Moonshine: Not Just a Hillbilly Drink

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John Chillingworth / Picture Post / Getty

An Irish poteen maker tastes the fruits of his labor

Moonshine, that most illicit of drinks, is shedding its hick reputation, and making it is becoming a popular (and illegal) project for do-it-yourself hobbyists eager to distill their own hard liquor. Into this new paradigm steps journalist Max Watman, whose new book, Chasing the White Dog, chronicles hooch's colorful history and its place in modern culture. Watman talked to TIME about his moonshine misadventures and the difficulties of producing or procuring illicit booze.

What's with the fascination with moonshine?
I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and in certain parts of the country, moonshine is a part of the culture. The guy who fixed my truck sold moonshine. We were guys standing around in a field drinking hooch. One of the times I left the valley someone gave me a present of a coil that would sit atop a pressure cooker and turn it into a still. It landed on a bookshelf. And there it was, reminding me that out there in the world, there's someone making moonshine. I came across a really surprising story that challenged every preconception I had of what moonshine is. There was a still in Philadelphia in 2002 that exploded. It blew the wall out of a brick warehouse building in North Philadelphia. Inside, there were six 500-gal. tanks. If you ran that every day, you would make about 4,200 gal. of moonshine a week. I was blown away. If you sold that by the shot, that's about $10 million. That amazed me. I thought, along with everyone else, that moonshine was just something made by lazy hillbillies.

That's the image I had too. Has the definition of a moonshiner changed?
The hipster kids that drove the home-brew movement, making ale in their kitchens, are the ones now making booze in their kitchens. That part is very foodie, very crafty and very caught up in authenticity and care, and there's a booming — booming — hobby world. The federal law makes no dispensation for personal use. The penalties are still very severe: fines up to $10,000 and imprisonment of up to 10 years. But it's just a part of our current cultural place. We're obsessed with craft, we're obsessed with authenticity, and people like to do things themselves.

[On the mass-production side,] it amped up because there's a market for it in pockets of the country where people's desire to drink outweighs its availability. There's this culture of nip joints where you walk in, buy a baby-food jar of moonshine for a buck, and it's 3 oz. The guy next to you, maybe he mowed someone's lawn and he's got a few extra dollars, so he buys you another one. You can smoke inside, you can gamble on checkers, and you can smoke a joint if you want to. The illegality continues because once you've set up a bar without a license, there's little to discourage you from the next step.

How difficult as an outsider was it to find these places?
When I began investigating, I wanted to go to one. But they're really dangerous, really awful places. The best thing that could have happened was that everyone would stop talking and look at me until I left, and the worst is a laundry list of misadventures that I can only imagine. I spent a lot of time and I asked a lot of people, sometimes very brazenly. I had some immense strokes of luck — I met some key people for whom it probably wasn't a very good idea to take me in. It can be an impenetrable world. I read most of the moonshine literature available, and I've only found one other journalist who has been taken into an operating still site.

Do you think there's an argument to be made for making moonshine legal?
It quickly drifts into something that should be controlled in some way. The stuff that I did get from a nip joint in southern Virginia was poison. Clearly. I had a friend get it for me. He had to go to a place he didn't want to go to, and he said he was disappointed because the guy he bought it from sometimes cuts it with bleach. Back in my hotel room, I faced down this thing in a Sierra Mist bottle that was the most wretched bit of liquor I have ever had near my lips. It took years of happy drinking off my life. It was poison. I hadn't really considered the fact that there would be people making absolutely horrible liquor. So suddenly I wondered if the idea that it is a public safety hazard isn't that far from the truth. But it seems that to criminalize moonshine because some people are making it badly is missing the point.

What's the relationship like between the police and the moonshiners?
A lot of this stuff has changed over the past 15 years. There was a time when you were busted by the state or by the county officials, and it was a very friendly thing. It was expected eventually [everyone] would be busted. Everyone knew each other. They had grown up together. These were busts that began with "How is your mom doing?" The penalties weren't very steep, either. One guy was let out of jail every day to go home and feed his cows.

This changed in the '90s with the beginning of a multidepartmental investigation called Operation Lightning Strike that brought in the feds. This was centered on a farm store in Rocky Mount, Va., called the Helms Farmers' Exchange. This was a very badly kept secret in the world of moonshine. From about 1992 to 1999, the farmers' exchange sold 12 million lb. of sugar, enough to make 2 million gal. of liquor, which is approximately the same as what Maker's Mark was making at the same time. What they did by knocking it up to the federal level was that they could invoke the RICO statute, meaning you were guilty of conspiracy if you were involved. You no longer had to be caught red-handed. After that, the relationship between cops and the moonshiners got a little bit ... testier.

Did you ever try to make your own moonshine?
I did, and it's harder than it seems. I started with George Washington's recipe for rye whiskey. I reduced it to make it with a pound of rye and a pound of corn. It was hard to do, and I made a mess. I ended up with an ounce, maybe an ounce and a half of booze that turned my face numb and tasted like cocoa powder. There were frustrating moments, but they were mostly hilarious. I'm pretty bad at this.

How has the Internet changed people's attitudes toward moonshine?
Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was one article on how to make fuel out of grain. Once you can do that, you can make booze. Now there are thousands of resources online. You can order the apparatus. You can buy the ingredients. You can ask people what you've done wrong. And it's odd because it's a gray hobby. It's not like these people are making any money or even thinking of themselves. It's not about breaking the law — it's about fooling around. It's about cooking.

Where is the subculture going?
I think the legitimate microdistilling business is incredibly important and is growing fast. We'll see the same kind of pattern that happened with beer. We're in the middle of an explosion, there will be a reversal, and then there will be a second round with more stability. If it were legalized, which would be wonderful, I think it would boom.