Saturday, July 23, 2011

Adventures in Moonshine: A Book Review of Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog

“Authenticity is evasive and hard to understand in America. Why were there half a dozen honky-tonk beer joints in New York City at the turn of the century? I don’t know what to make of Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, or the French Quarter in New Orleans. For that matter, I don’t know what to make of my own town, in which the historical review board insists that the houses continue to be built as if it were the middle of the nineteenth century, to maintain an authentic cohesion, without stopping to consider that nothing is more artificial than building nineteenth-century houses in the twenty-first century.

It’s a slippery thing. There is no denying that the French Quarter is really the French Quarter or that Fisherman’s Wharf is built on the quays. These places have found themselves, due to the pressures of commerce or culture, in a state of aggravated self-consciousness, compelled to emulate and replicate their salient features until artifice overtakes authenticity.”
– Max Watman from Chasing the White Dog

Checking out from the brewers shop with flaked maize, 6-row pale malted barely, flaked rye, rye malt, a 3-gallon carboy, champagne yeast, a hydrometer, and a thermometer, Max Watman's cashier (Bella he calls her) explains to him that she isn't going to enter his information into the computer, saying, "You were never here." Watman is up to something and Bella knows it. For fear of imprisonment, for Bella and Watman both, it was better pretending that nothing was going on. Watman was in pursuit of the white dog and the first hurdle was to get out of the shop as quickly as possible.

Watman’s book Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, is about moonshine. It is about drinking moonshine, making moonshine, and the history of moonshine. What separates Watman’s account from all the previous history books and novels written about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, Prohibition of the 1920s, and “backwoods-boozers” of the South is that, when one comes to the end of page 290, the legends and mysticism behind the outlaw spirit dissipates, yet the allure is still just as appealing. As with any introduction to the history of distilled spirits, one begins to understand that much of the alcohol resting on ones bar is the product, not simply of quality producers winning out over the less able-bodied distillers, but rather it is the culmination of a complex and intricate history. After reading Watman’s book one is brought into a world which is quite uniquely an American phenomenon and yet completely separated from the multinationals of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, two of the torch holders of American spirits.

Marvin 'Popcorn' Sutton, one of Watman's crucial characters,
sits next to his still in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
In 2007Sutton was arrested for illegal sales of alcohol.

Watman’s book, though very well received, has generally received flak for providing “historical interpretations [which] are not always reliable.” But on reading his book I find his interpretations are not necessarily unreliable, rather they draw the reader into the history of white dog from an entirely different vantage point – one not generally received by traditional interpretations. The book doesn’t detail the exciting times of Al Capone, the movements of temperance and those licentious speakeasies of New York. Though he does touch on each, Watman’s focus is one of self discovery, his journey of producing his own home-distilled white lightning, and one which details the genuine and personal lives of those who have been producing the stuff for the last century. One learns the largest illegal moonshine black market is located, not in the South, but in Philadelphia, and that many moonshiners, though some matching the classical “backwoodsy” glamour we are all familiar with, are fairly "normal" family-oriented people just trying to make a living. One of the most important features of the book being the historical linkage Watman creates between moonshiners, new and old, with micro distillers of today.

Not that this is some kind of revisionist account. With the allure of the history still very present in this book, this is not a thorough and detailed history of moonshine, or spirits in general. Rather it is a starting point where one can get their feet wet. Intriguing and wonderfully written, one is hard-pressed, finishing the book, to resist the urge to take a trip down to their local liquor provider and pick out a bottle of white lighting. Highly recommended, this is a fun and exciting account of one mans journey into the world of moonshine.

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