In June 2002, an explosion rocked a run-down block of North Philadelphia. A still had blown up, exposing a very sophisticated 3,000-gallon moonshine operation.
Inner cities don’t usually leap to mind when we think moonshine. We’re more inclined to think of small-time backwoods operations run by overall-clad hillbillies with shotguns. When journalist Max Watman read about the explosion, he thought, “every part of that was a surprise to me…I figured there’d be more to the story.”
Watman began interviewing moonshiners and law enforcement officials, tasting hooch, and even making it at home. The stories he uncovered eventually turned into his 2010 book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.
“America’s relationship with liquor is convoluted,” Watman tells me. (The fact that Prohibition even occurred is evidence of this.) What strikes me most about the stories in Chasing the White Dog is just how much influence whiskey-making — legal and illegal — has had on America.
Moonshiners Don’t Want to Pay Taxes
“The first tax levied on American citizens was a tax on whiskey: it was a very unpopular tax,” says Watman. “Basically no one would even volunteer to attempt to collect it. But they found one guy in [Pennsylvania], and he tried.” His attempts to collect the tax sparked the Whiskey Rebellion — a short-lived standoff that was eventually quelled by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and 13,000 troops.
This tax was repealed a few years later, and it “was a big plank in Thomas Jefferson’s platform when he ran for president,” notes Watman. “He won.”
And the guy who tried to collect the tax? He was the predecessor to everyone’s favorite institution, the Internal Revenue Service.
But that was just the beginning. To pay for the Civil War, the United States levied a new tax on whiskey, which skyrocketed as the war continued. This time, instead of staging a rebellion, distillers quietly moved their stills into remote regions, and simply quit paying taxes on their whiskey. Thus the moonshiner was born. If the government doesn’t knows about your whiskey, how can they tax it?
Enterprising Rule Breakers vs. Criminals
Watman’s book is full of stories about the glory days of moonshining, particularly in Franklin County, Virginia. Moonshiners would get busted, pay a small fine, and be home for dinner. Many were small-batch producers making good ‘shine with local ingredients, earning a few extra bucks. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see these guys as scoundrels rather than criminals.
“I think that moonshine offers people a bit of outlaw-dom without any stigma,” says Watman. “You can be into moonshine without being a pariah. You could tell your fiancé’s parents that you were making moonshine, and they’d still talk to you. Try saying to your future father-in-law that you’re into meth…”
When illegal moonshine operations grow much larger — like the elaborate set-up in Philadelphia — it becomes harder to overlook the criminal side: bribery, millions of dollars in lost tax revenue a year, and lower quality hooch as the moonshiners forego grain or fruit in favor of plain sugar.
Moonshine Goes Legit
As more legal distillers today release products labeled as “moonshine”, Watman believes we need to define the term. “People want to call their stuff moonshine, even though they are taxpaying, licensed, right-living members of society. I get it. They want a piece of the outlaw tradition; they want to tap the folklore. But the truth is that moonshine is illegal.”
The legacy of moonshine as a small-batch product made with quality ingredients is something that very much appeals to today’s legal craft distillers, who pride themselves on using organic, local ingredients and maintaining high standards of quality. “It’s an agricultural product,” says Watman of moonshine, “and you can taste that in it. You can taste the cereal that made it. That creates a great framework for drinks.” Some distillers are reviving their family recipes for genuine moonshine; others are labeling their products as white whiskey or corn liquor.
We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention that the economics of releasing un-aged whiskey are favorable to small distillers, who may not have the cash to wait for their whiskey to age.
Bartenders and drinkers are also discovering their appreciation for white whiskey. “It’s got more structure than vodka,” says Watman. “I’ve always found that the caramel/vanilla flavors inherent to aged whiskey clash with citrus, for instance, but I love a whiskey sour. With white whiskey, you get the grain flavors, the framework, but none of the clash. What’s not to love?”