Knocking Back Moonshine with Max Watman

February 26, 2010

Max Watman, journalist and the author of  Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, is coming to Seattle to provide a "Drinking Lesson," to 12 lucky guests at the Sorrento Hotel, this Sunday, February 28th. We asked Watman a few questions about his new book, his obsession with moonshine, and his thoughts on the current micro-distillery movement.

I love how you have written about the significance of moonshine as a
part of American culture. Do you wonder if there would be as much
drama involved, had it always been legal? What benefits, if any, do
you think there would have been?

If making spirits had never been criminalized,  the nation would be
entirely different. The first tax levied on American citizens was a
tax on whiskey, and moonshine is nothing more than untaxed spirit made
on an unregistered still. If we’d never levied that tax, perhaps the
implication would be that Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the  yeoman
farmer might have prevailed, rather than the corporatized economy that
Alexander Hamilton argued for. That would have changed every moment of
American history. But lets not go that far — we can assume that
Hamilton would have thought of something else to tax. Same thing for
the IRS — very high on the list of things the IRS was created to tax
was whiskey, but we can assume that they would have taxed cotton and
corn and income and so forth to repay the debt of the civil war. Legal
moonshine might have meant no organized crime, or much less of it,
because Prohibition was the real turning point. For Meyer Lansky, and
all the other recognizable founding fathers of American Organized
Crime, prohibition turned them into a full-time gangsters.
To understand the benefits and costs today, you’ve got to divide the
world of illicit spirits into two camps — if making your own spirits
were legal, there’d be a whole lot of hobbyists enjoying themselves
more openly. On the other hand, there continues to be a vast black
market for illegal hooch of the lowest quality. That stuff shouldn’t
be legal, because it shouldn’t be legal to sell people poison.

What tied you to this subject? Why this fascination with “America’s
vice?”What preconceived notions were dispelled once you started doing
your research on moonshine?

Key to my interest in this topic was how surprised I was once I
started learning the truth about things. The spark for me came when I
found an article about a still that had exploded — or been blown up —
in Philadelphia in 2002. There were 6 stills in a brick warehouse,
each of which had a 500 gallon capacity. That’s enough to capacity to
put 4,200 gallons of moonshine on the street every week. Preconceived
notions about moonshine involve overalls, crooked shotguns, and
hillbillies sleeping by a stream. 4,200 gallons of moonshine in
Philadelphia in 2002? That’s a surprise, and the surprises just kept
coming, it was a very exciting book to research and write.

You have been writing your whole life about a wide range of topics
from Nascar to horse racing and now moonshine. It’s super uncanny
timing to release a book during our current cocktail revolution - was
this planned or purely serendipitous?

Pure luck. Then again, this speaks to the surprises I mentioned just
above. A lot of what I did for this book involved legitimate
distilleries, micro-distilleries, and cocktails, and and everywhere I
went there were people taking spirits very seriously. It’s been an
incredible decade for drinking. It’s no longer enough to have a bottle
opener and some sugar water. I remain amazed that I can walk into a
bar and order something as perfect as an Aviation cocktail with
Aviation Gin. That’s more than a drink, it’s a little piece of
collaborative art.

The dedication of the book to your mom reads “For my mom, who
undoubtedly had something better in mind.” What did she have in mind?

My mom would say she just wants me to be happy, I’m sure, because
that’s what moms say. But a lot of this book took place on the fringes
of society. Moms don’t want their boys chasing down illegal liquor in
rural Virginia. She doesn’t want to hear that I’m trying to infiltrate
a federal trial. She doesn’t want me to call her up and say that I’m
drinking beer in a barn with a guy who is looking at a stretch in the
federal penitentiary. She’s my mom, she doesn’t care how fast a race
car goes.

With the surge in new distilleries and new licensing, what
unexpected benefits do you think will emerge? What global affect do
you think it might have?

The benefits are many: there’s natural, immediate benefits on the
shelves of the liquor stores — we get to drink better, more
interesting stuff. What’s more, we have small, honest companies making
products carefully, tied to their local agricultural communities, and
tied to their customers. In Upstate New York,  Harvest Spirits made a
whole batch of pear brandy out of their neighbor’s crop, which had
been damaged by hail. That farmer was looking at a very bad year, and
they helped turn it around. Pigs in Palisade eat the spent bourbon
mash from the Peach Street Distillery, which in turn buys fruit from
the local farmers. House Spirits has teamed with an Oregon farmer to
grow barley.

It seems that many bartenders across America are taking their jobs
very seriously these days. Their attention to detail, the quality of
ingredients and what they wear behind the bar seems to play apart in
bartending today. Would you agree with that?

People often long for the golden age of drinking, whenever they think
it might have been, but I think we’re in it.

What could the American beer or wine industry learn from your
research about the micro distillery?

Inside everything they make there is booze.

You are going to be making an appearance next week at Michael Hebb’s
Nightschool series, “Drinking Lessons,” what cocktail creations will
you be making for everyone? Do you have a favorite liquor, or a spirit
that you are into at the moment?

I’ll be there with Christian Krogstad from House Spirits and we’re
going to make some great white whiskey drinks. We’re making a John
Collins, a predecessor to the Tom Collins. A fantastic White
Manhattan. We’re going to make a side by side comparison of a drink I
created called the Coffee Lace — I named it that because that’s what
coal miners would call their moonshine spiked coffee — we’ll make one
with white dog and we’ll make one with vodka. I think people will be
amazed at how different they are. We’re going to taste some white
liquor next to some age whiskey, and talk about which flavors are
inherent to the distillate and which come from the barrel. It’s going
to be a lot of fun.

Besides moonshine, I hear you are really into food as well. I’m
thrilled you are thinking of writing a book on Jewish cooking in the
South. Can you tell me more about that?

A very large part of the immigrant experience has to do with food. For
Jews, it’s more than the flavors of home, it’s a system of rules —
it’s very interesting to me the way those rules are abided by or
eschewed, and the way those decisions affect assimilation. When I
moved out to the country, there were no Jews there. I was the only
Jewish kid in my school, and for many of the kids there I was the
first Jew they’d ever met. It wasn’t easy.
We did a great job with food — we sourced the Shenandoah valley for
well raised meats and sold them in the city. We made goat cheese. I
did not do all that well at assimilating. I want to explore the Jewish
population centers, surprising pockets of Judaism throughout the
South, and I want to cook my way through that adventure.

Lastly, what trends in cocktails, spirits and/or bars do you see for 2010?

I think that we’ve made our point: cocktails should be carefully
constructed, artful things. Now, I think, we’re going to see a return
to fun. I think we’ll see a blending of attitudes. It’s important to
be able to get a shot and a beer.



Pam's picture

Congrats on the foodie blogroll!


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