Cold Spring writer Max Watman is drawn to trouble. “I like adventure,” he says. “I like for things to get weird, and I like adrenaline.” Watman found plenty of trouble while researching his latest effort, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine (Simon & Shuster, 2010).
In White Dog Watman tags along with an ex-crackhead on a tour of Danville, Virginia, nip joints (illegal bars serving moonshine); he rides along with the Virginia Alcohol Control Board’s Illegal Whiskey Task Force; and he finds himself in cahoots with both sides in a protracted liquor violation trial. He also spends time with NASCAR legend and former bootlegger Junior Johnson; visits legitimate microdistillers in Colorado; and tries the wares at the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.
Perhaps most curiously, Watman, who’s also written extensively on horse racing, chronicles his own efforts at making moonshine—quite illegally—at home in Cold Spring. Had the Feds found him in situ, the subtitle might not read “Amateur,” but Watman feels making his own whiskey was an important part of the journey.
Watman, a Shenandoah Valley native, moved from Manhattan to Cold Spring almost six years ago to start a family and raise a few chickens. He says he’s just as comfortable here as he ever was in Virginia. “I feel very much at home around mountains and moving water.”
On September 19 at 4pm, Watman will read, along with David Hollander, Erika Wood, and Jeffrey Yang, as part of the Sunset Reading Series at the Chapel of Our Lady Restoration, 45 Market Street in Cold Spring. www.chapelrestoration.com.
Do you remember your first taste of moonshine?
Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, moonshine was pretty ubiquitous, so in the same way that I don’t remember not knowing what the taste of beer was like, I also don’t really remember not ever having had moonshine.
I certainly remember a few of them, though. There was one moonshine that still stands as the best I’ve ever had. It was made out of tomatoes. It smelled like brushing up against a tomato plant in August. It tasted a little bit like that too. It was just sweet and perfect and clean and summery. That was a really early moonshine—very misleading in retrospect.
Did being from Virginia help you gain entree into the Southern moonshine community?
It did. The main trick with that is simply persistence, but you certainly do get points for being able to hop into trucks and walk through fields and all those simple kinds of country things that I’ve seen journalists fail at.
At one point, a few moonshiners had gotten loose enough with me that they were making fun of a reporter who had come out from Washington, DC. They were like, “He just came out here in his black shoes, didn’t know anything about what we were doing, and looked lost.” They were making fun of the guy and, in essence, that guy was me.
But I guess I can fall into the country rhythm easily enough not to alienate people. I pulled a lot of redneck out of the woods where I grew up, so I can relate.
Some of your travels were in pretty tough places, were you scared at any point?
There were a couple of times when I was chasing the nip joints and hanging around in Danville that I felt a little nervous, and maybe scared, because they were out of my control.
I didn’t necessarily know where we were going, or what was going to happen next. Everything I’d heard about the nip joints was that they were horrible, rough places, which in fact they were. Danville itself is a pretty rundown and dangerous town. So, yeah, you’re driving around with a former paratrooper/pot dealer/crackhead and it’s a little nerve-wracking.
Is it safe to assume that both sides—the moonshiners and the law—want to get their story out?
Everybody wants to be justified. In the case of the police they knew if I publicized the industry by writing a book that says moonshine is huge it would be easier for them to procure funding.
On the other side, many of the people who have been arrested or are suspected moonshiners just don’t want to talk. They don’t have that kind of heroic vision of themselves. They just want to sneak off into the shadows and hope everybody goes away. From others you got the idea that they would like to set the record straight or at least have the opportunity to voice their side of the story outside of court.
Where is microdistilling as an industry now?
It has expanded very quickly—not as quickly as the microbrewing movement did, but quickly for something as complicated and expensive as it is. It faces special hurdles in that you can’t open a bar and sell your whiskey right over the counter like you can sell beer in a brewpub.
You have to buy much more expensive equipment and if you’re making something that’s aged, it’s going to be a few years before you even know if it’s any good.
It’s a difficult industry. I think it has reached an odd point where we’re going to see a second wave and things are going to get serious and some people are going to fall out and some people are going to take off.
As you noted, the Hudson Valley has plenty of mountains and moving water—are people making moonshine here?
Absolutely. I meet them constantly. I’ve been to many parties or little events in the Hudson Valley where someone will say, “Really, you wrote a book about moonshine? Gosh, we should talk,” and then they drag me off to the side to tell me about their big distilling project.
I’ve met enough people over the course of the last year that I started suggesting to them that would we could organize, have a little club, share recipes—all of them were too afraid to do it. The level of paranoia is high. They’re all on orange alert.