets of pure sugar. If he’s very careful, he can hide behind the old cornpone stereotypes, while making vast quantities of something called sugar jack. This stuff ain’t no mellow sipper, meant for you to enjoy while barbecuing.

No, sugar jack is rotgut; it’s harsh and acrid. Jesse can pump it out fast, cheap, and in massive amounts, and it’s not meant for rural consumption. Most of it is sold for a dollar a shot at so-called nip joints, or shot houses, which are unregulated, unlicensed establishments. Aimed mostly at the urban poor, nip joints foster other criminal activities in addition to illegal hooch: gambling, narcotics, and prostitution, namely.

The sugar jack itself is nasty work; Watman describes his only taste of it in terms that are both funny and frightening. You can easily believe the liquid itself poses significant health risks. In conjunction with the nip joints in which it’s sold, though, it has become a deadly serious public-health problem, especially in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There’s an old hollow tree, just a little way from me
Where you lay down a dollar or two
If you hush up your mug, then they’ll give you a jug
Of that good old mountain dew.

But it’s not all sinister. As I mentioned earlier, Watman talks to hobbyists, and briefly becomes one himself, who make artisan brandies and white-dog whiskeys with very small stills. And he asks himself, why is this illegal?

And make no mistakes here: unlicensed small-batch distilling is entirely and completely illegal in the United States. You can lose your home and all of your assets if you’re caught, and then you’ll get to go to jail. Now, the likelihood of such dire consequences isn’t high; after all, law enforcement has far bigger problems with sugar jack production and nip joints. But you need to be aware of them anyway.

I’ve blogged on this topic before, first when I reviewed Matt Rowley‘s book Moonshine and again in a three-part interview about small-batch home distilling, with Rowley, Mike McCaw, and Ian Smiley [part 1, part 2, part 3]. I think the conclusion of most rational human beings (it’s certainly Watman’s conclusion) is that, yes, large-scale unlicensed distillation can and should remain a felony, punishable by serious jail time and property seizure.

But the law really does need to make some provision for small-batch distilling. Set limits on how much you can make, sure, just as there are currently limits on how much beer and wine a person can make at home. Retain a prohibition on selling home distillates. But for god’s sake, allow a person to bring home a few bushels of apples from the farmer’s market every October and make some bloody applejack! Where’s the harm in that, really?

My uncle Mort, he is sawed off and short,
He measure ’bout four foot two,
But he thinks he’s a giant when you give him a pint
Of that good old mountain dew.

They call it that good old mountan dew,
And them that refuse it are few.
I’ll hush up my mug if you’ll fill up my jug
With that good old mountain dew.

[Chasing the White Dog was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes.]


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