One of the priciest spirits I’ve ever tasted was a clear whiskey poured from a green 12-ounce Sierra Mist bottle. Max Watman, who held the bottle like a Parisian sommelier, told me it cost about $120—roughly what he’d paid in drinks and meals to people who introduced him to other people up the Virginia moonshine supply chain as he went about procuring it. He poured us each an ounce or so into elegant tasting glasses. We sipped. Watman made a face that was not the face of someone having an especially good time. He described it as “bile with some simple syrup.” In my tasting notes, I wrote: “musty,” “rancid,” “Alpo.”
The enduring archetype of the hillbilly moonshiner can be traced to an 1877 article in Harper’s Weekly titled “The Moonshine Man: A Peep Into His Haunts and Hiding-Places.” It portrayed a poor, illiterate, blue-jean-clad rustic with “an old slouch hat shaped in semi-Continental style.” This image evolved over the decades, and the moonshiner became fixed as a corncob-pipe-smoking craftsman filling stoneware jugs with a clear and tasty elixir while keeping an eye out for pesky revenuers.
Video: Max Watman shares some of his favorite moonshines with Atlantic staff editor Rachael Brown and Atlantic food contributor Derek Brown
Watman’s new book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, brings the image up to date. Rural bootleggers still exist, he says, but the steampunkish copper still of the Appalachian hollow has mostly been replaced by low-rent industrial complexes in the mountain South that crank out cheap liquor made from white sugar. (That’s what was in the Sierra Mist bottle.) The chief attribute of this liquor is that it’s unencumbered by taxes. Much of it ends up in rural nip houses, where a jar of white dog (no one seems to know where the name comes from) can be had for a dollar.
But Watman reports that refined moonshining hasn’t died—in fact, it’s booming today, taken up by a new generation, mostly in big cities and micropolitan towns. Practitioners make tiny batches not to resell, but mostly to see what sorts of goodness they can concoct. “It’s the same people who drove the home-brewing trend, and they’re just as dorky,” Watman said. “It tends to attract tattoo guys and the more outré farmers’-market types, although in the mountain states the practitioners are a little more snowboardy.”
The science of making small-batch, high-proof alcohol has remained largely unchanged for centuries. You let yeast perform its magic on something containing sugar (fruit, corn, molasses) mashed up in water. Then you separate the alcohol by boiling the potion and capturing the steam. (Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water.)
I watched the process in action one drizzly, cold evening in a shed behind the house of a white-collar moonshiner I’d recently met. For purposes of plausible deniability (making your own liquor in any quantity is still illegal), let’s call him “Max Watman.” “Max” had mashed up some apricots, added brown sugar, water, and yeast, and let the mess ferment for a week. He then decanted the pulpy slurry into an Erlenmeyer flask set atop an electric hot plate. The flask was connected to a copper coil that passed through a pan of ice water balanced on a snare-drum stand. Max turned on the burner, and we waited.
The first alcohol that trickles out of the still—called the heads—smells like nail polish. You really don’t want to drink this. Nor do you want to drink the end of the run—called the tails—which contains heavier alcohol and is funky, but not in a good way. The trick is, you do want to capture a little of each, to give character to the middle of the run, called the heart. The craft comes in knowing when to begin and end collecting the alcohol. This can be done with precise measurements, but Max prefers to wing it, as he imagines 18th-century home distillers did. As a result, batches from the same base can vary widely, and some offer even bigger surprises. “One batch, I took a sip, half my face went numb,” he said. “And then I tasted cocoa.”
The distillate started to drip from the end of the copper coil, and Max hovered attentively, diverting clear condensate into a shot glass, sniffing intently, and tasting with his fingertip. After 20 minutes, he cut the heat, tested the effluent for alcohol content, and then diluted it slightly with water. We sipped. And it was … quite good, actually. My face did not go numb. I tasted no cocoa. It was a bit hot on the tongue—some aging would temper that—but a subtle apricot flavor came through on the finish. It tasted, for a moment, like a fleeting memory of summer.