I always swore that if I ever found myself in crisis in the middle of a liquor store, I would leave immediately to evaluate how long of a break with alcohol was in order.
I reconsidered this stance recently when I was unexpectedly afflicted with deep remorse while shopping for booze. My basket cradled a bottle of gin, a split of vermouth, and some bottled-in-bond bourbon.
As I turned to leave the store, I found myself face-to-face with a shelf full of mason jars: moonshine. White dog. Vessels of white lightning in myriad flavors ranging from strawberry to apple pie to something called hunch punch (I’ll get back to that later).
“Oh, god,” I said to (if I remember right) a bottle of Elijah Craig Bourbon. “I am sorry.”
Why the meltdown? About 10 years ago, I compiled a list of potential book topics. A small part of a moonshine still that I keep in my office, which an old friend in the Shenandoah Valley gifted me when I moved away from those hills, inspired me to do a little research on illicit distillers. A little became a lot. I spent four years immersed in the world of legal and illegal small-scale distilling in America and, in 2010, Simon & Schuster published my book, Chasing the White Dog, which may have encouraged a range of large and small distillers to introduce white whiskies of their own. (If one wanted to split hairs, one could insist that white dog is raw spirit intended to be aged and that white whiskey is a spirit that has been stored in wood very briefly.)
The illicit industry was bigger than I thought it would be—and diverse in ways I hadn’t imagined. The business of moonshine was (is?) primarily the selling of rough sugar-jack spirit to poor black folks. And one of the biggest markets for it was far from Appalachia: Philadelphia, as it turned out, was (is?) especially thirsty.
These facts pissed off some people in Philly and were a great disappointment to banjo-picking romantics. People seemed to believe that I’d missed the story; if only I’d talked to, say, their uncle, I’d have seen that moonshining was a proud folk tradition. But an uncle’s highly illegal hobby does not disprove a continuing criminal enterprise any more than another uncle’s two marijuana plants disprove the existence of a drug cartel.
I learned how tightly people cling to beloved myths. Moonshiniana is a cultural identity. It matters to people. But, unsurprisingly, if a segment of the population is attached to a certain theme, a group of ideas and images, someone will eventually exploit it for marketing purposes.
In Chasing the White Dog, I explored a low-life underground of nip joints and gypsy economies. It’s authentic and homegrown, but it isn’t pretty. I found little to celebrate. What I did want to celebrate were the small distillers operating legally. A decade ago you could get an overview of the law-abiding side of small-scale distilling with a quick call to Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute, and a visit to the West Coast with a stopover in Colorado. Ultimately, I met a small, friendly tribe of people working very carefully at their craft.
For a couple of reasons, some of what came out of those early shops was un-aged whiskey, or white dog. It bore a passing resemblance to moonshine. Moonshine, after all, is also clear and young. But where a moonshiner’s goal is to make as much product as quickly and cheaply as possible and to get rid of it anonymously, the goal of the proud craftsmen I knew was exactly the opposite.
Brian Ellison, the founder of Death’s Door Spirits, one of the first distilleries to widely market a white whiskey, hadn’t even intended to sell it. “We were certainly prodded into making a white whiskey by our distributor at the time,” he told me. “They wanted a whiskey and when they tried my un-aged experiments, they wanted it right away. I think our white whiskey is successful because it is made deliberately to be short-aged in uncharred oak barrels. We use wheat and malt, no corn, and we ferment with a cuvée yeast rather than a traditional whiskey yeast.”
Not everyone agrees that white whiskey is something distillers should sell. Jake Norris, of Laws Whiskey House in Denver, says he has never understood the appeal. “It’s like a bakery selling dough instead of bread,” he explains. “I understand why moonshine was popular before Prohibition, and certainly during Prohibition, but making or drinking it these days seems half-baked to me.”
The market seems to agree. Ellison says that while Death’s Door “sold a bunch initially, white whiskey now makes up less than .5 percent of our sales.”
David Ozgo, the chief economist at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, informed me that sales of white and corn whiskey were down 3.7 percent. He expects it to continue to drop.
What, then, is going on in the liquor store?
Hunch punch is a flavor based on the punch commonly made in collegiate trash cans. It is pink, sweet and full of grain alcohol and Sprite. It’s designed to get a whole dorm drunk. It has nothing to do with moonshine, or craft distilling for that matter. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s like Guy Fieri’s donkey sauce. If that sounds to you like something that goes on food, you’ll probably like it.
Will these fancifully favored “moonshines” stick around? Only as long as college kids want to party. It is not, however, my fault.
Max Watman is the author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine and Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food.