Books

Demystifying Moonshine

Sorry—Moonshine's Not as Exciting as You Think it Is

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THE PROBLEM with Max Watman's Chasing the White Dog is certainly not its subject. In examining moonshine, Watman has landed on a ripe topic with many possible journalistic entry points. He picks three: America's history of illegal liquor, his own attempts to distill, and interviews with people involved with moonshine on both sides of the law. This proves to be at least two too many.

White Dog is most successful in its profile of American moonshine, from George Washington's personal liquor recipe (handily provided) to Prohibition. Watman has a skill for streamlining history, and the information he provides about the government's long, sordid history with liquor is fascinating. If this were the sum of the book, we'd be in good shape.

But it's not. Most of White Dog is made up of a series of profiles of the men (yup, pretty much just men) that Watman meets in his travels. All the secondhand stories of moonshiners don't add up to much, and anyone still involved understandably keeps our journalist at arm's length. Watman waits in the car while a friend goes and gets him liquor from a nip joint; Watman sits in court while liquor kingpin Jody "Duck" Smith is prosecuted; Watman gushes about how awesome NASCAR driver Junior Johnson was and then takes a racecar-driving class because a lot of NASCAR drivers used to be rum-runners... or something. Through it all, Watman is perpetually looking in the window of someone else's clubhouse, and the reader is stuck with him.

One would think Watman's own distilling experiments would shed some light on something, but (spoiler) they never really go anywhere. Plus they're dry, dry, dry. Example: "On top of my newly purchased antique boiler, there was a 3½-inch threaded hole into which screwed a large brass fitting resembling the bell of a rustic, steam-powered trumpet. This cap was topped with a smaller threaded hole. I figured the smaller hole was nominally an inch but it measured more like an inch and an eighth. Perhaps it was therefore nominally an inch and a quarter, since people selling you materials rarely round things down." Ironically, after 30 passages like that I completely stopped caring how liquor was made, while wishing I was drunker than ever.

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